What Really Matters budget options, Improvement Board review, Foxfield School move, Byrne Avenue Recreation Centre, Rock Ferry High and Acre Lane sale, Fernbank Farm update, contracts and Wirral Council’s response to critical reports
The first half of last week saw each of the new policy and performance committees met to discuss the current What Really Matters? consultation on Wirral Council’s budget options for 2013-14.
The first policy and performance committee (Families and Wellbeing), which has a remit covering both education and social services met on Monday. As education and social care are about three-quarters of Wirral Council’s budget there was much discussion about what the impact of the budget options would be. At about two and a half hours long councillors asked questions of officers of the fifteen budget options that fell within the remit of the Families and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee. The budget options ranged from cutting £100,000 of funding to reduce teenage pregnancies and £60,000 to try to reduce substance misuse to getting schools to pay for school crossing patrols, the school improvement service and the early retirement costs of their staff (a saving of £1.215 million over two years). Another budget option (saving £2 million over two years) discussed was reducing the opening hours of twelve Children’s Centres. If this option is agreed then there will be a future public consultation on outsourcing the running of Wirral’s Children Centres to the private, faith or voluntary sector. As the What Really Matters consultation runs to the 6th December you can respond to the consultation by completing the questionnaire through the link on Wirral Council’s website.
The second policy and performance committee (Regeneration and Environment) met on Tuesday evening to discuss ten budget options. Being Guy Fawkes night what politicians said was at times drowned out by fireworks, however the meeting started with the unusual scene of a committee Vice-Chair (Cllr Steve Foulkes) arguing with its Chair (Cllr Alan Brighouse). Normally a committee’s Chair is of the same political party as the Vice-Chair, but as the Lib Dems only have one representative on the Regeneration and Environment Committee the Chair and Vice-Chair are from different parties. The source of Cllr Steve Foulkes’ ire towards Cllr Alan Brighouse was about a Oxton Lib Dem Focus in which Cllr Foulkes claimed that Cllr Alan Brighouse was critical (or at least was associated with critical comments about) the What Really Matters? consultation. The rest of the meeting was about the budget options ranging from the not particularly controversial (the Floral Pavilion or Floral Hall as one councillor called it charging a £1 booking fee on tickets), to the Friends of Birkenhead Kennels running Birkenhead Kennels resulting in its opening hours reducing to 8am to 8pm (from a twenty-four hour service), cancelling maintenance of the non-golf and non-football pitch parts of Arrowe Park as well as cancelling maintenance of “fourteen local parks, thirty-two natural and semi-natural green spaces, and forty-four amenity green spaces”, switching off more street lights (alternate lights in residential areas) to charging at car parks at Fort Perch Rock, Royden Park, Wirral Country Park, Eastham Country Park and Arrowe Country Park. The charging at these five car parks is particularly unpopular with the public and a petition against introducing car parking charges at Eastham Country Park has attracted over a thousand signatures.
Wednesday saw the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee meet to consider five budget options and there were more fireworks. Cllr Chris Blakeley who welcomed the new councillor Matthew Patrick followed by saying that “might be the only kind word you’ll hear from me” wanted the meeting adjourned and resumed after the consultation had finished. The four Conservative councillors voted for an adjournment but were outvoted by the Labour councillors, a Lib Dem councillor and an independent councillor. The budget options they discussed (although the Conservative councillors decided not to ask any questions after being outvoted over having an adjournment) was to axe the Council Tax discount of 7.76% to the over 70s (or in an option that saved less money limit the discount to Band A, B and C properties), increasing what Wirral Council charges for its costs for Magistrate’s Courts summons for Council Tax non-payment or business rates non-payment from £85 to £95, charging people extra when they use their credit card to pay Wirral Council for something, an option involving merging their telecommunications contracts, reviewing mobile phone usage and buying cheaper printing equipment and finally transforming Wirral Council (basically making five hundred staff redundant and reducing redundancy payments to the legal minimum).
Thursday saw a meeting of Wirral Council’s Cabinet. A revised recommendation for item 17 (progressing neighbourhood working including strategic reviews of street scene and community safety) was agreed that requested a further report and delegated future decisions about this area to individual Cabinet portfolio holders. The financial monitoring halfway through the Council’s financial year projected nearly a £600,000 underspend. However most of the underspend was agreed to be set aside to meet future restructuring costs with £100,000 released from reserves for spending to do with the Open Golf tournament next year. Cllr Phil Davies also made a comment about car parking charges and stated that the income from car parks had gone up this year to £1.4 million compared to £1.2 million the previous year (although not as much as expected). He singled out Cllr Stuart Kelly for particular criticism for commenting on the car parking charges shortfall in the press and used this opportunity (as many Wirral Labour councillors do) to blame their problems on the Coalition government finishing by calling on opposition councillors to “be more responsible”. He also reported that Wirral Council had received almost all of its Icelandic investment back and were confident of receiving the whole amount.
Cllr Ann McLachlan gave an update on the Improvement Board. There is current a consultation on a review of the Improvement Board’s work followed by a public question and answer session of the Improvement Board on Friday. As part of its review a report has been published which makes for interesting reading including the view of the Improvement Board that when it first started its work that Wirral Council was denying it had the corporate governance problems that were identified by the Improvement Board.
The outcome of the consultation on moving Foxfield School from Moreton to Woodchurch was also reported (the Planning Committee recently granted Wirral Council planning permission for the move) and Cabinet agreed to move the school. The Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee talked about a report produced as a review by councillors looking into the outcomes for looked after children. The report’s recommendations were agreed.
Ben Harrison of the Byrne Avenue Community Trust told the Cabinet that they had got agreement on £350,000 of funding (to match Wirral Council’s £350,000) and wanted to start work on repairing the sports hall. The Byrne Avenue Community Trust wanted to restore the building, creating employment and asked that the asset be transferred to the Byrne Avenue Community Trust. David Armstrong (the Assistant Chief Executive) talked about the history of the site, which was classed as a surplus Council asset. He pointed out that the big funders (Sports England and the National Lottery) had turned down grant applications from the Byrne Avenue Community Trust and that the Community Trust hadn’t submitted a business case to the Council. The Council’s view that was due to the presence of asbestos that the repairs would cost three or four times more than the £700,000 allocated to give it a lifespan beyond the short term and that it had very significant running costs. There were serious structural problems with the building and their concern would be that however well intentioned that it would only be partially restored. He referred to other sports facilities nearby that had been built over the last ten years. Cllr Phil Davies commented on it and his memories of the building.
Cllr Adrian Jones, the Cabinet Member for Central and Support Services expressed his regret at the unhappy position the Cabinet found themselves in. He showed photographs of rusting steel reinforced beams supported by steel acro bars that were rotting away and estimated the cost of repairs at two to three million pounds. He said that the £350,000 was desperately needed and wouldn’t be wasted or lost and that he was sure they’d go away painting him as the bad guy. Cllr Phil Davies said that the condition of the building was more serious than they’d originally been told and that £700,000 wouldn’t go near what was needed to bring it to a minimum safety standard. He referred to the nearby Oval and facilities at Prenton High School for Girls. The Cabinet agreed the recommendations in the report which were to retake possession of Byrne Avenue Recreation Centre from Byrne Avenue Community Trust, withdraw the offer of a £350,000 grant and reallocate it to other Community Asset Transfer activities, declare the asset surplus and give authority to its disposal and if sold on the open market to do so at auction. David Armstrong reassured the Byrne Avenue Community Trust that Wirral Council would allow them to make a photographic record and recover any of their property so that the community would have a record of Byrne Avenue Recreation Centre.
There was a slight change to the recommendation agreed in the report on asset management and disposals. Although Acre Lane (the former professional excellence centre) and the former Rock Ferry High school were both declared surplus to requirements, the land at Manor Drive (called Fernbank Farm) was not declared surplus to requirements due to the Birkenhead County Court case hearing on the 21st November. Cllr Phil Davies said that they had a challenge to try and find an alternative site for the pony club which he knew was much loved and cherished. He said that they wouldn’t lose anything by awaiting the outcome of the legal case and it was agreed that a decision on declaring Fernbank Farm would be deferred to the next Cabinet meeting (which would be after the court case on the 2nd December). This change to the original recommendation was agreed by Cabinet.
The Cabinet then agreed to note a report on proposed public health contracting arrangements for 2014/15 and to a further report in February 2014 which would include a recommendation to agree to all 2014/15 contracts. Cabinet also agreed the award of the reablement and domiciliary support contract to providers named in the exempt appendix.
Agreement to proceed with a joint procurement for garden waste (including the option of providing composting services in-house through the Parks and Countryside service) was agreed by Cabinet.
The Highways and Engineering Services Contract for 2014-2018 (currently run by Colas) was awarded to either BAM Nuttall, Galliford Try or North Midland Construction. The “preferred bidder” that Cabinet decided on was again in an exempt appendix. Approval to start a tender for a four year traffic signals maintenance contract (with an option for a two year extension and cost of £350,000 a year) was also given by the Cabinet.
A two year pilot of emergency accommodation for homeless sixteen and seventeen year olds was agreed by Cabinet. Finally Cllr Phil Davies welcomed the Council’s new Director of Resources (and s.151 officer) Vivienne Quayle and expressed his thanks to Jim Molloy and his work as Acting Director of Resources. The Cabinet then excluded the press and public from the remainder of the meeting which included two business grants to Wirral companies or businesses, the exempt appendix for the Reablement and Domiciliary Support Procurement contract, the exempt appendix for the Options Appraisal for the Future Treatment of Wirral’s Kerbside Collected Garden Waste, the exempt appendix for the Highway Services Contract 2014 – 2018 and exempt appendix for the Emergency Accommodation Provision for 16 and 17 Year Olds.
Later this week a special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee will consider a report on Wirral Council’s response to critical reports (2010 – 2013) and a review of the Improvement Board which includes a suggestion that Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Committee should co opt some independent members to itself.
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