To receive announcements from the Leader and, in accordance with Paragraphs 10.2 and 10.3 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, to deal with any questions to the Leader and/or Portfolio Holders on any topic which is within the jurisdiction or influence of the Council and is relevant to their Portfolio. Any Member who poses a question will be entitled to ask one supplementary question on the same topic.
Members are encouraged to give 24 hours’ written notice of questions to the Solicitor to the Council of questions to be raised under the Agenda Item. If no notice is received, then the Portfolio Holder can reserve the right to give a written answer. Where written notice of questions has been given, these will be taken first. Should a Member wish to ask more than one question, questions should be listed in order of priority. If more than one Member sends in a question, these will be taken in alphabetical order of Members’ names, alternated from meeting to meeting. Each question and each response is restricted to three minutes.
The Leader of the Council, Councillor Giles Archibald, addressed Council with regard to the Covid 19 Virus. He referred to the stock market’s dramatic reaction and to the need for all to be alert to the danger posed by the virus. Officers had circulated advice to Members earlier in the afternoon. Councillor Archibald referred to planning being carried out behind the scenes and advised Council that he had asked Councillor Suzie Pye, Health, Wellbeing and Financial Resilience Portfolio Holder, to actively engage with appropriate organisations such as the County Council, the Police and the hospital, so that the District Council could fully understand the repercussions and its role. Members needed reassurance that all reasonable measures were being put in place. In addition, Councillor Archibald informed Members that he had asked the Chief Executive to ensure that everything possible was done to ensure that the Council’s buildings were kept virus-free and that every precaution was taken. He suggested that all political party leaders and Shadow Cabinet be kept informed on a confidential basis and advised that Councillor Pye would arrange meetings as required. Councillor Archibald welcomed input across the Chamber and advised that all Members would be kept up-to-date on this serious matter by email.
Councillor Archibald gave a brief summary of discussions which had taken place over the last three weeks relative to devolution.
Councillor Archibald prefaced his remarks by saying how much he welcomed the Government’s determination to level up the north, and give it more focus. He stated that he looked forward to everyone working together to achieve that goal.
About three weeks ago, Councillor Archibald had been asked to attend a meeting with the other Cumbrian district leaders, the Leader of the County Council and Jake Berry, the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse. The announced purpose of this meeting had been to discuss devolution.
Prior to that meeting, the six district leaders and chief executives had got together to discuss their common understanding of the possible options for devolution, and to see whether they could coalesce around an agreed set of talking points. In this pre-meeting, there had been several fundamental understandings:-
(1) a combined authority with some sort of mayor would be needed for devolution;
(2) functioning economic areas would be the basis for mayoral authorities;
(3) should the wish be to consider reorganisation, new unitaries would have to contain over 300,000 people; and
(4) reorganisation under current regulation required consent of all parties.
Councillor Archibald also added that, in his mind, there was an underlying assumption that Government would deliver on its promise to fix the social care crisis as the Prime Minister had promised that, “we will fix social care with a clear plan that we have prepared.”
District leaders had quickly come to an agreement that they would be very willing to talk about devolution and to listen to what might be on offer for their residents. They had also agreed that, ideally, the area should be greater than Cumbria and consideration should be given as to how to encompass Lancaster and potentially more of Lancashire. They had not been in favour of restructuring, as that did not seem to be necessary for devolution, was not obvious for Cumbria, and would cause significant disruption.
District leaders had then been joined by Jake Berry MP and Councillor Stewart Young, Leader of Cumbria County Council. Jake Berry MP had confirmed that, without a mayor, there would be no extra money. He had gone on to say that a single unitary Cumbria would not qualify for a mayor and was, therefore, not in his current thoughts. He had indicated that devolution might bring an additional £10 million per year to the whole County, and that there might be more control for example over spatial planning and bus licensing. Combining Health and Social care was not on offer.
After discussion, Jake Berry MP had suggested a point of view which somewhat conflicted with district leaders’ initial representations. Jake Berry MP had suggested that, to achieve a devolution deal, all would have to consider:-
(1) reorganising into two unitaries. Potentially one could be composed of Barrow and South Lakeland – this was well below the 300,000 threshold - indeed close to half of it;
(2) the idea that Social Care and Children’s Cervices would not be split but would be managed by a trust; and
(3) electing a mayor for Cumbria.
Jake Berry MP had added that he would not prejudge a combined authority based on Lancaster, Barrow and South Lakeland, but would need to see the detail.
It was agreed to continue the discussion at a later date with Jake Berry MP’s civil servants. There was certainly no agreement on the day.
Following the meeting, which had been assumed to be semi-private, Councillor Archibald had been confronted with detailed narratives of the conclusion of the meeting which bore only passing resemblance to what had actually been agreed - which was to continue talking.
Following the meeting, there had been an exchange in the House of Lords (on 11 February 2020) where the Minister in the Lords had seemed to confirm the 300,000 person limit, which was, of course, important to Cumbria as a county that has a less than 500,000 population.
Councillor Archibald had attended the District Council Network Annual Conference and there had been surprise expressed by many in attendance, and within the Local Government Association, at the proposals, particularly relating to Social Care, but also in relation to the lack of distance between two unitaries and one mayor. The possible breaching of the 300,000 limit had also been greeted with disbelief given prior government statements.
Since that time Jake Berry MP was no longer the Northern Powerhouse Minister. Simon Clarke MP had been appointed a Minister of State in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with responsibility for levelling up. We are trying to get a meeting with him as soon as possible. Grant Shaps, the Secretary of State for Transport, was the Northern powerhouse spokesperson around the Government’s Cabinet table.
Councillor Archibald closed, saying that this left us willing to talk and happy to entertain any proposals that clearly benefitted our communities.
In accordance with paragraphs 10.2 and 10.3 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, the following written question had been submitted to the meeting:-
From Councillor Susanne Long to Councillor Suzie Pye, Health, Wellbeing and Financial Resilience Portfolio Holder – “Please explain what circumstances lead to children living in poverty and how your portfolio is tackling this issue in South Lakeland – thank you.”
Councillor Pye responded, informing Members that, when looking at national poverty figures, South Lakeland fared better than most in the UK. However, she pointed out that, in amongst the apparent affluence there were pockets of deprivation, with 23% of children in South Lakeland living in poverty, meaning that they could be missing out on opportunities available to other children. Councillor Pye said that she had asked South Lakes Citizens’ Advice and Kings Food Bank for their views on why 23% of children in South Lakeland were living in poverty. The reasons suggested by Citizens’ Advice were around Universal Credit, high private rental properties, poor employment practice, mental health issues, debt, low wages, addiction and relationship breakdown. Kings Food Bank had explained that they did not always receive a reason for the referral from Children's Services, however that the number of referrals had increased over the last 12 months. Kings Food Bank had also said that the benefit system, including Universal Credit, also continued to have an impact. They had also made the observation that the reason for referrals from another source would indicate that people had sufficient income to pay rent and priority bills but did not have further disposable income to buy food. All these things considered, Councillor Pye advised Members that the Council was working hard to help people in South Lakeland become more financially resilient, firstly by helping people currently struggling financially and secondly by working to prevent people from falling into future poverty.
Councillor Pye informed Members about two projects which she was working on at the moment, both of which specifically addressed child poverty. She had been working with five primary schools in Kendal, to put together provision for children who were eligible for Free School Meals, so that they had access to food in the school holidays. Kendal Leisure Centre had, during the recent half term, run activity days on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and a place had been offered to every child on Free School Meals from a number of schools in the Kendal. The People’s café had generously given their time to provide packed lunches for all these children, from food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Over the four days, 76 meals had been provided, and 26 individual children had been reached. Councillor Pye took the opportunity to thank the staff at the Leisure Centre, the volunteers at the People’s Café, and the Council’s own officers, for all the effort that had gone into this pilot scheme. The experience gained would be used to work towards a similar scheme at Easter time, with the vision being that every disadvantaged child would have access to nutritious meals in the school holidays. The second project involved working with secondary schools to look at delivering high quality, engaging, budgeting and money advice to sixth form students, by training existing teachers to enable schools to improve their current curriculum, ensuring longevity of any programme put in place. Councillor Pye highlighted the fact that the world was vastly different now to how it was when she had left school. There as now a plethora of banks and companies vying to loan money to children. There were now more ways to invest, more ways to save, but also more ways to get into debt, which was the very thing to be avoided. Councillor Pye raised the importance of trying to produce a generation which was more financially resilient. Councillor Pye emphasised the fact that the alleviation of poverty, especially child poverty, should never be a partisan subject, and she welcomed conversations with Members from all sides about issues and projects both generally and specific to their wards.
Councillor Pye concluded, drawing attention to some other ways in which the Council was helping people in poverty, for example with its Council Tax Reduction Scheme, supporting Cumbria Action for Sustainability, helping to fund projects such as the Springfield Women’s Refuge and the provision of funding towards an initiative in Staveley to provide an opportunity for children to learn a musical instrument. Councillor Pye thanked Councillors Pat Bell and Hazel Hodgson for also contributing a portion of their local budgets to this project. Councillor Pye also referred to work being carried out South Lakes Citizens Advice to look at ways of reaching people in outlying communities in order to tackle rural poverty. The Authority was improving how it communicated information about the existing help that was available to people, both from the Council and partner organisations. The Council was also working with partners to prevent some of the underlying causes of poverty.
The written question having been presented and answered, the following verbal questions were taken from the floor:-
Councillor Matt Severn asked Councillor Jonathan Brook, Deputy Leader and Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder, to provide an update on the latest progress towards the Council achieving its target for 1,000 affordable homes for rent for local families in South Lakeland.
Councillor Brook responded, referring to figures which had been reported to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 17 January 2020. The Council had enabled 468 affordable homes for rent since January 2014. These homes continued to be delivered, with the Council being on track to reach the target of 1,000 by 2025. Councillor Brook informed Members that he was due to meet with the Principal Specialist People later in the week to discuss the delivery programme and hoped soon to be in a position to announce delivery of the 500th home.
Councillor Vicky Hughes referred to the good work being carried out in Ambleside with Cumbria Action for Sustainability (CAfS) and to Grasmere’s pledge to become plastic free and asked Councillor Dyan Jones, Climate Emergency and Localism Portfolio Holder, what else was planned for Ambleside.
Councillor Jones explained to Members that business owners in Grasmere had indicated that they wished to work towards Grasmere becoming a single-use plastic free town. She referred to the Incredible Edible team in Ambleside and action days attended by influential speakers. She referred to Ambleside and the goal of its sustainability organisation, CAfS, for the town to become carbon neutral and to the commitment which was required from the community. She explained that it was due to the Council’s financial backing that CAfS were able to work with Ambleside and thus discover what working towards becoming carbon neutral may look like. It involved working with a wide range of partners to develop a plan; it involved training; and it would take action to deliver these plans. In order to establish Ambleside’s carbon footprint, CAfS had arranged for a team of specialists to produce a very high-level carbon footprint covering both residents and businesses in Ambleside. This work was soon due to be completed. The carbon footprint survey would provide a high-level measure for strategic planning, but recognised that individuals needed to understand what their own carbon footprint was in order to inform their decisions on ways to reduce it. There was a high number of hospitality businesses in Ambleside, and CAfS were looking into ways to assess online options for hospitality businesses. They were also looking at opportunities for generating renewable energy in the town. Potential roof space had been mapped, looking for suitability for fitting PV panels, with software development having been commissioned to map PV potential. All of this led to a whole-place approach and examination of different models for community energy. There were also investigations into whether an existing hydro scheme near Ambleside could provide the town with energy; the challenge was that the existing regulatory framework for electricity supply was not compatible with small-scale energy schemes. Councillor Jones felt it exciting that CAfS would go on to create the basis or template for a whole-place approach that they could then roll out, and this was something fully supported by the Council. Councillor Jones was proud that the Council was helping to make this happen.
Councillor Philip Dixon referred to a recent article in the press on Airbnb in which Councillor Jonathan Brook, Deputy Leader and Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder, had been quoted. Councillor Dixon asked Councillor Brook if he could provide assurance that the Council would take the issue of the increase Airbnb activity, a hidden menace, seriously.
Councillor Brook referred to the article in the Guardian Newspaper which had suggested that there were 19 Airbnb listings per 100 properties in the area of Windermere North, Ambleside and Langdales. He explained that he had said that he did not object to people renting out their homes on a short-term basis as this could be argued as making a contribution to the viability of the local community. He had, however, added that where properties were exclusively being used as such, then these should be regulated. He had further explained that there was evidence that properties were being purchased for Airbnb lettings in areas and housing estates that would not previously have appealed to the rental sector. Councillor Brook believed that these properties represented an additional layer on second/holiday homes. He said that he would be raising the issue with officers and MPs and through discussions with other councils in order to seek regulation of Airbnb. He thought that the practice of seeking to avoid the costs incurred by normal bed and breakfasts businesses was inappropriate and unfair and undertook to aim to ensure that this was addressed by the Council.
Councillor Ben Berry referred to the information provided earlier in the meeting about families in poverty in South Lakeland asked Councillor Suzie Pye, Health, Wellbeing and Financial Resilience Portfolio Holder, if she thought that those families would welcome the decisions taken earlier in the meeting regarding an increase in the allowances paid to Members of South Lakeland District Council and an increase in Council Tax.
Councillor Pye undertook to provide a written response.