As this was the first full Council meeting since the local elections, the Leader welcomed the opportunity to record appreciation for the relatively smooth first few weeks for the newly elected Council. He had attended all the committee meetings, advisory boards and the majority of area planning committee meetings and had found the quality of scrutiny and debate to be of a high quality.
The Leader was pleased that the Motion on Climate Change had been adopted, so that crucially the Borough Council would review current activities for its contribution to improving the environment while considering additional measures.
Members were aware that in setting the budget for 2019/2010 in February, projections at that time suggested a funding gap between expenditure and income of circa £550,000. This ‘gap’ was translated into three savings and transformation contributions of £100,000, £400,000 and £50,000 to be achieved by the start of the year 2020/21, 2024/25 and 2028/29 respectively. Latest projections were that this had increased to over £600,000 highlighting why it was important to identify and implement opportunities to deliver at least this year’s savings and transformation contribution of £100,000. The funding gap would undoubtedly change many times throughout the year and the challenge sat alongside the cumulative savings of £2.5 million achieved since 2016 and the cumulative savings in excess of £4m achieved over the past 6-7 years.
The Leader advised that Cabinet recently reviewed both the Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) and the Savings and Transformation Strategy (STS), with a view to identifying and considering opportunities for both income generation and savings in the medium term. The immediate task was to meet this year’s saving tranche and the Overview and Scrutiny Committee had been tasked to review three areas: the community safety function, including CCTV provision and the role of the Community Safety Unit; Disabled Facilities Grants; and the Borough Council’s Public Health Function.
As of 31 March 2019, the final collection rate for Council Tax, for the year 2018/19, was 98.91%; and for Business Rates, 99.42%. Once again, both of these collection rates were the highest in Kent.
The Borough Council had recently received two Geoplace Exemplar awards for local address data quality in 2019 and congratulations were extended to the officers in achieving this accolade. Both awards recognised quantifiable benefits to residents of the ‘My Account’ facility on the website. The judges also focussed on evidence of both savings delivered and collaboration across the Council for service delivery whilst meeting a clear user need.
Officers continued active dialogue with the Planning Inspectors regarding the submitted Local Plan and remained confident that all of the Inspectors’ questions could be responded to. It was likely that there would be further engagement on some specific supplementary material over the summer and early autumn and as soon as this was agreed with the Inspectors Members would be updated.
Members were advised that a bid was made last November to the Government’s Garden Communities Programme in respect of the proposed Borough Green Gardens Scheme that was included in the Local Plan. The outcome of a competitive bidding process was that Borough Green Gardens was one of 19 new garden villages announced in the programme.
This had resulted in an award of £150,000 to help fund the project and was a welcome acknowledgement of the opportunities that the new development would provide. While Borough Green Gardens could be delivered without any further financial assistance, the importance of the early delivery of the relief road and other important infrastructure had been emphasised throughout the plan making process. The Borough Council could now plan for the best possible development and looked forward to working with a range of partners to progress towards the delivery of a sustainable community that benefited from high quality design and much needed investment in infrastructure, in a timely manner in parallel with the submitted Local Plan.
Waste Services Contract
The Leader reported that the new waste contract had started successfully and at future meetings of the Street Scene and Environment Services Advisory Board, Members would receive performance updates against a range of performance indicators.
Subscriptions for the garden waste service were going extremely well with over 9000 residents signed up already and represented 55% of the annual target. This uptake had been helped by some creative marketing overseen by the Member Working Group, the latest example of which was bin hangers on every resident’s bin reminding them to not miss out on the early bird discount that would close on 2 August.
The Borough Council was getting closer to the start of the commencement of the new service arrangements on 30 September, and the delivery of the garden waste bins would start in a couple of weeks with the food waste caddies being delivered to every household in the Borough in August.
Before the new service started every resident would receive an information booklet through the post to explain the new arrangements and the website would continue to be updated.
The Council’s work with partner councils and organisations to engage with rough sleepers continued and a total of £250,000 had been received from central government to fund pilot programmes. The Borough Council was also actively working on the options for a night shelter and in the coming months it was hoped to formally launch the Severe Weather Action Protocol, which was trialled last winter and already had many partners involved.
The Borough Council had now adopted a new Economic Regeneration Strategy for the period 2019-2023. The Strategy set out a vision which aimed to: "Maximise the unique strengths of the local area to help create a resilient, dynamic and inclusive economy that fosters sustainable growth in the Borough."
In order to achieve this, a number of key objectives, each underpinned by a number of activities had been identified: Planning for economic growth; obtaining funding for key infrastructure; supporting skills and work-readiness among school students; creating an environment that supported local business; helping the town centres to become resilient during a time of change; promoting tourism and supporting the rural economy.
The Leader was pleased to have hosted a business networking event in Tonbridge last Wednesday for a number of small business owners from across the Borough. Similar events had been held last year in Tonbridge, Snodland and Kings Hill and it was intended to have a rolling programme of similar events across the Borough.
Since formally launching the New Shopfront Improvement Grant Scheme to enhance the town and district centres at the end of March, a scheme supported by Business Rate Retention pilot, the Leader was pleased to report that 11 applications had now been approved equating to a total grant contribution of £29,000.
Members would have read that Hadlow College was placed in administration by the Secretary of State for Education and that West Kent and Ashford College was in financial difficulties. While this was an alarming position, both colleges remained open with no immediate impact on teaching staff and students.
The FE Commissioner had now invited expressions of interest for the management of both colleges which were currently being assessed and a decision as to the preferred bidder was expected within the next few weeks. The Chief Executive and the Leader had been invited by the FE Commissioner to speak to members of his team and make the case of the provision of further education in West Kent.