Purpose of the report:For the Select Committee to receive an update from the Cabinet Member for Corporate Support and Cabinet Member for Finance on progress against their priorities and objectives.
Dr Zully Grant-Duff, Cabinet Member for Corporate Support
Mel Few, Cabinet Member for Finance
Leigh Whitehouse, Executive Director of Resources and Section 151 Officer
Key points raised during the discussion:
1. A Member enquired what the key dates were for the Coroner’s Service Local Government Accountability and Performance (LGAP) review and when findings for this would be received. The Cabinet Member for Corporate Support responded that the report would be available at the end of December 2019.
2. A Member assumed that the new ‘single front door’ system in customer services, whereby customers would be assisted as early as possible by the customer services team, rather than by a more specialised team, had been the default system for some time already. They queried the impact there would be on the contact centre with the new system. The Cabinet Member for Corporate Support confirmed that there had indeed always been a ‘single front door’ in the form of a contact centre, but that now enquiries that would previously have been referred to a specific service at an earlier stage were being triaged and resolved at the contact centre. Enquiries were only referred to a specific service when they needed specialised attention.
3. A Member asked how the new single front door system would translate to more effective services for residents. The Cabinet Member for Corporate Support indicated that the new system was more effective because it was more efficient, as the volume of enquiries that required specialised attention was reduced.
4. The Cabinet Member for Finance reported that the results of periods six and seven showed improvement on the budget shortfall to just over £1 million. The initial indications of period eight showed an estimated shortfall of around £500,000, meaning that the gap in the budget was closing.
5. A Member questioned whether the £8.5 million overspend in Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) had been reduced or whether measures had been taken elsewhere in the budget to compensate. The Cabinet Member for Finance confirmed that compensatory measures had been taken. A SEND board was being set up to focus directly on the causes and effects of rising demand and cost of the SEND service.
6. The Committee questioned how much of the improvement in the budget position was due to the capitalisation of costs in highways. The Cabinet Member for Finance stated that about £4.5 million was capitalised and it was based on a reassessment of what was being charged into the roads and repairs costs. The Executive Director added that not capitalising highway costs previously was an omission, it was explained that some works had been charged to capital and some to revenue, and capitalising now had brought the council in line with current accounting practice.
7. A Member queried a reference in the report to the majority of capital projects being completed in the financial year, and asked for this to be quantified. The Executive Director replied that in this meant a vast majority, and that the budget monitoring report set out an estimate of what would be delivered; however, that estimate was not really quantifiable, but rather an assertion of being on track.
8. A Member queried the restructuring of the Finance Service. The Executive Director detailed two significant changes: in January 2019, the 10 most senior finance posts had been restructured and during the summer around 70 posts had been restructured. The recruitment for that had been finished internally in September 2019, with a start date of the 1 November 2019. There were still about five vacancies outstanding, which would be looked at in January 2020. Nine out of the 10 most senior finance posts were filled permanently, and the remaining one was filled on a temporary basis.
9. The Committee wished to know how many Assistant Directors there were in the Property Service. The Executive Director responded that there were four assistant director roles, with two in post, and appointments made to the two remaining roles, start dates for which would be in March 2020.
10. A Member asked whether costs would increase and services would become more expensive in the long run as capitalising went ahead and, for example, interest and minimum revenue provision (MRP) were charged. The Executive Director informed the Select Committee that there was a revenue budget to cover the cost of that work, which would be taken as a saving in the current year, and therefore that capital expenditure would be funded either through capital receipts or borrowing. If it was the latter then that charge would be made over a period of years and require the interest and the MRP to be charged to revenue. This would be budgeted for on an ongoing basis for that year, and for the following year it was proposed that the existing revenue budget would be used to fund the capital works through a direct contribution to capital, in which case, there would not be any such impact.
11. A Member questioned how this version of a corporate landlord model would be successful where previous versions had not. The Cabinet Member for Finance advised that the corporate landlord system meant that property would have the final say. At the moment, an individual service might choose a specific development and request that property obtain this development for them. Under the corporate landlord system, however, an individual service would request provision for a certain number of facilities in certain locations, and then property would find and obtain suitable developments on the service’s behalf. This was agreed to be a more efficient arrangement.
12. A Member queried whether the Property Service could secure deals with the NHS for spare space within NHS developments. The Cabinet Member for Finance responded that deals were being worked on as part of devolution to share spaces between the NHS and the council and there would be a property overview to put buildings into maximum use for all services.
13. A Member was critical of the NHS’s management of property and praised the possibility of a new, flexible and agile approach to property within the council. The notion that this flexible and agile approach could be brought to the NHS’s property team was in the interest of residents. New opportunities for cooperation and devolution might speed up the process by which properties in the public estate could be used for the public benefit.
14. The Committee raised the People for Places partnership, approved by Cabinet in 2018, and questioned why this had not yet delivered. The Cabinet Member for Finance stated that this was partly due to a change of staff; the people who had developed these arrangements had left the organisation. The new Head of Property had now taken on the issue. There were a number of problems that had to be dealt with, such as valuation of the properties.