Seeing as I went to the last one, I thought I’d pop along to another meeting of the Borough Council’s Cabinet.
Now that I recognise a couple of people from sight, and I know where people sit, it’s easier to work out what’s going on. Of course, because the Council is under the majority control of a single party the Cabinet is all from that party (Conservatives) and so there is less likely to be debate – they’ll already have had any discussions at their group meetings and the opposition can call decisions in for debate at Full Council (which is next Monday evening).
But there were a few interesting items. This time, the press were not around as far as I could see, but there were more backbench councillors in attendance (these can speak, but not vote). The leaders of the two opposition groups were there, Jim Shera for Labour and Jerry Roodhouse for the Lib Dems. Anyway, to the reports:
5. Finance and Performance Monitoring 2008/9 Outturn
Quite important this one – it’s how well the Council did at spending compared to the Budget it set last year. There was an overspend of about £225,000, on a budget that was already looking to be in deficit of £1,260,000 (based on the amount being taken from balances in the budget).
There are various reasons for the deficit. Some areas have done rather better than predicted (fees from Planning, Parking charges) and there was a positive adjustment to the money for Housing Benefit. However, Land Charges and Building control fees were lower due to a reduction in property buying and development which is clearly related to the credit crunch, house-price slump and recession.
The main areas of concern to me, however, were the £258,000 spend on Agency Staff, offset by only an £82,000 saving on other staffing costs, and the at least £200,000 in interest assumed to be lost because of the £3,000,000 that is frozen in Icelandic bank accoounts.
The latter may not be a result of bad decisions – I don’t know when Rugby BC last put money into an Icelandic bank, so it could have been before there were warnings about their state but not early enough to be able to draw down the investment. However, the large overspend on agency staff should be a concern. Some of these were explained, and some were offset against staffing vacancies or other cost savings, or supplied from grants.
Also in the report was a tally of the Key Performance Indicators for the last quarter, and while Cllr Humphreys said that “most were met, and more were very close to being met”, the case is that 33 out of 77 (43%) had failed, of which 20 (26%) were more than a 5% margin out.
Jerry Roodhouse asked if the Cabinet concerned about any of the failing indicators, to which the first answer was essentially ‘not really’. The Lib Dem leader pressed again “even the Customer Contact Center?”. Turns out that this is being looked at, and they think they will sort it out with a review. The first answer did come across as a little complacent.
6. Update of the Corporate Strategy key aims and targets
Not much to this one really that would be of immediate public concern, but it was interesting to note that Jim Shera asked why this report – and others – had not been sent to the opposition leaders and those councillors who led Scrutiny panels. This is actually fairly important, because it gives them as much information as possible so that they can consider the implications of policy changes before the Cabinet have pretty much decided what they want to do.
7. Joint Local Transport Review
Joint as in ‘along with Warwickshire County Council’, who are the lead authority on transport, particularly in terms of the road infrastructure (not the motorways and major trunks, which are under a national body). It was noted that improvements to Avon Mill Roundabout – a source of contention in one of the local paper letter pages recently – are being pressed for. No guarantees that WCC will make such improvements in the immediate short term though, but the Borough Council is lobbying for them.
11. Housing Inspection
It seems that a while ago, the Housing Service was in receipt of a critical report from the Audit Office. And it appears from this that another inspection soon afterwards has shown that while the service is still rated as ‘Fair’ (which is below target), the prospects for improvement were much greater. There has been a change in personnel at the top, which may well be making the difference. I remember at Crawley BC we had an entrenched chief officer who ran the Housing Department like a personal fiefdom, and when he was replaced it seemed to just coast. It’s really hard to turn around these departments, which often have low staff morale and a declining stock. I hope that they can do it.
13. Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) – Project Transform
Project Transform is an innocuous name for a major piece of work. Warwickshire CC, Coventry City Council and Solihull Borough are collaborating on a joint approach to waste disposal, with a view to massively increasing recycling and building a new plant to ‘turn waste into energy’. Of course, one way to turn waste into energy is to burn it, meaning a waste incinerator. Not that that’s the only way, but there are concerns that it will end up being the approach taken.
The other concern, voiced by Cllr Roodhouse, is that this would also involve a 25 year PFI deal, and with the change in economic circumstances since the project was started, it may be that any such deal is not set up in the best way for local authorities (and their taxpayers).
As it is, Rugby is the last local authority to sign a MoU, and it’s not a full legal contract, so we were assured that such concerns were being maintained.
Additional Item 1 – Concessionary Travel
Bus Passes in other words. This is not about changes to the scheme in place for Rubgy residents who qualify, it’s really about where it should be administered. Currently it is supposed to be at district level (Rugby BC). It could be at County level (and in practical terms many bus card schemes already operate across a county, even though the districts are responsible and pay for it), or perhaps regional or national. The report seems to lean towards wanting it to be transferred to the county. This would make sense in an area where the scheme is county-wide, simply by not having to have chunks of money keep moving about between town halls and county hall.