Agenda item

Questions from Councillors - to a member of Executive Board, the Chair of a Committee and the Chair of any other City Council body


Citizen questions to Council


Councillor Culley asked the following question of the Leader:


How many questions from citizens have been rejected by the Council in the past 12 months and what were the reasons given for those questions being rejected? How many citizens’ questions were subsequently never asked of the relevant Executive Council members?


In the absence of Councillor Collins’, Councillor Chapman replied as follows:


Can I thank Councillor Culley for the question. Since September 2016, 11 citizen questions have been received. 5 of these were general queries rather than specific questions for the Council and were therefore forwarded to the relevant department for response. 3 were answered orally at meetings, and 3 received written responses from the relevant Portfolio Holders due to the complex nature of the questions.


Now, you may ask, why were the ones which were rejected actually rejected? They were refused either on the basis that they were outside the Council’s remit, or they were an issue specific to the citizen and it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss these in a public domain. Those are the particular reasons.


I would also add, that in accordance with Standing Order 3(a), it is the Lord Mayor’s discretion, in case you may have thought it was the Leader’s discretion, on whether questions are answered or not.


Robin Hood Energy Funding


Councillor Rule asked the following question of the Deputy Leader:


Could the Deputy Leader comment on the pressure that Robin Hood Energy’s funding requirements have placed on the City Councils budget?


Councillor Chapman replied as follows:


This is a very delicate issue because, as you will appreciate, it has to do with commercial confidentiality. So the answer you’re going to get is probably quite restricted, and I’ve had to take legal advice on this. The answer is that the City Council has provided financial support to Robin Hood Energy based on a commercial basis, at an interest rate which is financially beneficial to the City Council and also complies with State Aid. This support has been subject to both due diligence undertaken on the Company and the provision of monthly management reporting to the City Council.


However, the City Council will be reviewing, as it does in all circumstances, the overall financing of the company to ensure optimum financial structure is in place to suit both the company, and the City Council.


First choice school places


Councillor Culley asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Business, Education and Skills:


Can the Portfolio Holder please tell us how many children in Nottingham have been unable to attain their parents first choice of nursery place, primary school place or secondary school place in this current academic year?


In the absence of Councillor Webster, Councillor Mellen replied as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor, and I thank Councillor Culley for her question. I am pleased that she’s asked this question, and given me the opportunity to share with Council the good news that this September there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of Nottingham children who will be starting their education at their parents or carers first choice of city primary school. Thanks to the very successful primary school expansion programme that the Council has run, adding an additional 4,000 places at a cost of £40 million, 3,345 children out of 3,768 applications made will be attending their parents’ first choice school. So just 323 children did not get their first choice school, and all of those children either got their second or third choice, or were offered another place. No child is without a primary school place this September.


Whilst it’s the case nationally that there was also an increase in children entering their parents first choice school, Nottingham’s proportion of first choices increased significantly by 2.3%, compared to a national rise of 1.6%. As Councillor Culley is no doubt aware from experience in her own ward however, we do face continuing pressure for primary school places in certain parts of the city. As more families are choosing to live in the city we have proactively responded by seeking to expand our good and outstanding schools, including both Fernwood and Middleton primaries in Wollaton West. And alongside the growing popularity of Nottingham as a city to raise families, I’m delighted to report that Nottingham now has the highest proportion of Ofsted rated “Outstanding” schools in the whole East Midlands region. We are therefore continuing to add places in good and outstanding schools where they are needed in order to continue our success in ensuring first choice places are offered to children and their families.


I think it is important to realise that at primary level the City Council has managed the successful programme without the establishment of a single primary Free School in the city – which is of course the governments preferred solution for adding school places. There have been two attempts to establish primary Free Schools in the city but, in both cases, having seen the expenditure of significant amounts of public money and wasted significant amounts of our Council Officers’ time in supporting the process, both schools have failed to open. And when it comes to considering the situation in terms of secondary places I am concerned that this flawed and failing government policy may also be a significant barrier.


So to answer the next part of Councillor Culley’s question, in terms of first choice secondary school places being offered, the good news is that we saw an actual increase of 58 children being offered their parent or carers first choice of secondary school. So 2,579 children in 2017 compared with 2,521 in 2016. That does leave 720 children without their first choice place, however, as in primary schools, all of those children were offered a place either at their second or third choice, or other schools within the city. Again, mirroring the national situation, this does represent a decrease in the actual proportion of first choices offered compared to applications made, because there are more young people of that age. Inevitably given the increase in the number of primary school age pupils moving through the system we know that the pressure will now, and in the coming years, be felt in the secondary age group.


As Councillor Culley will no doubt be aware, local authorities retain the duty to ensure that there are sufficient school places for all school age children living in the authority area. However, she must also be aware that the government persists in shackling local authorities, of any shade of political control, in efficiently and effectively discharging this duty by refusing the power for them to open new schools. Colleagues in fact in other Tory authorities around the country such as Hampshire, West Sussex and Hertfordshire have actively lobbied their own government to try and reverse this damaging situation.


We can see that the demand for secondary school places in the city is clearly growing, but the government has provided us with neither the power nor the direct financial resources to manage the situation in the best interests of Nottingham’s young people and families. This should be a concern for all members of Council, regardless of political affiliation.


And so to answer the third part of the question. In terms of admission to nursery school places, this is not a function that the Council directly manages, as parents and carers make their applications directly to their preferred schools. So I am therefore unable to answer that part of the question. What I am very proud to be able to report though, is that although the Council doesn’t have that power, we have funded the opening of a new nursery at Fernwood Primary school, which now means that every primary school in the city does have a nursery or Foundation stage unit attached to it. This demonstrates our continuing commitment to ensuring that all children and families living in the city have access to local, high quality pre-school learning, and providing the best possible start to all children’s lifelong learning experience.


Impact of Universal Credit


Councillor Gul Khan asked the following question of the Deputy Leader:


Does the Deputy Leader agree with the Child Poverty Action Group that the implementation of Universal Credit puts low income families at risk?


Councillor Chapman replied as follows:


Can I thank Councillor Khan for his question. The Child Poverty Action Group report, called “The Cost of a Child 2017” finds that the freeze on benefits first implemented in 2016 has started to “significantly erode parents’ ability to make ends meet”. The report identifies four welfare reforms that have squeezed low income families: the benefits freeze, the loss of the family element of Child Tax Credits and the Universal Credit equivalent, the two child limit on Tax Credit and the Universal Credit entitlements, and the overall household benefit cap. Those are the four areas.


The report predicts that if the benefits freeze were maintained for the next 5 years, currently as it applies only up to 2019, shortfalls in the extent to which benefits meet families costs grow steadily. For example, when not working, a couple with 3 children ages 10, 12 and 14, would be £325.00 per week short of what they need to meet overall family costs by 2022. A lone parent with 3 children the same ages would be £241.00 short. Many of these are Nottingham citizens, and we must remember that. And soon, there will be the rollout of Universal Credit in Nottingham, it is happening for singles and couples with up to 2 children only, and this will take place from June 2018.


This will create 2 major problems. Firstly, payment delay. One of the issues with Universal Credit is that there are built in delays which means that typically, it is 6 weeks before a claimant receives any money, assuming there are no additional delays to the claim. People have to have a 7 day waiting period before entitlement is awarded, therefore no backdated element, and for this period there is no award of Universal Credit or housing costs. This is for a group of people for whom a survey of 2,000 people by Legal and General found that they had not enough savings to last them 32 days if their income stopped. The study also found that 26% of respondents would see their savings disappear within a week or less, and 23% said they had no savings at all. So what we’re doing is pushing a whole group of new people, and many of our own citizens in Nottingham, into debt. And we already have evidence of what is happening from elsewhere where Universal Credit has been rolled out. For example, in July, Citizens Advice asked the government to pause the full rollout of Universal Credit, as their research indicated that people were being left facing financial difficulties in areas where it had already been rolled out. A survey of 800 people who sought help with Universal Credit revealed:

-  over 1/3 are waiting more than 6 weeks to receive their first payment, and these are people who, I repeat, have no savings or very few savings, and some of whom are already in debt;

-  just over 1 in 10, 11%, are waiting over 10 weeks for the benefit; and

-  3/5 are having to borrow money whilst they wait for the first payment. And where do you borrow money from if you’re poor? You borrow it from people who are charging extortionate interest rates, and so the spiral just continues.

This is already happening to a group in Nottingham – the single and newly unemployed, who are increasingly in debt in this city.


The second impact of Universal Credit that I want to highlight is a direct payment of housing benefit. The second cause for concern. This is bonkers. Only a Conservative government, out of touch, could think that this was a good idea. That is paying housing benefit directly into someone’s account. Housing benefit will be paid directly, not to everybody in the household, only to the head of the household, and that again is significant. First, you cannot guarantee that the individual will be responsible on behalf of the rest of the family. You cannot guarantee that. And even if they are responsible, if finances are stretched, then rent is likely to take a back seat to food, gas and electricity, all of which can be cut off immediately, when rent cannot be. Again, we have evidence from elsewhere of the likely impact. Since it has been introduced in Newcastle, the council rent collection rate has dropped from 97% to 81%. This not only means an accumulation of personal debt, it also destabilises the rest of the housing investment account. Not only are councils and Housing Associations up in arms about this, so are private landlords, who will increasingly pull out of the market, reducing the supply of housing to low income families. You couldn’t make this up. The damage done in one fell swoop through crass incompetence.


It is a total failure to understand the people you are governing and their way of life, and I’m afraid it is the current Conservative Party all over. And what it will result in, is increased personal debt in a group of low income people who are already up to their necks in debt. There will be increased poverty in a nation where poverty, and in particular child poverty, is increasing. And there will be increased homelessness, which is already rising to the levels it reached the last time the Conservatives were in control in the 1990s.


But I’ll leave you with this final irony. We are living in a society in which the people paying the most for the 2007 crash are those who were furthest away from responsibility for the crash – the poor and their children. Meanwhile, those closest to responsibility for the crash – Hedge Fund Operators, many in the banking industry – are those most benefitting via huge sums released into the bond market through quantitative easing. Many of the former live in Nottingham. Not many of the latter do. This policy should be paused. It is already proving disastrous, it is ineffective, it is bad policy. I think if a policy is bad, the government should have the courage to reverse, after all, they’re reversing virtually everything else they promised, this one should be added to the list. Thank you.


Fines for rogue landlords


Councillor Williams asked the Portfolio Holder for Community and Customer Services the following question:


Can the Portfolio Holder for Community and Customer Services explain how the new fines introduced by Nottingham City Council will help clamp down on rogue landlords and improve the quality of rented accommodation in the City?


Councillor Neal replied as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor, and thank you Councillor Williams for your question, as it gives me an opportunity to outline some significant changes to a historically underrated market, which has a previously tricky enforcement process. The newly introduced Housing and Planning Act 2016 empowers the local authority to tackle rogue landlords with the ability to impose financial penalties on those landlords who have failed to comply with requirements under the Housing Act 2004. The power to impose a civil penalty is an alternative to prosecution. Fines can be imposed when a landlord has failed to licence a house in multiple occupation, a HMO - or other privately rented house if the Secretary of State confirms the Council’s proposals to introduce selective licensing, failed to comply with an improvement notice, breached the HMO management regulations or failed to comply with an overcrowding notice. The most serious offences and those landlords and letting agents with a history of non-compliance will be considered for prosecution.


A fine of up to £30,000 per offence can be imposed, with an upper limit of £100,000. This presents a greater shift from fines historically received at a magistrate’s court. The level of fines are viewed as a deterrent for landlords and letting agents. The financial implications imposed as a result of these offences will tackle rogue landlords by driving them out of the private rented sector and making poor sub-standard housing an un-profitable exercise for them. For landlords, it will be more financially viable to ensure housing standards are met and required HMO licences are in place rather than risking receiving a financial penalty of up to £30,000 per offence. This will inevitably have a positive effect on the standard of accommodation available for the citizens of Nottingham.


Importantly, councils will retain the money through penalties to reinvest in the service, rather than it being paid off to the Treasury. All licensing schemes are designed to proactively ensure that private rented accommodation, regardless of its format or customer group, meets a minimum standard that helps tenants live in a safe, healthy and properly managed home and helps prevent or rapidly resolve any negative impact poorly managed homes can have on the neighbourhood and wider community.


These civil penalties therefore, will lend weight to the need for compliance with licensing schemes, and they will aid the council in achieving the aims of a better quality private rented sector and also reducing the need for enforcement, and potentially making savings on officer time.


New Nottingham Homes


Councillor Ali asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Planning, Housing and Heritage:


Can the Portfolio Holder for Planning, Housing and Heritage explain how the Council is using brownfield sites to help reach its target of building 2,500 new homes that Nottingham people can rent or buy?


Councillor Urquhart replied as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor, and can I thank Councillor Ali for his question. This council is determined to build homes in our city that our residents can afford to rent or buy. We've been both building homes ourselves, through Nottingham City Homes, transforming previously unloved spaces, and we are actively working with developers to bring forward even the most tricky sites for development. Unlike some of our more leafy neighbours, Nottingham city doesn't have simple sites that are straightforward to develop. Ours is a densely packed city with previously used land, so the challenge is significant. The government have talked a lot about housing, and the need to deliver more housing, and have often sought to blame local councils and planning systems for lack of delivery. In Nottingham we have acted. We are delivering, and we have made sure that in our city, under a Labour council, homes are being built.


This Council uses our current planning policy to negotiate affordable homes on all sites, including where they are built on brownfield land. And this is either provided on site or as a contribution to delivering social housing elsewhere in the city. Pre-application discussions encourage the development of brownfield land for housing and our advice to developers reflects the city’s need for family and affordable homes. Planning Committee decisions seek to ensure high quality schemes are designed and built.


This Council was a national pilot authority for preparing a Brownfield Land Register and is working towards having that final register up and running by the end of 2017. The aim of this is to identify the brownfield land across the city that is available for housing development. We will then look at the further proposal of a Permission in Principle power as way to seek to expedite housing development that we want to see happen on brownfield sites. Although I must say, we already have a high level of existing planning permissions that we have granted in the city for housing development where private developers have not yet taken up the opportunity for development, in contrast to our own proactive use of our own land to ensure the delivery of new homes, including new affordable homes for Nottingham people.


The route taken in order to assure the delivery of housing varies from site to site to maximise the potential for housing growth and to capture inward investment – sometimes by direct development of homes and at others through agreements with development partners. And of course, a significant contribution to this is in our building of council homes. Throughout the City, Nottingham City Homes, is managing the delivery of new Council housing on brownfield sites. Some of those are sites that have previously been poor quality housing that has been decommissioned and demolished, and some has been on other difficult sites including garage sites. We are at close to completion in Lenton, the Meadows, Cranwell, and at the Hazel Hill site in Bestwood, amongst others. We have also re-used surplus school sites such as the former Morley School on the Wells Road for the development of a development of bungalows, very much welcomed in that area. A range of high quality homes have also been completed on former garage sites owned by the Council throughout the city, and we will continue to look for more opportunities of this kind.


In a number of places, we are not only using our own brownfield land, but we have also been purchasing privately owned brownfield sites that have stood empty or derelict for a number of years in order to make our developments more coherent. Examples of this being in the former Harvester Pub site in Top Valley and the site of the former Clifton Miners Welfare, in the Meadows. Nottingham City Homes are also in the process of purchasing and developing the former Meadows Police Station as part of their subsidiary to provide new market rented homes for Nottingham people.


In addition to these examples of the direct development of Council owned land, the Council is working with a range of partners to facilitate wider delivery of housing. The Stonebridge regeneration has recently completed its final new build phase and has seen the successful delivery of private homes sold at affordable prices on previously brownfield land. Keepmoat have recently started on site developing Arkwright Walk in the Meadows, a scheme that will again see new, affordably priced private housing. This scheme is being developed along the historic route, which as a result of this development has recently been re-opened as a key pedestrian link between the City Centre and West Bridgford. With many of these interventions, the developments will not only lead to new affordable housing that Nottingham people can afford to rent or buy, but will also facilitate regeneration of areas into better places where people will want to come and live and to work.


Where appropriate, we have also sold surplus brownfield sites on the open market enabling commercial development of new housing. This is currently in progress on sites including the Sandfield Centre, the former Springwood Day Centre and the former Bestwood Day Centre.


So in Nottingham, we are proactive, we welcome and enable development in a city to increase the amount of housing we have. We know that housing is desperately needed, both social rented and private rented and for sale, and we will continue to work to achieve an increase of supply, in challenging locations and with challenging economics, because it's the right thing to do for our city and our people. We will achieve our manifesto pledge to build 2,500 homes that Nottingham people can afford to rent or buy, because in Nottingham, we are determined, and we know that housing is a priority that requires concentrated action, not only empty rhetoric.


Council tax for student households


Councillor Piper asked the following question of the Deputy Leader:


Could the Deputy Leader please inform Council about the financial shortfalls suffered by the council from the Council Tax exemption for houses occupied totally by students before 2010? Could he also inform Council about the impact this will have between 2010 and 2020 as further central government support continues to decline?


Councillor Chapman replied as follows:


I particularly welcome this question. I knew there was an anomaly that we had to face over student funding in this city, but even I was shocked by the figures that I’ve now got. Under a Labour government the student element of grant was compensated for by what was called the Resource Equalisation Model. This lasted until 2013/14. From 2016/17, £5,000,000 was locked in on our settlement compensation. However this is no way compensation for what we’ve lost. We can infer from the settlement, and the Council tax data, that although we had £5,078,000, the loss to the Council was £15,900,000, that’s almost £16,000,000 of income from student households. That is a net shortfall per annum of almost £11,000,000. £10,836,000. That is what we are having to face. We’re getting £5,000,000, but it’s costing us £16,000,000, so there’s £11,000,000 deficit, per annum. If you add it up, the accumulative shortfall between 2010/11 and 2016/17 is £52,700,000, that is how much we’re losing as a result of the government not compensating us for student income.


What is more, Nottingham has the highest number of student households of any of the core cities, as a proportion. We’ve got 3 times as many as Birmingham, twice as many as Liverpool. 8.6% of Nottingham households claim student exemption. In Birmingham it is less than 3% and in Liverpool for example its 4.5%. We have the highest of any of the core cities. Indeed we have the second highest proportion in the country, after Oxford.


Student exemption and the shortfall in funding creates a great impact on the Council’s ability to provide services than almost any other authority. So by not compensating us as it should do, as the government claims to, we are losing in this city probably more than any other authority in the country with the possible exception of Oxford. Not only that, the situation will continue to get worse as the settlement funding continues to fall. Because that £5,000,000 will be frozen, so as our percentage goes down, the impact of that £5,000,000 will go down proportionally. So it is going to get worse and the gap will get bigger.


So in short, not only is this Council losing money on transitional grants, which a lot of Tory authorities are getting, and there’s a very strong chance the government will announce more transitional grants for more Conservative authorities shortly. Not only are we losing as a result of deprivation factors in the grant settlement being taken out, not only are we being undercompensated for business rates discretion which we are urged to take 100% business rates discretion; but we’re not getting that money back totally, but we are paying massively for the success of our universities in attracting students. Students are a good thing for our economy, but we need to be compensated. Labour compensated us, the Tories are not doing. Again, another way in which the Tories are discriminating against this city. Thank you.

Supporting documents: