Council is asked to receive the Executive Reports from the Leader and Cabinet and to deal with any questions raised by Members to the appropriate Cabinet Members on the contents of the reports.
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 Monitoring Officer 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.
Councillor Giles Archibald, Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder, presented the Cabinet Members’ Executive Reports.
Councillor Archibald informed Members that he had, earlier in the day, addressed the Council’s staff, on behalf of all Members expressing appreciation for the work that they had carried out during 2020 during the pandemic. Staff had continued to empty the bins, keep the streets clean and deliver on our normal services. Officers had paid out thousands of grants, helped the vulnerable, helped businesses at risk, reorganised rates, established virtual working, established a marshal program, had been an intergral part of the response to the pandemic and, under extreme pressure, had delivered the Council’s part of track and trace. On top of all this, they had responded magnificently to the challenge thrown at the Council by the desire of some to choose now as a time for local authority reorganisation. Councillor Archibald thanked the Chairman for his patient guidance of the Council through a new way of meeting and the staff that had worked with him to make this happen. Councillor Archibald also wished to thank all Members, the Council having pulled together in these difficult times. The opposition leaders had fully participated in briefings, asked constructive questions and had been supportive of the pandemic response. Councillor Archibald was most grateful for this collaborative effort.
Councillor Archibald took the opportunity to briefly update Council on the possible reorganisation. The business case for the Bay had been submitted on 9 December, co-sponsored by Barrow Borough and Lancaster City councils. It had been was voted through by the three councils by a majority of 110 to eight, with seven abstentions. Business cases for three other structures had also been submitted to Government. On Friday, a request had been received from the Minister to meet with him on Monday to present the proposal. The Leader and his fellow leaders had been able to present to him the main features of the proposal. The Minister had given very little away other than to say that he felt that he there would probably be an indication in February as to which proposals would go forward for consultation.
Councillor Archibald turned to Covid-19 and asked everyone to take care over Christmas, stressing that the virus was still rampant. He informed Members that it was planned that there would be at least three vaccination centres in the District. Officers were working with the authorities to ensure as efficient roll out of vaccinations as possible. The pandemic had made these very difficult times. The Council’s job was to support the Government, support the County and provide local leadership out of this crisis. Members and officers had done so, and this was terrific.
Councillor Archibald referred to the forthcoming new challenge of Brexit and the need to be prepared for a no deal outcome from the negotiations. Ministers have asked the Council to be prepared and to be available over the new year to meet any consequences.
Councillor Archibald finally, made reference to Storm Desmond, stressing the fact that officers remained vigilant, monitoring the situation very closely.
Councillor Archibald wished everyone a wonderful and well-deserved Christmas break.
Questions were then put in relation to the content of the Executive Reports.
Councillor Mark Wilson referring to Covid-19 asked Councillor Archibald if he would be able to resume the joint group leader meetings on the response to Covid-19 and outbreaks and, in particular, asked him to advise on the situation with regard to the nightingale arrangements at the Kendal Leisure Centre which, he believed, had been mothballed.
Councillor Archibald responded, saying that he would be happy to meet with group leaders at any time. Councillor Archibald undertook to provide a written response to the question on the nightingale hospital arrangements.
Councillor Wilson further asked what lead the Council could provide in supporting residents in knowing where South Lakeland was in terms of tiers.
Councillor Archibald explained that these were determined by Central Government. It was the Council’s job to support the Government, the Director of Public Health and the County Council, part of this being to assist in communication.
Councillor Roger Bingham referred to the report of the Economy, Culture and Leisure Portfolio Holder, Councillor Robin Ashcroft’s report, wishing to comment on the section on heritage, events, listed buildings and built environment in relation to Burton-in-Kendal. He wished to thank colleagues for the work carried out in Burton which had, initially, somewhat offended some local residents. However, the work carried out had now been welcomed, with work having been carried out on two or three derelict buildings in the village and the Market Square, as well as a cottage lower down the street having been refurbished. Above all, Councillor Bingham was delighted that the Royal Hotel, a superb Georgian building, had been restored, part of which would hopefully be used for a pub, with some room for social or affordable housing behind.
Councillor Ashcroft thanked Councillor Bingham for his gracious comments, also pleased at the potential for the Royal Hotel to return to being a pub at some stage.
Councillor Matt Severn, also referring to Covid-19, asked Councillor Archibald how the Council could best promote the importance and safety of the vaccine and combat any myths or rumours from those opposed to it. Councillor Severn also asked whether it was known if the Government, upon reviewing the three tier system, would look at sticking with county-wide reviews or look at separate districts, as it had started to do in Hertfordshire and Essex.
Councillor Archibald was keen for the Council to be part of the communication around the importance of the vaccine. He pointed out, however, the need to co-ordinate any communication with the county and the national communication. He felt it to be of great importance for the Council to do all possible to emphasise the importance of the vaccine and welcomed any ideas on how to connect with people in this regard.
In accordance with paragraphs 10.2 and 10.3 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, the following written questions had been submitted to the meeting:-
From Councillor Matt Severn to Councillor Robin Ashcroft, Economy, Culture and Leisure Portfolio Holder - What he feels the risks are to businesses in South Lakeland from a No Deal Brexit; and even if there is a trade deal with the European Union what extra obstacles may be caused if a deal is deficient in terms of access or regulations.
Councillor Ashcroft responded, stressing that this was a serious situation.
Councillor Ashcroft referred to the current situation, to the degree of uncertainty and a loss in business confidence. Businesses did not know what to expect or was what expected from them. He drew attention to the risk of tariffs, the disconnect between negotiations and likely outcomes. All this on top of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Councillor Ashcroft referred to the future and the potential of a No Deal Brexit, which would have very serious consequences, with significant loss of economic activity, income and jobs over the short and, possibly, medium term, and who knew what could happen in the long term? He said that, although there was some optimism with regard to a potential trade deal, again, there was a degree of uncertainty in this regard.
Councillor Ashcroft provided a breakdown on the sectors. South Lakeland was heavily dependent on the visitor economy which was crucial to the area, generating £1.3b on an annual basis. He referred to the overseas market which could result in people holidaying within the UK. He drew attention to issues around the supply chain and the survival of companies and to concerns around the labour supply and salary limits set by HMG which was not sustainable by the current visitor economy model. There was no ready pool of labour in South Lakeland. Therefore, there would be a very different model for the visitor economy.
This linked in to the farming sector. The character of the landscape in South Lakeland was very much a managed landscape. If the farming sector was not configured in a way to steward that landscape, this could have a very serious impact, as the Lake District would not look like people expected it to. There could be a very different farming model, possibly with potential benefits from the Environmental Land Management scheme, however, this involved a ten year timescale. The damage could be done within this time.
Councillor Ashcroft talked about retail and supply, referring to possible shortages in the short term or beyond. This would have an impact not only on market confidence but also on the confidence of those who were buying, who were also trying to save.
Councillor Ashcroft turned to engineering and hi tech and concerns with regard to loss of orders, delays, the supply chain, exporting and the effect on companies’ profitability. He referred to business support and drew attention to the Chamber of Commerce’s Website which contained a lot of helpful information. Councillor Ashcroft, however, explained that the service industry appeared to be doing well due to having to advise worried companies, those companies having to pay for that advice. He further drew attention to concerns over the impact on the housing market, which was related to the service industry.
Councillor Ashcroft summarised, pointing out the risk of disassociation from the world’s largest trading block in just over two weeks’ time. He questioned the form of the future relationship and whether it could be replaced if a deal was not brought together. What he did know was that there would be a massive shock to the economy and this was a serious situation.
Councillor Severn asked a supplementary question, first drawing attention to the Government having had the option to delay negotiations for up to two years, that option having passed in July 2020. He asked Councillor Ashcroft whether he agreed that the Government should be called to ask to request an extension on the implementation period to assist businesses to prepare, given everything they had had to deal with over the last nine months.
Councillor Ashcroft agreed.
From Councillor Doug Rathbone to Councillor Jonathan Brook, Deputy Leader and Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder - Does the Portfolio Holder for Housing and Innovation think that the Customer Connect programme has helped the Council respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and what further system enhancements can we expect to see implemented over the coming months?
Councillor Brook responded, saying that Customer Connect had underpinned the Council’s ability to respond and, although most of the Programme had been implemented, there were still some further significant enhancements to be delivered.
The Customer Connect Programme had been of critical importance in enabling the Council to respond efficiently and effectively to the many challenges raised by the Covid-19 Pandemic. It had enabled improved access to services 24/7 and restructured the entire organisation to create a more flexible customer focussed workforce. This had meant that many staff and all Councillors had been able to work remotely and continue to deliver services, conduct virtual meetings and respond to the needs of residents in a timely manner.
The Council, with the help of the hard work and dedication of Council staff, had been able to continue to deliver services such as waste recycling collections, the payment of benefits, housing the homeless, the processing of planning applications as well as additional tasks including the administering of millions of pounds of grants to businesses affected by the lockdown.
In respect of these grants, Councillor Brook said that it was worthwhile considering the additional workload involved and how the Customer Connect technology had helped deliver a tremendous and vital outcome for local businesses and the local economy.
The new digital platform had been used to administer the Covid-19 business support grants. Earlier in the year, the small business grant application form had gone live, followed by the discretionary grant application. The online application process had been digitised, meaning that administering and approving the grants was much more efficient. The online process had supported the Council in granting £65.6m to some 5,828 businesses.
Then, in the previous month, the local restrictions support grant and the additional restrictions grant had also gone live, to support businesses affected by the second national lock down. These processes had been integrated with the customer account functionality, which had gone live in May 2020.
The application process had been built, utilising pre-populated data, so that customers could apply using information from their previous grant application submitted in the first lock down. This had made the application process much simpler and had again reduced the resources needed to process the applications. To date the Council has approved 3,270 local restrictions support grants (for closed businesses) amounting to £4.8m and 324 additional restrictions grants amounting to £450k.
A spin off of this, had been a significant increase in the number of customers registering for My Account functionality. My Account allowed people to apply for services and report issues online.
Now, in terms of further enhancements, Councillor Brook informed Members that there were two key developments for the beginning of the forthcoming year. The first was the integration of our customer account with the Capita Revenue and Benefits system. This would allow customers to access details of their Council Tax, non-domestic rates and benefit claims, online; to receive documents electronically and look at payment details online; and to access online forms to complete a range of the most frequent transactions.
The Council was also looking to introduce online payments for transactions such as bulky waste and temporary event notices. These improvements, Councillor Brook explained, would deliver further efficiencies and enhance levels of customer service.
From Councillor Vicky Hughes to Councillor Suzie Pye, Health and Financial Resilience Portfolio Holder - Cllr Pye could you possibly give us an update on the winter welfare grant, and in what capacity local councillors can assist getting this much needed extra funding to people in our community.
Councillor Pye responded, informing Members that, on 8 November the DWP had announced a package of measures to provide support to children, families, and the most vulnerable over the winter. Upper tier local authorities had been allocated money to disburse grants for food and utilities and the scheme was to run until 31 March 2021.
The guidance set out that 80% of grants were to be disbursed to households with children and 20% to vulnerable adult households. At least 80% of grants had to be related to food and utilities. There was no means testing requirement from the DWP. Local authorities had full flexibility to design local schemes to disburse the grants.
Cumbria County Council was taking the lead in South Lakeland, being the upper tier authority. They had established the following set of schemes:-
• Free School Meal vouchers over the Christmas holidays and February half term: all children on a free school meal would receive a voucher to cover the holiday periods.
• Families would be able to benefit from £100 energy vouchers up until 31 March.
This project would work by families being signposted or receiving referrals from Citizens Advice advisers, DWP job advisers, the County Council’s Service Centre and Cumbria’s local Covid-19 test and trace team.
The aim was to reach families that might not be eligible for Free School Meals, including those going onto Universal Credit for the first time and households that have to self-isolate but do not qualify for the £500 payment.
• A discretionary fund had been set up to support Children’s Social Care to provide grants to care leavers and young adults with SEND over the winter period.
County Council officers were keen to work with District colleagues to look at how best to allocate funds to support activity to meet the criteria. The District Council had been engaging with the County Council, and all the other partners represented in the South Lakeland Community Resilience Group, to identify emerging trends in communities, and use an evidence-based approach to how and where funds are spent.
16 food initiatives had now set up across South Lakeland, all with enough provision and equipment to get through at least the winter and, in some cases, the whole of the coming year. Most food hubs were also in the throes of preparing Christmas hampers for families with children in receipt of free school meals. There were Christmas craft sets being distributed to families, as well as many other localised projects which had been set up by those members of the community who were best placed to know where to direct the help, but funded by the Winter Wellness Grants. It was a great demonstration of local authorities working together with community projects in order to best reach the residents who needed it.
Councillor Pye explained what local ward members could do, as the eyes and ears of the Council and the community. If there was a need that was not being met, then Members could communicate that through the appropriate channels. If there was a community project in need of guidance, there might well be a way through in which Members could help with. Councillor Pye suggested that the best way of doing this was by emailing email@example.com to get through to the Customer and Locality Services Team. Members could also give out the 0800 emergency Covid-19 number to any individual who might be in crisis - 0800 783 1966. Those individuals would then be triaged through the central hub, and would be matched with the most appropriate local government department or third sector organisation. Councillor Pye, in closing, offered to recirculate to Members an online directory which contained localised information on food initiatives, financial help, mental health and wellbeing organisations, etc.
The written questions been put and answered, the following verbal question was put:-
Councillor Kevin Lancaster wished to follow up on Councillor Severn’s question to Councillor Ashcroft, particularly with regard to the livestock sector which was so important in this District. He first explained that he did not share Councillor Ashcroft’s confidence in the Environmental Land Management scheme, of the opinion that it had fundamental flaws. He believed that the Council should consider lobbying Government in this regard, as there were potential problems associated with the scheme. Councillor Lancaster drew attention to the fact that livestock dealers in the red meat sector invested millions of pounds in livestock produced in this District. Store lambs were up 20% on the previous year and prime cattle making more than ever. There certainly seems to be a strong appetite not heard of within the national media. Councillor Lancaster asked if the Council recognised this fact and whether it would work with that sector moving forward.
Councillor Ashcroft explained that he was unsure with regard to the Environmental Land Management Scheme and that it was the National Farmers’ Union that had drawn attention to some good points although also drawing attention to the long timescale. Councillor Ashcroft said that he would be happy to take on board Councillor Lancaster’s comments and would continue that conversation with the National Farmers’ Union.
Councillor Lancaster hoped that the Council would support the livestock dealers and publicise the issue. He welcomed Councillor Ashcroft’s comments and further stressed the need to address some of the dangerous problems associated with the Environmental Land Management scheme.
Councillor Dyan Jones, Climate Emergency and Localism Portfolio Holder offered to provide Members with information regarding her area of work in writing.