Agenda and draft minutes

Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee - Thursday, 8th December, 2022 7.00 pm

Venue: Committee Room 2, CO3, Civic Offices, New Road, Grays, RM17 6SL

Contact: Lucy Tricker, Senior Democratic Services Officer  Email: Direct.Democracy@thurrock.gov.uk

Media

Items
No. Item

16.

Minutes pdf icon PDF 88 KB

To approve as a correct record the minutes of the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committeemeeting held on 6 October 2022.

 

The minutes of the Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA) meeting held on 20 October 2022 are attached for the Committee’s information.

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Minutes:

The minutes of the meeting held on 6 October 2022 were approved as a true and correct record.

17.

Items of Urgent Business

To receive additional items that the Chair is of the opinion should be considered as a matter of urgency, in accordance with Section 100B (4) (b) of the Local Government Act 1972. To agree any relevant briefing notes submitted to the Committee.

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Minutes:

There were no items of urgent business.

18.

Declaration of Interests

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Minutes:

There were no interests declared.

19.

Report of the Cabinet Member for Central Services pdf icon PDF 206 KB

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Minutes:

Councillor Duffin introduced the report and thanked officers in the directorate for their hard work throughout the year. He drew the Committee’s attention to the Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) which had received a £2million grant from central government and had introduced 85 sites covering 75km of fibre cables in rural areas throughout the borough, including Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham. He stated that 89% of Freedom of Information requests had been resolved within 20 days, and although the team were above the Council’s target, they were working to achieve 100%. He added that 98,000 Thurrock residents were subscribed to the e-newsletter, with an approximate open rate of 65%. He stated that the new Digital and Customer Strategy had been agreed by the Committee and Cabinet, and he felt this would help improve transparency within the Council and help residents engage with the Council in a more efficient manner. Councillor Duffin explained that he wished to introduce a new portal for customers to contact the Council, which would mean residents would be able to track their enquiry and would be able to copy multiple people into the enquiry. He felt that this process automation would mean a more efficient Council, but would be a longer-term project. He summarised and stated that the Digital and Customer Strategy would not exclude people who still wished to contact the Council through non-digital channels, and would give officers more time to deal with non-digital enquiries.

Councillor Carter queried the 65% open rate of the e-newsletter and asked if the open rate fluctuated from month to month, and if this had increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Councillor Duffin stated that he would take this query away and would respond after the Committee. He added that the Digital and Customer Strategy also allowed for the implementation of new ideas such as a star-rating or qualitative feedback after an enquiry had been handled. He felt that this would provide data on which departments were handling enquiries well and could be used as best-practice examples, and which departments needed some work. He stated that reports on this data could be brought back to the Committee. Councillor Arnold expressed concerns regarding residents who wished to contact the Council via non-digital channels. He asked what Thurrock were doing differently compared to other local authorities and if benchmarking data was being collected. Councillor Duffin replied that the contact centre would remain, which would allow residents to contact the Council via non-digital channels. He stated that a piece of work was currently ongoing regarding the final offering of the Digital Strategy which would look at best practice examples from other local authorities, and would consider all processes within the Council, and this would help improve services for residents.

Councillor Kent queried the Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) rollout and stated that currently only 48% of Thurrock residents had access to fibre broadband. He queried the timescales for full-fibre rollout across the borough. Councillor Duffin explained that there was no timescale for full-fibre rollout as  ...  view the full minutes text for item 19.

20.

Corporate Peer Challenge 2022 Update pdf icon PDF 100 KB

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Minutes:

The Director of Strategy, Engagement and Growth introduced the report and stated that the Corporate Peer Challenge had been undertaken in January 2022, which had been led by the Local Government Association and officer/Member peers from other local authorities. She stated that the LGA and peers had met with staff Members and partners, and their report had been received in Spring 2022. She explained that from this report an action plan had been developed and published on the Council’s website in June 2022. The Director of Strategy, Engagement and Growth explained that government intervention had begun in September 2022 which saw work start to develop an Improvement and Recovery Plan, and which could show similar themes from the Corporate Peer Challenge actions. She felt that the Corporate Peer Challenge would be subsumed by the Improvement and Recovery Plan, which would be shared with Members in the New Year and taken to the appropriate Full Council meeting. She stated that the process was iterative and would also feed information in from the Best Value Inspection.

The Chair highlighted that the report felt the Council took the lead on too many projects, and subsequently damaged its reputation with stakeholders. The Chair asked what had changed regarding this issue since the publication of the action plan. The Director of Strategy, Engagement and Growth explained that the Council had previously taken the lead on many projects with a range of partners, such as the Health and Wellbeing Strategy, the Economic Development Strategy implementation plan, and the Thames Freeport. She stated that the Council now had an opportunity to review and reprioritise major projects, and allow the voluntary and private sectors to take the lead when they were best placed to do so. Councillor Kent stated that Members had spoken to the LGA regarding the Corporate Peer Challenge in January 2022, and the report was only being presented to the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee one year later. He felt that the report was now out of date due to the Improvement and Recovery Plan, and asked why the report had not been presented to Members earlier, and sought assurance that the Improvement and Recovery Plan would be shared with Members. The Leader agreed with Councillor Kent that the report should have been shared with the Committee earlier. He felt that the Council needed to resolve the issues with finances, but also needed to undergo a cultural change and remove the culture of secrecy through leadership. The Chair agreed that the amount of time that had passed since the peer review had taken place devalued the report, and asked officers to ensure the Improvement and Recovery Plan was distributed to Members in a timely way. The Leader explained that the Improvement and Recovery Plan was an iterative process and would need to be agreed by the Secretary of State before being shared with Members.

RESOLVED: That the Committee:

1. Noted the outcomes of the LGA Corporate Peer Challenge in January 2022 and the actions as  ...  view the full minutes text for item 20.

21.

Financial Update - Quarter 2 2022/23 pdf icon PDF 238 KB

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Minutes:

The Interim Director of Finance introduced the report and highlighted paragraph 3 on page 39 of the agenda which stated that Thurrock Council was currently in a grave financial position, with a £469m deficit in the current year, and a £184m deficit for 2023/24. He explained that these deficits were mainly from investments and page 40 of the agenda provided a breakdown of the current position, including a write-down on investments, prudential borrowing, and further losses from investment income. He explained that the Council could undertake limited mitigation to reduce the deficit to £452m, as set out in the table on page 40, but exceptional financial support (EFS) would still be required from central government and a Section 114 notice would likely be issued before Christmas. The Interim Director of Finance explained that the most significant balances related to the write-down of the valuations of four investments, the most significant of which were the solar investments. He explained that the Council’s position also reflected forward compliance with the new prudential code that would come into effect in April 2024. He explained that the position on investments had a long way to run, and the Council were currently quantifying issues surrounding this investment to form the basis of further discussions with central government. He added that there was only limited mitigation to date. He stated that the EFS request to central government was expected to be sent next week, but the government had been engaged with the process and had seen the report being presented to this Committee.

The Interim Director of Finance continued and outlined the Medium-Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) position, which he felt was also worrying as the Council continued to identify problems with the ongoing impact of investments. He highlighted Table 2 on page 41 of the agenda that outlined the ongoing impact of these issues, which totalled approximately £167m in addition to the Council’s operational budget. He explained that if the Council divested their investments, then this would reduce interest costs and Minimum Revenue Position (MRP) costs, but the Council would continue to be in a deficit position. The Interim Director of Finance explained that the divestment strategy was ongoing, particularly regarding the solar investment assets, which were now likely to be sold from within an administration process, and noted that the administrator had recently appointed KPMG to lead on the sale of these assets. He was hopeful that the sale of this asset would happen within two years.

The Interim Director of Finance stated that although the investment figures were large, this should not detract from underlying issues, as regardless of the investment figures the Council had already had to use temporary measures to balance the budget in 2022/23, such as the use of reserves and capital receipts. He commented that this had been a problem before the investment issues, and the Council now needed to prove that it could become a sustainable Council in the future. He highlighted the Commissioner comments on page 42 of  ...  view the full minutes text for item 21.

22.

Local Council Tax Scheme pdf icon PDF 136 KB

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Minutes:

The Strategic Lead – Revenues and Benefits introduced the report and stated that it set out the Council’s obligations to consider the Local Council Tax Scheme (LCTS), which set out the level of support that working aged people could receive annually. He stated that the LCTS remained unchanged for 2023/24, as the level of complaints had been low, but the level of collections had been high in 2022/23. Councillor Kent stated that the number of claimants of LCTS had reduced over the past year, and asked if officers expected to see a rise next year due to the cost-of-living crisis. The Strategic Lead – Revenues and Benefits stated that the team were expecting to see a rise in the number of claimants due to a predicted rise in unemployment in the borough.

RESOLVED: That the Committee:

1. Noted the analysis of the current scheme.

2. Supported the recommendation that the current scheme remains unchanged for 2023/24.

23.

Work Programme pdf icon PDF 61 KB

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Minutes:

The Chair proposed an update report on the future of Coalhouse Fort, as this would link to the Thameside, and Asset Management reports scheduled for February. This was agreed by the Committee.