Agenda item

Question and Answer Session with the Leader of the Council and Chief Executive


The Committee received a presentation on the strategic context and priorities form the Chief Executive which noted the following:


·                 The response to Covid-19 would continue to dominate the work of the Council for the next 9 to 12 months.


·                 There had been significant service pressures caused by the pandemic.


·                 Strategic priorities were explained to be what could be done alongside the response and recovery from the pandemic.  This included the delivery of core Council services with the extra demand, the HSDP and wider regeneration strategy, the accommodation strategy, health and social care integration, the equalities, diversity and inclusion agenda.


·                 It was mentioned that the winter months would likely bring challenges to the NHS and Social Care due to flu season and Covid-19.


·                 The council’s ability to restart paused activities that were pre-Covid-19 would be limited.


The Leader of the Council also added that staff would continue to be impacted by the pandemic as it was still on going and that staff have worked with very little breaks which was a factor that others should be mindful of when the recovery to the pandemic begins.


The Chair thanked them for the presentation and then opened the floor to the Committee for questions that related to the following topics which were answered as followed:


The Covid-19 Pandemic


Q.  How many staff had been put on furlough related to the issues of health?


The Chief Executive explained that no Council staff had been furloughed because it was not necessary and also would have been frowned upon for public sector employers to furlough staff.  When it came to sickness absence and self-isolation from Covid-19 had always been relatively manageable.


Q.  Was there an understanding on the long-term impact long-covid would have on our social care provision?


The Chief Executive noted though this could be a pressure that the social care provision could be faced with in the future it relatively not impacted social care.  However, one of the biggest challenges that social care had been faced with was that the elderly that survived the pandemic had been debilitated further by the pandemic.  It was also found that there was an element of catching up on elective care and delivering a higher level of aftercare packages to those who had been discharged from hospital.


This was followed up by a Member of the Committee noting that those with long-covid could have relied on family when restrictions were in place but may now have to rely on social care when those restrictions would be eased.  The Chief Executive agreed and noted that another challenge could be that many people who caught long-covid may not be eligible for social care.


Q.  It was mentioned that how the pandemic had affected Council priorities.  What has the impact been on the Council’s core services?


The Chief Executive explained that core services were running reasonably normally as it was aimed to keep services operating to a reasonable level however, it had not been possible to be as responsive as the Council would have liked.


Q.  How far into the future do you anticipate the Council being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in its day-to-day work?


The Chief Executive noted that they believed it would affect the Council’s work over the next 9 to 12 months.  Work would be impacted in a number of different ways, and it was believed that there would be extreme pressure during the winter months.  There could also be a significant spike in unemployment, housing could be seen as challenge for the future as well as pressures in social care.


Council Finance


Q.  Regarding the gap in the capital budget and the impact on interest is quite significant and going up from £38.7m this year to £43.6m next year.  This would mean the 25% of the revenue budget would be taken up by interest payments from the capital budget.  What would be the Council’s plan for reducing this?


The Director of Finance explained that there was a plan for the capital programme and that an element of this would be grant funding and would need to ensure that adjustments were made for that.  The Director also noted that the figures quoted were not just interest payments but were also the Council’s minimum revenue provision and the interest payment.  The interest payment was circa £12m and that it was important to ensure that it was understood that it was not just capital financing.  The Director of Finance then went on to explain the minimum revenue provision was a sum that needed to be set aside from the Council’s revenue budget in order for the capital programme to be funded.


Ove the last couple of years there had been a stringent approach to the capital programme with clear categories of what went into the capital programmes were set out, so that additional financing being added to the budget could be prevented and for this approach to be continued.


The Committee Member followed up by asking if any capital projects were in place to reduce the interest payment amount, as this would still be affecting the Council’s day-to-day revenue spending.


The Director of Finance referred to the modernisation funding, which was funded through capital receipts but was important to remember that the Council had not been funded for any additional capital expenditure and so had to be internally funded, which for the modernisation, the government had allowed.


The Director of Finance also noted that they were aware of the Council’s debt and had planned to dispose of some property in order for some debt to be offset.  The Council also had to ensure that debts were not paid off too early to avoid early payment penalties.


The Deputy Leader of the Council mentioned that the capital was flexible using the money available in the ways that were possible and reducing debt had been a topic that was present in our conversations.


Q.  What were the lesson learnt from other Councils in financial difficulties?


The Director of Finance gave assurance by noting that when other Councils have been found to struggle financial the Council had compared its own audit practices to those struggling in order to make sure an element had not been missed.  Commercial investments were something the Council had done at a minimum level compared to other Councils who had borrowed much higher amounts for commercial investments.


Capital flexibilities were another factor where other Councils had been seen to use their capital flexibilities which was circa £70m, whereas Harrow Council’s use of capital flexibilities over five years came to circa £12m.  This highlighted that Harrow Council have used these tools responsibly and in a way that could be managed.  In addition, it could be said that our use of the capital flexibilities was for one off payments towards modernisation as opposed to building it into annual costs which would not be very sustainable.  Harrow Council had also monitored its revenue on a monthly basis compared to some authorities that had monitored their revenue either quarterly or bi-annually.


Q.  Given the lack of a long-term funding settle in the health and social care white paper, how confident was the Council to meet the financial pressure over the coming years?


The Director of Finance noted that this would be a challenge and one of the biggest pressures against the budget.  Monitoring was very tight over budgets and the Council would have to meet those pressures and would need to wait to see what the Council’s settlements were in terms of what additional grants would be received next year.


The Chief Executive added that we would need to meet those social care needs and that it would be other services where there would be discretion in the budget.




A member of the Committee noted that the previous item’s presentation was very useful and that it would also be good to have regular reviews or updates about other protected characteristics.


Performance issues and Consultations


Q.  Regarding customer service and residents’ ability to contact the Council, it seems to be harder for residents to contact the council since the move to an internet platform.  How could this be addressed and how can we help residents who struggle to contact the Council in a better way?


The Chief Executive responded by noting that the pandemic has exacerbated this issue as there used to be staff who could help residents face to face in the Civic Centre help access services that were only online.  The turbulence of demand caused by lockdowns had also overwhelmed the system.  What had been planned was for the number of access points to be expanded within the Borough’s libraries, to help meet demand and provide better access to services.


A Member of the Committee followed this up by highlighting certain features on the Council’s website were not fully equipped to handle particular issues that residents had.  To which the Leader of the Council noted that there were plans to help residents access services who don’t have access to the internet and that the move to the new 8x8 telephone system should give better access to residents contacting the council by phone.


The Chief Executive noted that though certain aspects of this service could be improved there were challenges during the pandemic that required Council Staffs’ capabilities that ultimately hindered other services, such as delivering business grants during the pandemic.


Q.  What consultation has the Housing Service had with the Council?  There were a couple of issues such as the services from Mount Vernon were planned to be moved to various locations and St Mary’s being transferred to central Middlesex.  Had there been consultation with the Council on these plans?


The Chief Executive mentioned that no formal consultation had taken place with the Council and that technically there would not have been a requirement for the health service to consult the Council.  There had been engagement and information from the health service on the Mount Vernon relocation, but for the transfer to central Middlesex this was not a permanent change therefore a consultation was not required.


The Leader of the Council added that at a national level a consultation had taken place on Mount Vernon hospital which was still on-going.


Q.  A concern around consultation was the approach the Council had taken in the past, surrounding feedback not being properly gathered and a lack of communication with residents.  How can the Council improve its approach to consultation?


The Chief Executive expressed that consultation and engagement had been conducted extensively with regards to the HSDP and that the Council’s plans and proposals were well known and understood.


The LTN project was a difficult situation and could have been handled better, however the Council’s communication and engagement with the public about the Pandemic had been very good.


The Member of the Committee followed up by saying that there were changes to the resident’s environment that seemed to only be noticed after the changes had happened, for example planning permissions and CPZ’s and it would be the Council’s reputation that would be affected.  To which the Chief Executive agreed that work could be done better culturally.


The Leader of the Council added that residents could sign up for alerts using the portal and was well used and on bigger consultations letters have been sent out to the wider community.


Q.  Regarding Ward Councillor consultations, could there be a recommitment to this?  As this does not seem to be happening as much as it should.


The Chief Executive was happy to do so and was something that could be improved upon.


General strategic direction of the Council


Q.  Could the Committee be provided with an update on the borough plans?


The Chief Executive reported that there would be an update in Autumn on the progress against delivery of the key priorities within the borough plan and mentioned that good progress had been made on a number of areas despite the challenges of the pandemic and the capacity that the pandemic had taken out of the system.


It had been asked if it was possible to restart the engagement process around the borough plan and what were the top priorities given the resources available.  The answers to these points were yet to be answered would be present in conversations at the next Cabinet meeting.  A refocus around certain priorities may be needed as things have changed in past 12 months which should be factored in what the Council could do in the next financial year.


Q.  How would tackling overcrowding be reflected in planning policy and on-going work done by the Council?


The Chief Executive outlined that the HSDP was put into place for a significant number of homes to be generated as well as other development projects in Harrow, this is because more affordable homes were required.  Opportunities for overcrowding to be addressed would come through the local plan which has been going out to consultation.


The Member of the Committee followed up by highlighting that while it was important to meet demand for the number of houses being built but it was also crucial for the correct type of home to be built also.  The Chief Executive agreed and noted that the market would drive the meet the need and demand.  In addition, the Leader of the Council also noted that larger housing had been featured in plans which explained the reduction in the number of houses planned to be built which were originally houses with fewer bedrooms.




Q.  Could the Committee receive an update on the lack of diversity of the HSDP Board?


The Chief Executive noted that conversations had taken place and was being looked into.


Q.  What evidence is there that safeguarding has been considered for the HSDP projects?


The Chief Executive explained that the appropriate risk assessments would be done when the Council moves to its new facility and when other parts of the project are at an appropriate stage.


The Member of the Committee followed this up and highlighted that it was important to have a statement of intent that safeguarding will be part of the planning process.  To which the Chief Executive explained that the appropriate risk assessments and staff consultations would take place.


RESOLVED:  That the presentation be noted.

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