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


Funding for councils


Councillor Michael Edwards asked the following question of the Deputy Leader:


Does the Deputy Leader share my anger at the Government’s latest attempt to bailout failing County Councils with ‘negative RSG’ funding while continuing to take money away from places like Nottingham?


Councillor Graham Chapman replied as follows:


Earlier this summer the government announced £153,000,000 additional funding for local government. Very generous of them you might think. Well, not really given the billions that have been taken away from local government since 2011 and even less so when you realise that 86% of this money went to Conservative councils. Worse still, those councils benefitting are amongst the richest in the UK, and the vast majority of them are in the south of England.


But it gets worse, and it gets more unfair. Not only are the benefitting councils overwhelmingly Conservative, not only are they amongst the richest with the highest Council Tax and Business Rates base, they also have had the fewest cuts since 2011. Whereas the poorest councils have received 30% reductions in grant on average, many of the councils benefitting have had less than 10% reductions in grants. And it gets worse still, because most of these same councils have benefitted from £300,000,000 in previous handouts in transitional grants in the last two years, from which not one of the poorer councils has received a penny – including Nottingham.


And it gets worse still, because these same authorities are the very authorities which are suffering fewer pressures in terms of the two biggest spending areas of councils; adult care and children’s services. Unlike poorer areas where there are very few self-funding adults in care, there are many self-funders in these authorities.


So just to give you an example; in Surrey, one of the richest areas in the UK, between 2011 and 2019 had a 4% reduction in its spending power. Nottingham has suffered over 25% cuts in its spending power. Yet in the last three years, Surrey has received an additional £54,000,000 in government grants. Nottingham in that period has received not a penny of it. Nor has Derby, nor has Leicester, nor any of the northern or Midlands cities. Nor, interestingly, have any of the inner London boroughs, even though a lot of the outer London boroughs have received it. So in the current world of local government finance, the better off the area and the fewer the financial pressures, the less you lose and the more you receive in government handouts. The converse is true; the poorer you are, the more you lose. The biggest losers have been Liverpool, Mosely and Hackney, and the biggest winners have been places down south like Uttlesford, Woking and Wokingham.


It is a blatant fix based on political expediency. It is behaviour which makes a mockery of any objective grant distribution. It is verging on a scandal. But we are not taking it lying down. We are working with SIGOMA, an organisation which represents many cities in the UK, to publicise the abuse, and to take the matter to the Public Accounts Committee.


And I would finish on one important point: these authorities are mainly county councils. They are well off, they have fewer pressures than we have, they have had fewer cuts, and they have had more one-off money thrown at them. So why are these same authorities – Surrey, Northamptonshire, Worcestershire, Norfolk, and Somerset, all in sever financial difficulty? And it’s the same reason they’ve got the grants, it is because they are Tory. They have followed a Conservative model which is broken. They have had all the advantages compared with Labour Councils, yet these Tories have messed up – assets have been sold off, services have been outsourced, and they have totally misjudged their council tax strategy over seven years. And that is why they are in a particular mess, and that is why the government has thrown money at them at the expense of other authorities.


So we can say, not only the better off you are, the fewer pressures you have, the more you receive; we can now also say the more incompetent you are, the more you receive, providing of course you are Tory. Of course I share your anger, thank you.


Revised planning policy framework


Councillor Steve Young asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Housing and Planning:


Does the Portfolio Holder for Housing and Planning share my disappointment with the Government’s revised National Planning Policy Framework that was published in July?


Councillor Jane Urquhart replied as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor, and thank you Councillor Young for asking this question. So a National Planning Policy Framework is of course an important document which should help shape our planning decisions and is critical to our planning policy. It is important therefore that it should take account of the needs and opportunities of cities like Nottingham, but sadly the revised framework from government fails to do this in a number of ways. This Tory government, and its predecessor, and the coalition before that have made changes to planning policy that have successively weakened local accountability and increased central dictates, through making more and more developments subject to what’s called permitted development status. We have seen this in terms of office buildings being able to be converted into flats, and the government’s current proposals on fracking. In Nottingham we have always been clear that such decisions as this should be taken locally, by accountable local planning systems, and should not be dictated by national government policy.


There are a few positives in the new Planning Policy Framework, it does remain a succinct document and it does reinforce the need for a plan led system. It requires that all councils should have a local plan and that this should be reviewed every five years. It reinforces the need for high quality buildings and places and it’s clear that cross boundary working must be in place. All of these things should be seen as positives, but they are of course high expectations and resource intensive, and of course all of this comes at a time as we’ve already discussed against a backdrop of severe cuts to council budgets.


Despite the apparent focus on housing in the new National Planning Policy Framework, I do feel somewhat underwhelmed and disappointed that it really doesn’t provide the tools to solve the nation’s housing crisis; the growing housing waiting lists, the rise in homelessness, the increasing costs of buying and renting, and the harm that this is doing to the economy and to people’s life chances. It doesn’t give us an ambitious vision for how we should fairly plan our nation. And I’m not alone in this sense of disappointment. Lord Porter, Chair of the Local Government Association, and possibly more well known to our Tory colleagues than to me, said “the new proposals fail to give councils the powers they need to ensure that planning permissions are built out quickly, with the necessary infrastructure in their local communities”. So I wonder whether our colleagues on those benches will share my sentiment.


The new Housing Delivery Test within the Planning Policy Framework will see councils penalised with further loss of control over decision making if enough houses are not built, even though everyone knows that most house building is outside of a council’s control. In Nottingham, we are performing well on house building at the moment so there’s not at risk to us, but it is indicative of a further diminishing of accountable decision making for local communities.


A new nationally set methodology for calculating housing need has been introduced that will see more housing being built in already overheated local housing markets largely in the south east. The recent funding and public investment decisions that have just been discussed have made funds available to councils in the south east, and to councils who do not have the same desire to build as we do. So the imbalances that currently exist will be emphasised and our housing and regeneration needs within our city will not be addressed.


It would have been great if the new National Planning Policy Framework could have really been at the heart of how we plan and direct development investment across our city and our country. But it isn’t, and it’s a failed opportunity. The potential for housing growth, infrastructure investment, and wider development should be properly coordinated and could help rebalance the economy and support regeneration, but that opportunity has been missed. In Nottingham, we will of course continue to use our efforts to work with our local communities, with businesses in Nottingham, and with our neighbouring authorities to ensure that we support sustainable development within and around our City.


Universal Credit introduction


Councillor Merlita Bryan asked the following question of the Deputy Leader:


Can the Deputy Leader give an update from their meeting with the Department of Work and Pensions regarding the implementation of Universal Credit in Nottingham?


Councillor Graham Chapman replied as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor and thank you Councillor Bryan for your question. Universal Credit is due to roll out in Nottingham in less than six weeks. From the middle of October, when someone makes a new claim or has a change in their circumstances they will transfer onto Universal Credit. Migration onto Universal Credit of existing benefit claimants whose circumstances do not change is due to begin in July next year and is expected to be completed by mid-2023. So full-blown use of Universal Credit in Nottingham is imminent. We have so far escaped.


As a result, following concerns raised by the National Audit Office about Universal Credit, I invited officers from the Department for Work and Pensions to meet with me. The meeting was friendly, it was constructive, and it was made up of people, civil servants, doing their best to minimise the damage done by what I consider to be a misconceived system. And I asked a number of questions, ones which concern our constituents. I asked about concerns that work coaches, the individuals assigned to help claimants, are not notified when a claimant leaves a message on their online journal; this sounds petty but it’s very important if you’re trying to get your Universal Credit sorted. I was told that if someone calls their work coach on the number registered for them on their account, it will automatically create a journal entry for that call, so they will be alerted. This will need publicity so that people can understand.


I was told that unless they appeal, Personal Independent Payment, or the notorious PIP checks claimants do not have to go through a PIP reassessment unless previously notified in their acceptance letter. This too will need publicity, and it will be a relief to a great many people with disability, and that is a good thing. I was reassured that documents including Fit Notes can be scanned and submitted, you don’t need the originals, and that claimants doing so will receive confirmation of receipt, reducing the risk of forms being lost. This, again, is progress, but it does leave the problem that not everyone has access to a scanner.


I raised concerns about the timing of a Universal Credit assessment potentially leaving the claimant out of pocket due to fluctuations in payment for any work they undertake. I was informed that the claimant’s overall payments through Universal Credit would not be affected, but the key is the word overall. This is good, but it does not solve the problem because it is overall, of cash flow of people with few savings, and therefore probably the need to rely on food banks in the interim before the money starts flowing.


I asked about support for landlords, who have expressed concern that tenants may fall into rent arrears as a result of direct payments to the tenant. Where a landlord has concerns about a tenant’s ability to pay, I was told then the landlord can assess the tenants’ needs and if necessary apply for a managed payment to the landlord to be put in place. That means that you can bypass direct payments, and the payment can go directly to the landlord and not necessarily to the claimant. This is major, major progress, and something we have lobbied for as a Council. It could save a number of evictions and reduce the risk to our Housing Revenue account – we shouldn’t underestimate that, the debts tend to accumulate. But again, the main thing is that it may very well help avoid a number of evictions, and it does mean that landlords have a lot more say in who receives direct payments and who doesn’t, and that is a big breakthrough.


I asked about concerns where the household’s entire Universal Credit payment is paid to one member of the household, for example the risk for people in abusive relationships where one partner withheld money from another. I was informed that in those circumstances individuals can requests separate interviews and split household payments, which again is progress, but I can see that this is going to be difficult in practice. I asked about advance payments of Universal Credit during the initial assessment ‘waiting’ period. I was assured that work coaches will inform people of all their availability, and of financial liabilities, including any bank loans and Council Tax payments. The trouble is this advance payment is a loan, so it does not solve the problem that people will have to pay back the money from what in many cases will be a reduced budget forcing them into increased indebtedness.


So what are we doing as a council? We will be using funding available through the DWP for Assisted Digital Support – to get more of our residents to get online. We will directly, and indirectly through the voluntary sector, help provide personal budgeting support to ensure residents are prepared and supported through the process, and with their overall budgets, not just looking at their Universal Credit allocation. We will be helping to publicise the pitfalls and support, we are helping to draw up a communications strategy with the DWP.


The DWP representatives have agreed to meet with me again before Christmas to discuss further concerns which may arise and to look at how rollout of Universal Credit in Nottingham is progressing. Having said all this, although Universal Credit is good as a concept, we as a party should accept that and I think we do, it has to be right to bring the different confusing allowances together, however it has been ruined by using it to cut allowances and deliberately to punish claimants. There is a disincentive punishment element, basically saying “you shouldn’t really be a claimant, should you?” And even after all the delays, the IT systems are still not prepared, and I don’t believe the smooth running that has been described to me is going to happen in practice.


Claimants are expected to effectively pay for the delay in processing from their own pockets. There is heavy dependence on IT use from a group of people who often cannot afford the IT in the first place. The increased debt will arise from delays and reductions, and this will increase the debt on our Housing Revenue account, affecting all Council tenants, and on our Council Tax collection, affecting all rate payers. It will increase pressure on food banks which are already struggling. And if there is one factor for me which indicates more than any other how flawed this implementation is, and how flawed this policy is and the way it’s been applied, it is that we will have to rely on voluntary food banks to close the gaps. This reliance on food banks, and the testing of people, and the complexity of the hoops people have to go through, and this reliance on building voluntary food banks into a social welfare system, there is something very, very wrong. It is the 21st Century, this shouldn’t be happening. For me, it belittles people, it robs them of their dignity, it is everything that we as a party try to avoid. This is not a sign of a civilised society, or of a government wanting to unite the country. Yet this is the sad state we’ve arrived at, and I’m not only angry and sad, the second time I’ve been angry this afternoon, about this as a member of the Labour party, I’m actually quite sad as a citizen of Nottingham, and quite sad and angry as a UK citizen that that’s the state we’re in. Thank you.


Late notification to Companies House by Robin Hood Energy


Councillor Jim Armstrong asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Energy and Environment:


Is the Portfolio Holder aware that after issuing an additional £7.5 million of additional shares Robin Hood Energy failed to submit the appropriate notification to Companies House within the prescribed timeframe which placed it in breach of the Companies Act; and has she asked the Chairman of the RHE’s board to account for this failure? If not, will she be doing so?


Councillor Sally Longford Replied as follows:


Thank you, I am aware. The 17/18 company accounts were filed within the prescribed timescale. Councillor Armstrong is referring to the allotment of shares, which requires the company to notify Companies House, following approval from the City Council. The company’s lawyers filed the notification as soon as practically possible but this was beyond the 30 days and therefore, technically late. These are ultimately matters for the company and whilst the notification should have been undertaken within the timeframe, this wasn’t possible in this instance, but it made no material difference to either the company or the Council and no penalties or charges were levied by Companies House for any such late filing. Therefore I think that Councillor Armstrong is probably trying to create some sort of storm in a teacup here, thank you.


In relation to an answer to a supplementary question, Councillor Jim Armstrong raised a point of order under Standing Order 21, which was not upheld but was noted by the Lord Mayor.


Staff employed by Enviroenergy


Councillor Jim Armstrong asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Energy and Environment:


Whilst the Portfolio Holder’s predecessor previously confirmed that there are 43 members of staff employed at Enviroenergy; the company accounts state there are only 4 members of staff employed by the company; could the Portfolio Holder clarify this inconsistency?


Councillor Sally Longford replied as follows:


Thank you for the question. The four persons referred to in the company accounts are directors of the company. Enviroenergy staff are employed by Nottingham City Council and supplied to Enviroenergy, so they are not formally employees of the company. The 43 refers to the Nottingham City Council employees supplied to Enviroenergy by the City Council.


Traveller encampments


Councillor Andrew Rule asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Community Protection:


The Portfolio Holder will be aware of the issues at the beginning of the summer with travelling encampments across the City, but in particular the issues caused by the encampment on Ruddington Lane Park – will he consider utilising the council’s rights under common law to instruct private bailiffs to evict travellers where there is evidence they are responsible for anti-social behaviour towards City residents as this would provide a swifter resolution as Rushcliffe Borough Council recently demonstrated with an encampment on Boundary Road which was removed within 48 hours?


Councillor Toby Neal replied as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor, and thank you Councillor Rule. Thank you for the question, and I know that he values the work that our officers have done over this, they have done some significant amount of work. I think that the issue that you’ve raised around the common law isn’t as clear-cut as you would like it to be, but we do use it in terms of evaluating each encampment site. The use of bailiffs under common law is incredibly expensive in relation to what we do through other processes; also it requires the immediate presence of Police to avoid any public order issues. There are implications in terms of how we enforce through the possession of the land, and how we can protect that land going through, and I’ll explain that in a minute.


Over the last few years, the Council has considerably streamlined our eviction process, and got it down to a pretty effective process, so much so that we have been providing help and support to district authorities around us because of the issues that they’ve had. We’ve developed a single point of contact within the council in terms of the neighbourhoods, so everybody knows who they need to go to immediately to notify of land being taken. Getting people off the site is the outcome we seek, and we will use whatever tools are available to us. So common law is possible, but the preferred option generally is through court orders because that allows us to take possession over a longer period, so if people come back we immediately have the authority to remove them in, I believe, a six to nine months period, but I could stand to be corrected by Malcolm.


So we have that, and I’m aware that Rushcliffe did that, but there are also examples of local councils in the area around here where that actually has gone badly wrong because there were no Police in attendance, or not enough bailiffs turned up to do the work. I’m also personally much more comfortable with the idea of taking it through a formal legal process through the courts, so that there is no ambiguity in what we do.


So I would just say, we do assess given the circumstances, and we do make sure that in terms of what we do on sites where they are is we make sure we deliver all our safeguarding responsibilities, so we engage with them. We will often start a process of negotiation immediately, and from that then take some sense of how far we need to go with the legal actions and getting people off site. I’d just like to actually say that over the last few months, and I’m pretty sure you’d agree with me, that the work that our neighbourhood team have been doing around this across the city has been pretty good, and certainly I would offer full support to them, but I would say that we would look at things like common law in light of the circumstances, but generally that’s not our preferred option. Thank you.


Confirmation of empty properties


Councillor Andrew Rule asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Community Protection:


Could the Portfolio Holder detail the process completed by the City Council to confirm a property is empty before writing to the homeowner to make enquiries confirming the same?


Councillor Toby Neal replied as follows:


Yes, thank you Lord Mayor and thank you Councillor Rule for your question. Community Protection’s Environmental Health and Safer Places team is responsible for identifying empty properties and securing their re-occupation. To conduct this work the Council Tax team periodically provides the team with a list of properties they believe to be empty and have been empty for at least six months. As resources permit each property will be visited by an officer who will try and determine the property’s apparent occupation status. That usually means knocking on the door to engage with any occupants, visiting and speaking to neighbours, and looking for other evidence that usually indicates that a property is unoccupied. That could be things like the accumulation of letters and mail in the hallway, unfurnished interiors etc. There are properties where this is difficult to do, flats are usually the most significant. Having determined that a property is probably empty the officer will write to the registered owner and interested parties in the property address and any other addresses that we can ascertain, whether that’s through Council Tax or other avenues. Letters will be sent out, further visits will take place, further letters will be sent after a period of time because invariably most people don’t respond to letters in the first instance, only later on.


Matching up records can sometimes be a bit of a problem, updating of Council Tax can take a bit longer to come through, so being aware of when a property is in use or not doesn’t always match up with what our own officers on the ground will do.


In specific terms, why this is now a priority for us is that we identified a budget pressure that was we needed to reduce the cost of bed and breakfast and hotel accommodation, not just the cost but also the fact that it’s not appropriate accommodation for some people who are reliant on us to help them in difficult circumstances. So using the empty lists and also using what intelligence we have on the ground which can include Councillors as well as CPOs and Neighbourhood Officers. We are feeding that into a process to identify properties as quickly as possible to bring them back into use where we can, whether that’s through a variety of different processes in terms of whether properties are available to purchase, or willing to be rented out, or to be moved on. So there’s a whole range of things there. There are some partnerships that we are putting in place around that as well. So that’s a bit of a summary of the processes that are in place.

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