For those of you who read the preview to the Overview and Scrutiny committee, here is the outcome, put together by It’s Our County Cllr Liz Harvey
Herefordshire Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee sat for the first time in 2012 on the morning of Monday 16th January … and, although the subject matter was dry and the meeting papers hefty it proved to be a lively session in the Brockington Council Chamber.
Questions from members of the public
The committee started off by getting very cross when it was suggested that the four questions that had been submitted by the public on matters relating to the performance of Hereford Futures, were rather too complicated to be responded to in committee and that written answers would be formulated outside the meeting. No copies of these questions were provided to committee members. When the meeting began. It’s Our County’s Jim Kenyon said:
‘Not Good Enough! Everyone on this committee has had to wade through the best part of 200 pages of close-typed text and figures, provided at only a couple of days’ notice, in preparation for this meeting. If members of the public are concerned enough to write to this committee then I for one, want to hear what it is they have to say.’
Committee chairman, Alan Seldon (Independent) insisted that all questions received were circulated to committee members as normal. He commented that it was essential that the public retained every confidence in the Overview and Scrutiny process, and requested that officers provide written answers to the outstanding questions in time for the committee’s scheduled meeting in two days’ time on 18th January.
And so to the first big item:
Amey performance metrics
Members weren’t happy with the report on the performance measures of Amey, it was not detailed enough to make a judgement. The committee took a dim view of it and as a result a more detailed report is being rushed out to members which will be discussed at the full committee at a later date.
And so the second big item
Once again, It’s Our County councillors were by far and away the most actively engaged members of the committee in scrutinising the draft budget reports which will go to Cabinet later this week.
Mark Hubbard and Liz Harvey raised serious concerns regarding the change in the council’s plans for spending the 2.5% council tax ‘grant’ (£2.2m) the council is proposing to accept from central government to freeze council tax for a further 12 months. At last month’s cabinet it was agreed that this money should be accepted, but that it would be ring-fenced and used to accelerate efficiency measures and reorganisation of council services to deliver lasting savings which would negate the need to increase the council tax by as much as 5% in 2013-14 to account for the ‘grant’ terminating and assumed inflation of 2.5%.
Now the council is proposing for only £1.2m to be spent on ‘transformational changes’ … the remaining £1m being set aside for ‘budget contingency’ in the Adult Services area of the People’s Directorate. Liz Harvey said:
‘This is a worrying shift in position which looks like the council is proposing an unconstitutional change to a key decision barely a month after making it. To propose to set aside nearly half the ‘grant’ to cover overspends rather than use it to implement efficiencies needed to ensure the tax payer won’t be facing even higher council tax bills in a year’s time is like me asking the bank for a loan to insulate my house to make permanent savings on my heating bills and then spending half the money pouring petrol into my car.’
As a result, the Council Leader gave an undertaking that the money would be clearly earmarked in the budget papers for Cabinet to support the implementation of further efficiencies in Adult Services, rather than be held back in case they failed to make the service improvements already being planned.
Mark Hubbard went on to challenge the statement in the cabinet budget pack that in future developer contributions from building projects across the county could be used to pay for ‘day-to-day services’. Committee members agreed that changing the use of this money away from tangible local investment and infrastructure projects to pay for the running of every-day services was a total change in how Section 106 developer monies were normally used. Mark Hubbard commented:
‘This proposal smacks of desperation. Is the council really proposing that we cover the county with houses so we can spend the developer monies generated on running essential Council services, things we should have the money for from council tax and other grants?’
Cllr Hubbard also questioned why the council was proposing to borrow £27m to pay for a link road within Hereford when this had previously been strategized as infrastructure development which would be carried out by developers involved in the Edgar Street Grid retail complex. He asked:
‘Why are Herefordshire tax payers now being asked to foot the bill for another road in the city? Are developers so reticent to commit to this project, and the council so desperate to see it succeed, that the county is being asked to provide a £27m carrot before Stanhope will even put a spade in the ground? What’s the problem here? I think we should be told.’
Future Work: Committee work programme
Committee members expressed frustration at the number of items already clogging up the work programme and the slow pace at which the Task and Finish Group is delivering reports. Committee members admitted to feeling overwhelmed with the work involved as further items were added to the list of topics for review. Included in future work is:
Legal Services – performance review and strategy for future operation
Information Communication Technology – review of strategy for enabling service provision, policy delivery and new working practices
Separate reviews of Local Development Framework consultation responses and Transport Strategy prior to public consultation
Following the fracas over letters from the public and Cllr Hubbard’s comments on the plans for road infrastructure borrowing in 2012, committee members requested that another new item be added to the work programme – for urgent attention …..
Performance Review of Hereford Futures
Conclusions, It’s Our County are doing all the work
Important Scrutiny work is being done by the three It’s Our County councillors on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. You have to pinch yourself to remember but it consists of 16 people, but few of them apart from It’s Our County raised their voices. Some didn’t ask a single question. The hard work was largely left to It’s Our County Cllrs Hubbard, Harvey and Kenyon. Even It’s Our County observers racked up a creditable six interventions during the course of the meeting.
How long is IOC expected to continue to carry the responsibility for the vast majority of the scrutiny process in this council?