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 Jonathan Brook, Leader and Promoting South Lakeland and Innovation Portfolio Holder, indicated that he had no further announcements to make this evening.
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 and were answered accordingly:-
From Councillor Vicky Hughes to Councillor Robin Ashcroft, Economy, Culture and Leisure Portfolio Holder - Could the portfolio holder of economy culture and leisure please update us on what the outlook for the SL economy is and what thinking is there behind its future?
Councillor Ashcroft informed Members that the outlook was brighter for South Lakeland’s economy than was first anticipated during the early stages of the pandemic. Covid-19 has undoubtedly had an impact, although some of this has been temporary and mitigated by financial support. The 40,000 grant payments made to businesses by the Council, totalling over £150m, had played a significant part in safeguarding jobs. Interestingly, there were now more businesses and jobs in South Lakeland than pre-pandemic levels.
The easing of Covid restrictions and greater clarity about the future had aided business planning and, according to the Council’s latest annual business survey, 80% of businesses said they now felt confident about the next 12 months, compared to 50% the previous year.
However, while business resilience had been strong and consumer demand remained high, there remained challenges to business in terms of increased energy bills, cost of materials, importing and exporting goods, premises availability and staffing. Recruitment was reported as the biggest obstacle to growth across all sectors, with 10-20% of current vacancies unable to be filled.
While post Covid societal changes and the impact of Brexit had undoubtedly had an impact, it was recognised that there were systemic issues and South Lakeland had a particular millstone with the prevalence of second homes.
The Council saw addressing the declining working age population as a priority, and the attraction and retention of human capital as equally important as investment in physical infrastructure. The Council continued to work collaboratively with partners on the issue of skills and employment, as well as a number of strategic projects around the district, including Kendal Vision, GSK Ulverston, Cross-a-Moor Roundabout, Kendal Flood Scheme, Windermere Gateway and Grange Lido, all bringing millions of pounds of investment into the wider community of South Lakeland.
Placemaking was at the heart of the Council’s thinking and it worked to enable groups such as Morecambe Bay Partnership, Kendal Futures, Sedbergh Economic Partnership and the Ulverston Town Team (Borderlands) to deliver on collective plans for the area. The Council saw cultural regeneration and the repurposing of empty spaces as key to sustaining town centre vibrancy and providing the creative spaces and housing its communities needed.
The Council also focussed on rural communities, an example being Grizedale Arts and their innovative work through the Farmer’s Arms and the Valley Project on forward looking sustainable rural economies.
The Council strove to create the right conditions for business, through the delivery of strategic employment and housing sites within its Local Plan, and by working with partners including Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, Cumbria Tourism, Cumbria LEP, Cumbria Action for Sustainability and Future Fixers, it provided essential business support to help growth sectors such as the creative industries, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and the green economy. The Council also provided investment into its strategic cultural partners to maintain and grow the District’s rich cultural and heritage offering.
From Councillor Eamonn Hennessy to Councillor Suzie Pye, Health, Wellbeing and Poverty Alleviation Portfolio Holder - With the current rise in cost of living in mind, what advice and help is available for residents in South Lakeland?
Councillor Pye said that the year 2022 has been dubbed the Year of the Squeeze. The cost of living was at a 30 year high. The new social care levy on National Insurance and the freezing of the personal income tax allowance, would combine with high inflation, a rise in energy bills, and a rise in the cost of basic food items, all of which would likely impact low-income families the most. All this on the back of the Universal Credit uplift removal, plus whatever pre-pandemic struggles people were already dealing with. That painted a brief picture of the personal financial landscape that residents, friends, family, and neighbours were facing now and in months to come.
Councillor Pye turned to the help that was available.
The Council Tax Reduction Scheme – it was important that residents were aware that this scheme existed and she drew attention to the earlier discussion, pointing out that up to 100% discount was available. But this was not automatic and had to be applied for, either online, or directly through the benefits team at SLDC. That team would also be able to look at eligibility for Housing Benefit, and discretionary housing payments.
The Council also offered the Green Homes Grant. This had gone live only a few weeks previously but there was a limited pot, so would need acting on sooner rather than later. The purpose of the scheme was to improve the energy efficiency of eligible households at no cost to the resident. It aimed to improve the warmth and comfort of their homes, whilst reducing energy bills, carbon emissions and levels of fuel poverty across Cumbria. There was up to £10,000 of funding available for home owners, and up to £5,000 for tenants of private rental accommodation. Full eligibility criteria was set out on the relevant page of the SLDC website. There was also of course Cold to Cosy Homes which had similar aims, but the eligibility criteria was different, and Councillor Pye urged Members to look at both schemes. Councillor Pye added that the Housing team at SLDC also had some funding to help in a situation where an individual was threatened with homelessness as a result of the impact of the pandemic.
A few weeks previously, the Council had confirmed funding for the next two years for South Lakes Citizens’ Advice. The staff and volunteers there had worked tirelessly throughout the last two years, and they continued to do so, in order to offer help and support, to anyone who needed it, and to process all the applications and claims that went through their channels. They had also adapted their working practices and could now offer more flexibility by way of online consultations, as well as more telephone consultations. The Household Support Fund was administered through Citizens’ Advice. This was a one off payment of usually £200 for low income families who were struggling to meet household bills. It was means tested, and the best way of accessing this fund was to contact South Lakes Citizens’ Advice directly regarding specific residents, with their permission of course. These sticking plaster injections of cash were often a temporary fix, but the staff and volunteers at Citizens’ Advice would then be in contact with the client and would be able to help identify any underlying financial issues, and check the person was accessing all the available help.
Councillor Pye drew attention to the brand new Kendal and District debt centre. They were partnered with Christians Against Poverty (CAP) and were a great source of help for anyone who was so far down the spiral of poverty that they really needed someone to take the time to sit with them in their own home, go through every bill, every debt, take it all away, and come back with one single payment plan, and a personal budget. This was a totally free service.
There was also the Holiday Activity and Food Programme, which was provision for Children in receipt of Free School Meals, to access food in the school holidays. Plans were underway via County Council officers, for the Easter and Summer holidays.
Lastly, Councillor Pye mentioned a new Government funded Council Tax Rebate, details of which were still being finalised, but she could confirm that South Lakeland District Council would be delivering one off payments of £150 to most families and individuals living in a property in Council Tax bands A, B, C and D. This was to help towards the cost of living, with particular reference to the rise in energy prices. The money did not need to be repaid. In most cases, the rebate would be paid directly into people’s bank accounts, although those who did not currently pay their Council Tax via direct debit would need to sign up separately. Officers estimated that, of the 34,500 properties in Council Tax bands A to D, around 11,500 were non-direct debit, so there would be quite a task to get the information out to those customers. Flyers would be produced shortly to raise awareness.
As well as all the help mentioned, Councillor Pye asked Members to remember that each ward would have their own localised schemes – food banks, food hubs, community hubs, school uniform recycling, local hardship funds.
Councillor Pye asked Members to talk to residents and to pass the information on to schools and churches and anywhere that could help. She said that this was just the beginning, and the sooner the need was matched with the help, the better.
Prior to reading out his written question, Councillor Giles Archibald expressed appreciation for the responses from Councillors Ashcroft and Pye and asked for Members to be provided with contact details of the organisations referred to by Councillor Pye.
From Councillor Giles Archibald to Councillor Helen Chaffey, Housing Portfolio Holder - The Government has recently released its consultation on biodiversity gain requirements in new developments. This seems like an important consultation. Will SLDC be responding and do you have any initial thoughts on the proposals on which we are being consulted?
Councillor Chaffey fully agreed that this was an important consultation. The rate of biodiversity and habitat loss was a global concern, was closely related to climate change, and its impacts were being seen locally. Managing the impacts of development on biodiversity was a critical part of the Council’s response.
In anticipation of the Environment Act, the Council had had local planning policies on biodiversity net gain since 2019. The Development Strategy and Development Management Teams were working closely together on the rollout of these national requirements, including:-
• updating and tightening local plan policy through the local plan review (and seeking to ensure that the local plan was taken forward by the new authority);
• engaging with Natural England to review latest advice and best practice, with a view to drafting planning guidance;
• training planning policy and development management on biodiversity;
• preparing a section on biodiversity to add to the Council’s Climate Action Plan;
• engaging with the pilot Local Nature Recovery Strategy for Cumbria so that it could feed into the development of planning policy and guidance; and
• responding to the consultation.
The fact that the Government was introducing national requirements on biodiversity net gain was welcome.
Councillor Chaffey said that Councillor Archibald was correct that the Government was consulting prior to preparing regulations on biodiversity net gain processes and monitoring. Matters included, how to define the existing biodiversity value of a site, what enhancements should be sought, under what circumstances offsetting biodiversity loss off site would be acceptable and requirements for monitoring.
In general terms, the introduction of biodiversity net gain was a welcome recognition of the importance of the issue. The proposed removal of the exemption for all brown field sites was also welcome.
The Council was carrying out detailed scrutiny of the many issues raised in the consultation proposals, including the exemption proposals and preparing a response with the intention of ensuring that net gain requirements would be as robust as possible.
There were wider issues related to the sustainability of development, including the wider carbon footprint of development. For housing development, energy efficiency was being addressed through the Future Homes standard (which the Council had also responded to). Changes to National Planning Policy would be proposed following COP 26.
Councillor Chaffey closed saying that the Council would continue to engage with the Government to help it ensure that new development was as sustainable as it could be in every sense.
Councillor Archibald asked a supplementary question, enquiring whether Councillor Chaffey had any thoughts on how to engage Members in Barrow and Eden in the process.
Councillor Chaffey felt sure that she could enable this.
From Councillor Hughes to Councillor Philip Dixon, Customer and Locality Services Portfolio Holder - Could the portfolio holder of customer and locality services please update us on how this council is and has been managing sickness absences?
Councillor Dixon welcomed Councillor Hughes back to the Chamber. He explained that the Council was well placed to respond to sickness absence and paid tribute to the Senior Management Team who provided a lead to staff in resilience in promoting resilience and compassion. The problems which had been faced as a result of Covid-19 over the past few months and years were mainly in terms of long term sickness absence as a result of delays in cancer treatment and operations which had put back returns to work.
Councillor Dixon informed Members that the Human Resources team regularly measured days lost through sickness absence and monthly reports were sent to Leadership Team. Managers also had access to run their own team’s absence reports. In addition, managers were supported in monitoring and reducing levels of absence in their service area in line with the Council’s attendance management policy.
The increased level of pro-active support available to employees, for example, included:-
• free confidential counselling;
• the Employee Assistance Programme;
• occupational health provision
• the Pay Care Health cash plan;
• the launch of the Mental Wellbeing at Work Policy;
• resilience workshops;
• the launch of Cheerful Tuesday wellbeing sessions;
• HR coffee mornings for Team Leaders;
• wellbeing surveys;
• targeted wellbeing team talks; and
• multiple wellbeing updates on Sharepoint.
The Council was continuing to manage absences through:-
• dedicated Human Resources team members paired up with managers to support with sickness cases;
• active day 1 care through the Council’s employee assistance programme with stress related absence. With agreement from the employee a referral was made on day 1 of the absence. A qualified counsellor would arrange a call and agree a programme of activity with the employee. This supported with the identification of stress incidences on the first day of absence and appropriate support and prompt measures could be taken to deal with any issues leading to or causing stress absence;
• resilience training provided for all staff;
• Occupational Health service which staff could access;
• the Council’s Employee Assistance Programme which provided a multitude of counselling options;
• the Council’s Wellbeing at Work Policy. This provided useful tools to managers and employees to support with wellbeing activity;
• training on the Wellbeing Policy for managers;
• Management Team talks on wellbeing;
• the introduction of cheerful Tuesdays – non agenda meetings focused on wellbeing;
• Wellbeing page on SharePoint with useful tools and signposting;
• the Council’s Smart Working Policy that allows all staff to be flexible in their work life balance;
• training provided to equip managers with the necessary knowledge and skills to manage sickness absence. The use of policies and procedures such as “Attendance Management”, “Mental Health at Work” and “Smart Working”; and
• physiotherapy for staff in exceptional circumstances when the NHS waiting times are too long.
A full sickness yearly absence report would be provided to the Human Resources Committee at its next meeting in June 2022 which would provide a full break down of the yearly absence statistics.
Councillor Dixon thanked the Human Resources Committee for its continued concern and again expressed thanks for the resilience and compassion shown by the Management Team.
The written questions having been presented and answered, the following verbal questions were taken from the floor:-
Councillor Hughes explained that, having just returned following a period of absence, she had noticed the amount of work which had been carried out at South Lakeland House, and enquired as to the potential of tours for Members of the building.
The Chief Executive undertook to make suitable arrangements for any interested Members.
Councillor David Webster referred to the September meeting of the Planning Committee when he had asked if a meeting could be arranged following a site visit session regarding plans for future developments in relation to biodiversity. He sought an update on this.
The Chairman of the Council, also Chairman of the Planning Committee, advised that this session would be taking place following the meeting of the Planning Committee due to be held on Thursday, 24 February 2022.
The Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) reminded Members that this was Cabinet Question Time.
Councillor Peter Thornton asked Councillor Andrew Jarvis, Deputy Leader and Finance and Assets Portfolio Holder, if he could offer an explanation as to why Opposition Members had voted in favour of the Corporate Plan, however, had refused to support the Budget which would deliver the contents of the Plan.
Councillor Jarvis expressed a desire to comprehend, however, was unable to offer an explanation.
Councillor Fiona Hanlon asked Councillor Dixon whether there were any plans for Cheerful Tuesdays for Members.
Councillor Dixon undertook to discuss this suggestion with the Human Resources Team.
Councillor Hazel Hodgson asked Councillor Chaffey, given the current housing crisis, what help South Lakeland District Council was giving to people struggling to get on the housing ladder, both first time buyers and renters.
Councillor Chaffey undertook to provide a written response.