The Chairman of the Council, Chairs of Committees and Sub-Committees and Portfolio Holders to answer any questions on any matters in relation to which the Council has powers or duties or which affect the District of which due notice has been given in accordance with Council Procedure Rule 13.
90.1 The Chair referred to the tabled papers and asked Councillor Eburne to ask the first question.
Councillor Eburne to Councillor Morley, Leader of the Council
“The cost of Member allowances and expenses has increased from £269,393.13 in 2017/18 to £442,563.39, a difference of £173,170.26.
Please can you provide the explanation for this increase.”
There was a one-off increase in the member allowances in 18/19 due to the back payment of the basic allowance and special responsibility allowances that was made following a review of the Members Remuneration Scheme, carried out by the Independent Remuneration Panel. The Panel was tasked with looking at members’ allowances and to take into account the changes to members’ roles following the creation of the Leader /Cabinet model which was constituted in May 2017. The new scheme was adopted by full Council in June 2018.
The figures forecast for 19/20 show a projected decrease in the amount of members’ allowances which will be a more accurate reflection of the cost following a reduction in the number of members since the elections in May 2019.
Councillor Eburne said that the difference for the back-payment did not make up the £173,170.26, and she asked that the exact figures for the difference were provided to her.
Councillor Morley asked the Assistant Director for Corporate Resources to provide a response outside the meeting.
Councillor Geake to Councillor Brewster, Cabinet Member for Economic Growth
“We recently heard from the Cabinet Member for Economic Growth, that part of our ongoing work on project delivery, for Regeneration and Capital projects, will take account of climate change. As stronger economic growth tends to be closely linked to a higher carbon footprint, and as we are now in a climate crisis, could we be told which parts of the Council’s work on regeneration and capital projects will not take account of climate change?”
As part of the refreshed project management framework across both councils, all project initiation documents have a section on the environment. Project managers, when commencing a project and throughout the life of that project, are required to complete an environmental impact assessment which consider positive and negative environmental impacts of each scheme. As new projects come to the various Programme Boards, environmental impact is considered as part of the overall deliverability. This means every regeneration and capital project will take account of climate change and will ensure any impacts are assessed and properly mitigated.
Councillor Geake asked that the Cabinet Member looked at the work of other Councils, with a view to future proofing every single aspect of the Council’s work and she provided two examples; Oxford City Council had provided a climate emergency budget of £18m for capital investments and £1m for its operational budget to ensure delivery and Warwick District Council had announced they would hold a referendum to increase council tax to provide the necessary funds.
Councillor Brewster responded that the Council’s economy budget was the smallest budget in the Council, and he was sure the Assistant Director was aware of this, but he would raise this with the Assistant Director for Corporate Resources.
Councillor Welham to Councillor Flatman, Cabinet Member for Communities
“The Council is making a grant to Mid Suffolk Citizens Advice of £86,700 per annum for each of the next three years. Could we please be assured that there are no specific conditions attached to the making of the grant?”
A grant of this nature will clearly have reasonable conditions attached – that the applicant uses the money for the purposes set out in their application, for example, and that they deliver the proposed outputs. I can reassure you that these conditions will be agreed with Mid Suffolk Citizens Advice prior to issuing the offer letter, rather than simply being imposed upon them without dialogue.
Councillor Welham asked if he could assume that the conditions would be the normal Mid Suffolk Grant Conditions and that no other conditions be imposed on Mid Suffolk Citizens Advice, nor would the Council seek to reorganise or close branches of the Citizens Advice.
Councillor Flatman responded that at this moment in time there were no plans to make such changes.
Councillor Welham to the Leader of the Council
“The Corporate Outputs document was discussed at a Joint Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting held on 8 January 2020. A number of the outputs are stated as giving support to various initiatives. Could we have clarity around the type of support to be given, particularly whether it is financial support or support by Officers and/or Members of the two Councils, and what outcomes are expected in respect of each of these initiatives?”
As was explained during the Overview & Scrutiny Committee meeting, there are approximately 9 Mid Suffolk references to ‘providing support’ in the Corporate Outputs. These reflect the fact that the Council has an impact not just in terms of what it directly delivers but also by working in partnership with others where the partner is the lead. The reference to support therefore relates to political and officer support but does not exclude financial support. Where any proposal for direct financial support is made however, this will come forward through Cabinet for decisions. I think the intended outcomes for each of these is obvious from the document, for example for the Museum of East Anglian Life to become the National Museum for Food, for businesses to access our local shop front and accessibility funding etc but I am happy to provide further details outside of the meeting for anywhere Councillor Welham has additional queries.
Councillor Welham was unclear about the reason for supporting the A14 expressway, as this would increase the amount of traffic and he was equally unclear, how this fitted in the with the Council’s declaration of Climate Emergency.
Councillor Morley responded she would provide an answer outside the meeting, but it was imperative that the infrastructure could deliver the Council’s needs.
Councillor Welham to Councillor Morley, Leader of the Council
“At a Joint Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting held on 8 January, the Leader of our Council stated that various Task Groups would be providing the timescales for achieving the outcomes to be achieved in 2020/21 and beyond. Are Task Groups actively working towards providing agreed programme dates to be included in the document before the start of Municipal Year 2020/21?”
I believe that the Chief Executive addressed a similar question to this at the Cabinet Meeting that adopted these Corporate Outputs. As he explained, this is intended to be the first and last time that the Corporate Outputs are presented to Councillors in this way. This is a reflection of the fact that the outputs were developed in parallel with the Corporate Plan. Now that the Corporate Plan and these Outputs have been adopted, they are being incorporated into action plans for each of our 6 Strategic Priorities. These actions plans are a combination of work that is already underway and new actions. Performance will then be measured from Quarter 1 of 2020/21 against these action plans. With this in mind officers are, at my request, conducting a review of our performance framework.
Councillor Welham asked if action plans with dates against them would be available for Members, before the start of the municipal year, so it would be possible to measure performance against those dates.
Councillor Morley responded that not all the action plans would have dates against them as they had not been finalised yet, such as the Climate Change Taskforce.
Councillor Mansel to Councillor Burn, Cabinet Member for Planning
“Two of our adopted Neighbourhood Plans have recently been put to the test at Planning Referrals Committee. Recommendations from development control officers were to go against Neighbourhood Plan policies, because they felt that they were lacking in housing allocations and/or policy wording. Given that MSDC is obliged to support communities making Neighbourhood Plans, how are we ensuring that they are getting the best impartial advice?”
Thank you Councillor Mansel for your question. This matter is clearly topical and has been subject of much discussion at not just Planning Referrals but also at the recent training exercise for Councillors. The officer recommendations contained significantly more nuance than you have suggested within your question and I think it’s important that we continue to talk about weight to be applied rather than your more adversarial language of ‘going against’. That aside, I recognise the sentiment.
Our officers are serious in their intent to support communities to develop neighbourhood plans though. They provide technical advice on the processes involved and signpost to ‘impartial’ sources such as Locality to ensure communities enter the process with their eyes open and optimise the support available to them. Officers also advise on funding sources available and help groups to engage their own professional advice as well as providing both informal feedback as plans progress and formal feedback during the relevant consultation stage. There is a wealth of information available on our website which further explains the support available.
Because of the importance of this subject I have provided a more detailed and substantive response in writing but do not intend to read that to you during this meeting. I am of course happy to discuss this matter further with you and officers outside the meeting if that would assist.
Written Answer (Tabled Papers)
Neighbourhood Planning (NP) provides local communities with the opportunity to have their say in where they would like to see new housing come forward but, with that, comes a certain degree of responsibility that those same groups will need to identify and allocate a sufficient supply of sites to meet not just locally identified need but also to enable the District Council to meet its wider housing delivery objectives. In reality, what we have seen over the last few years is a number of communities bringing forward Neighbourhood Plans in advance of our new planning framework being in place and, in effect, only going as far as allocating what already has permission.
To be successful at examination, one of the ‘basic conditions’ against which such plans are tested is their general conformity with district level planning policy. This is something that has also been touched upon in a number of recent Neighbourhood Plan Examination Reports published on this Council’s website and should also act as a signal to all other prospective Neighbourhood Plan Groups. In summary, that advice is:
And, that where a Neighbourhood Plan is produced in parallel to the emerging Local Plan
Where Neighbourhood Plans are being produced, the Council is proactive in engaging with a community from the outset. However, it is the responsibility of the community to develop their Neighbourhood Plan and, in many circumstances, they are directly appointing independent planning consultants to assist them. In addition, where plans do seek to allocate sites, there are support packages available through the Government’s neighbourhood planning body, Locality.
Prior to Neighbourhood Plan Groups consulting us at the Regulation 14 Pre-submission stage, we encourage them to share their draft plan with us for informal feedback. The purpose of this exercise is also to identify likely significant issues in advance of any formal consultation in public. Before publication in July 2019 of the Preferred Options Joint Local Plan, and where appropriate, we have consistently advised Neighbourhood Plan Groups that a housing number higher than that currently being promoted through their Neighbourhood Plan could not be ruled out. Since July 2019, Neighbourhood Plan Groups have had an indicative (minimum) housing number that they should be planning for. It would be reasonable to expect that those Groups who had prepared a plan prior to publication of the draft Joint Local Plan in July 2019, but who had yet to formally submit their Plans to the District Council, to be mindful of our advice and, if necessary, consider whether they should modify their plan accordingly and re-run the Regulation 14 process. That does not appear to have happened in the case of Woolpit. In essence, groups need to be aware of changing national and local planning policy to ensure their plans are both compliant with the National Planning Policy Framework and emerging Development Plan policy.
It is also important to highlight that communities with adopted Neighbourhood Plans must keep them under review because of the progression of the emerging Babergh and Mid Suffolk Joint Local Plan and the evidence that underpins it on many aspects in relation to the social, economic and environmental factors. Neighbourhood Planning guidance informs that planning applications are decided in accordance with the development plan, unless material consideration indicates otherwise. It is for the decision maker in each case to determine what is a material consideration and what weight to give to it. In some cases, this may mean an adopted Neighbourhood Plan does not hold as much weight as some other material consideration.
Councillor Mansel questioned that as Joint Neighbourhood Plans (JNP) progressed to examination and adoption, would it be necessary to appoint more staff to provide support to communities, who would need to review their Neighbourhood plans, as the JNP was implemented. Also, there might be more communities who would produce neighbourhood plans.
Councillor Burn responded that the requirements for further resources would be taken into consideration when the time came.