Full Council received update reports from each of the Cabinet Members. These were appended to the agenda pack and members were invited to submit questions ahead of the meeting. Due to the large volume of questions received, not all could be presented during the meeting although written responses would be provided following the meeting. Cabinet members briefly presented their written updates and where questions were asked these have been summarised below: -
The Leader, Martin Tett
Cllr M Tett provided an update on the prevalence of Covid-19 in Buckinghamshire. Since August, there had been a rapid rise in cases across Buckinghamshire, particularly in the former South Bucks and Chiltern District Council areas respectively. Cllr Tett provided figures to illustrate the rise in cases. In the former South Bucks District Council area the rate had risen from 11.4 cases per 100,000 residents for the week ending 5 September to 127.8 cases per 100,000 residents for the week ending 10 October. During the same period, in the former Chiltern District Council area the rate had risen from 21.9 cases per 100,000 residents to 113.5 cases per 100,000 residents and in Buckinghamshire as a whole it had risen from 13.8 cases per 100,000 residents to 87 cases per 100,000 residents. Cllr Tett acknowledged that these were worryingly high numbers and represented a significant increase in just over a month. The most recent figures at the time of the meeting were that the rate per 100,000 residents was at 126 for the former South Bucks District Council area, 94 for the former Chiltern District Council area and 73 across Buckinghamshire. Cllr Tett warned against assumptions that the rate had dropped as this may have been underpinned by a lower rate of testing and only with a consistent run of figures would the trend be entirely understood. The virus was prevalent across all community groups, but predominantly in the 19 to 29 age group, which was the age group most likely to be socially active. Worryingly, there had also been an increase in the older age category up to the age of 60 and slightly beyond that, which was a more vulnerable section of the community.
Cllr Tett explained that Buckinghamshire was currently in Tier 1 which was the medium alert category. Cllr Tett advised that the Council was asking residents to fundamentally renew their commitment to the current rules in place and was also asking that they voluntarily go further to maintain personal freedom, maintain the local economy, protect jobs and protect the mental wellbeing and physical health of individuals by avoiding meeting people from other households inside which is where the virus is known to spread. A campaign was being launched across Buckinghamshire and shops had been asked to display posters to remind residents of the rules in place.
Cllr Tett responded to questions on the East West Rail Aylesbury spur and on Government financial support provided to the Council in relation to its Covid related spending and income losses. Cllr Tett had written to the Secretary of State at the Department for Transport opposing cancellation of the Aylesbury spur of the East West Rail line as improved transport connections to Aylesbury was vital given it was a key area of growth for the UK. Furthermore, Cllr Tett agreed that as well as this, the spur to London Marylebone remained essential and the Council would continue to do its best to convince the Government to maintain its original commitments.
In relation to Government support, Cllr Tett advised members that the Council had received a substantial amount of money which covered most of its Covid related expenditure and reimbursed some fees and charges but did not cover all that had originally been budgeted for, particularly around leisure centres due to them being outsourced with the Council receiving income for the operators. There was also further guidance expected on council tax and business rate support for local authorities with the Council continuing to lobby for as much reimbursement as possible.
Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care, Angela Macpherson
Cllr A Macpherson responded to questions on carers experiencing financial hardship and care home staff not being included as a priority group for the influenza vaccination. Cllr Macpherson reported that the Council had no intention to see any carers or residents disadvantaged at this already very stressful time. Cllr Macpherson advised that the Council had taken a generous approach in suspending charges for new clients during the period to the end of June and had agreed waivers with residents and carers who had reported financial difficulties. A letter had been sent advising clients when charging would restart and clients were encouraged to discuss individual circumstances with the Council. Cllr Macpherson gave thanks to the Council’s finance team for their efforts on ensuring bills were being issued in a timely manner.
A member raised concerns that care home staff were not being prioritised by the clinical commissioning group (CCG) to receive flu vaccinations. Cllr Macpherson advised that the NHS national programme had identified priority groups including front line staff in the care sector and she had been given assurances that the Buckinghamshire CCG had not reprioritised any of these groups. Work was ongoing between the CCG and Department for Health and Social Care to ensure Buckinghamshire had the stocks needed and she was happy to keep members updated on the rollout of the vaccination programme.
Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Resources, Katrina Wood
Cllr K Wood spoke of the large amount of work being undertaken in the resources service area in relation to bringing services together and supporting services as they go through transformation programmes. The Customer Experience Review Group would be holding its first meeting shortly with a focus on improving customer journeys.
Cllr Wood responded to a question on the approach taken by the revenues and benefits service to residents and businesses having difficulties with making payments. Cllr Wood advised that the service had administered a large amount of business relief support grants during the pandemic and had not chased residents and businesses for payments during the lockdown period. During August, residents and businesses were written to with a reminder where payments had not been received in the hope that, where required, they would call the Council for support. Cllr Wood advised members that if they were aware of any individual cases that should be looked at, members could send these to her.
Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Mark Shaw
Cllr M Shaw was pleased to report that social workers were able to stay in contact virtually with the majority of their caseloads during lockdown, with around 450 cases a month still being visited in person. This number had increased recently as restrictions had eased, although this would remain under review dependant on any further restrictions placed on Buckinghamshire.
Cabinet Member for Communities and Public Health, Gareth Williams
Cllr G Williams re-enforced the message that community transmission was the main way Covid-19 was being spread at present and encouraged people not to meet other households in their homes. In response to questions raised, Cllr Williams confirmed that members would be kept informed by the Council’s communications team if there was a significant outbreak within an educational setting in their ward.
Cllr Williams advised that testing capacity was now at good levels across Buckinghamshire and that there were plans to open more testing sites. In terms of contract tracing, Cllr Williams explained that contract tracing was not managed by the Council, but was run centrally. Cllr Williams added that for Buckinghamshire, 77% of cases had been contacted and 67.4% of their contacts had been traced, which was above the national average. Cllr Williams confirmed that people must isolate when advised to and could be fined if they do not follow this guidance.
Cabinet Member for Culture, Patrick Hogan
Cllr P Hogan encouraged members to recommend residents visit the new Buckinghamshire Heritage Portal which holds around 35,000 records and links directly to historic mapping, monument records, photos and documents. The new portal was more compatible with new technology and could therefore be accessed from home or on mobile devices and was free to view. The portal could be viewed at https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/
In response to a question on Government funding for culture, theatre and arts, Cllr Hogan advised that the Arts Council had received a large amount of funding to distribute. Recipients of significant levels of funding from the Arts Council included the Wycombe Swan, Wycombe Museum, Wycombe Arts Centre and the Chesham Theatre. Other charitable organisations such as the Rothschild Foundation had made further funding available.
Cabinet Member for Education & Skills, Anita Cranmer
Cllr A Cranmer provided an update on the effect of Covid-19 on schools in Buckinghamshire. 89 schools had been affected since the return in early September, impacting 3,415 pupils with 124 confirmed Covid cases at the time of this meeting. These numbers were relatively low in comparison to the overall numbers, with over 85,000 students attending educational settings across Buckinghamshire.
In response to a question on the 11+ examination, Cllr Cranmer advised members that the Council administers the test, but does not set the test or hold any authority over it. Grammar schools decide when the test should take place in line with Department for Education guidelines. This year the test would be held the week commencing 2 November.
Cabinet Member for Environment and Climate Change, Bill Chapple
Cllr B Chapple took a question on the impact recent flooding had in Buckinghamshire and the issue of gullies not being appropriately maintained by relevant agencies. Whilst this predominantly fell in another Cabinet Member portfolio area, Cllr Chapple agreed to provide a response to the member following the meeting.
Cabinet Member for Housing & Homelessness, Isobel Darby
Cllr I Darby recognised the work undertaken by the officer team in ensuring all Buckinghamshire residents were sheltered during the pandemic and in submitting successful bids to the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) for funding support to continue to progress the ambition of ending homelessness in Buckinghamshire.
In response to a question on the issue of the accountability of housing associations, Cllr Darby advised members that she was committed to meeting registered providers and building and maintaining good relationships with them so that they know what the Council expects of them as all residents should be entitled to live in safe and working homes.
Cabinet Member for Logistics, David Martin
Cllr D Martin provided an update to his report to advise that with regards to the three parking traffic regulation order schemes listed as ‘in progress’, the order for the Chalfont St Peter/Chalfont St Giles scheme had been authorised by the Leader of the Council today. In responding to a question on home to school transport, Cllr Martin advised that the Council was looking at the way the service was provided and a journey of improvement was underway. A small working group of members had been formed to aid the review. Cllr Martin gave assurances that every child that the Council had a statutory duty to take to school were indeed getting the transport required.
Cllr Martin agreed to provide details of the 18 schemes mentioned in his update report under ‘Future Delivery Programmes’ to a member who requested it.
Cabinet Member for Planning & Enforcement, Warren Whyte
Cllr W Whyte thanked members, town and parish councils and other stakeholders who had made contact to comment on the Planning White Paper. A draft response to the paper had been discussed and agreed by Cabinet at its meeting on 13 October. It was hoped that the Council’s consultation response would be taken on board by MHCLG. Cllr Whyte was also pleased to report that the Council was involved in an MHCLG scheme to reduce the number of invalid planning applications.
Cllr Whyte responded to a question around providing enforcement updates to members by advising that moving forward, following a meeting between himself and the respective area planning committee chairmen, each of the area planning committees would receive a quarterly update on key enforcement sites and issues.
Cabinet Member for Property & Assets, John Chilver
Cllr J Chilver reported that the refurbishment to Marlow Library was close to completion and had a planned re-opening date of 21 November. The library would be a fantastic facility for the town and a great example of a community access point for the Council.
In response to a question on members having difficulties with identifying all assets the unitary authority had inherited, Cllr Chilver confirmed that the Council held a full database of property ownership which contained over 1,600 property assets and was continually updated. If any member wished to obtain information they were encouraged to contact the Council’s property team or to contact Cllr Chilver directly.
Cllr Chilver also responded to a question on the CCG and NHS Property withdrawing from discussions for a new medical centre as part of the Winslow Town Centre redevelopment. Cllr Chilver agreed that Winslow required a new medical centre given the proposed expansion of the town and it was very disappointing when the CCG and NHS Property withdrew from discussions. Cllr Chilver advised members that the Council had maintained communications, engagement and dialogue with both parties involved and would welcome the commencement of discussions again, although acknowledged it was not in the Council’s hands. Cllr Chilver added that design feasibility work for the Winslow Centre development was moving forward with engagement from all relevant parties.
Cabinet Member for Regulatory Services, Fred Wilson
Cllr F Wilson paid thanks to the Council’s Crematoria Manager, Mr Charles Howlett who would be retiring after 30 years’ service, leaving a thriving and prestigious service. Cllr Wilson also thanked fellow member, Cllr N Hussain, who had communicated with him to give thanks to all the Council’s registrars who had worked efficiently and sensitively with residents throughout the pandemic. Cllr N Hussain re-iterated this thank you to the registrars.
Cllr Wilson took a question on the expansion of the Penn Road cemetery which was nearing completion, and when it would be handed over to the High Wycombe Town Committee. Cllr Wilson would provide an update to the member following the meeting and confirmed that the cemetery was intended to be put in use in January 2021.
Cabinet Member for Sports and Leisure, Clive Harriss
Cllr C Harriss was pleased to report to full Council that six parks had been awarded the prestigious Green Flag award and he thanked all of the team involved in achieving these.
Cabinet Member for Town Centre Regeneration, Steve Bowles
Cllr S Bowles reported that across Buckinghamshire, teams were working hard to ensure residents could shop and visit hospitality businesses safely. A member placed on record his thanks for the town centre manager of Aylesbury and Cllr Bowles added that the Aylesbury leadership recovery team continued to meet bi-weekly to help support businesses and encourage more businesses to the town.
Cabinet Member for Transport, Nick Naylor
Cllr N Naylor responded to a question raised following flooding to the Willows Estate in Aylesbury on 4 October. A member advised that thanks to the efforts of residents, volunteers and the Town Council the areas own flood defences were deployed, along with pumps, so no houses suffered any damage. However, on this occasion there had been a delay of an hour and a half in the deployment of the flood defences as the Council, who as the lead flood authority needed to give authorisation, were not clear on the arrangements when they were contacted. Cllr Naylor apologised for the breakdown in communication and assured members that procedures had been reviewed and protocols changed to ensure it would not happen again if there were to be any further flooding. Cllr Naylor thanked those volunteers who supported the incident.
Cabinet Member for Youth Provision, Tony Green
Cllr T Green’s update report was attached to the agenda pack with no questions raised during the meeting.