Meeting Details

Policy Panel
24 Nov 2021 - 18:00
  • Documents
  • Attendance
  • Visitors
  • Declarations of Interests



Part A
The Panel will be asked to appoint a Chairman for the remainder of the 2021-22 Municipal Year.
RESOLVED that Councillor Chris Pearson be appointed Chairman for the remainder of the Municipal Year.
The Panel will be asked to appoint a Deputy Chairman for the remainder of the 2021-22 Municipal Year.
RESOLVED that Councillor Sam McCarthy be appointed Deputy Chairman for the remainder of the Municipal Year.
3 Welcome and Announcements
The Chairman will welcome members of the public and Councillors to the meeting and remind those participating to mute their microphones when not talking. The Chairman will invite all Councillors and Officers participating in the meeting to introduce themselves.
4 Substitutions
Councillors will be asked to say if they are attending on behalf of a Committee member who is absent.
5 Urgent Items
The Chairman will announce if there is any item not on the published agenda which will be considered because it is urgent and will explain the reason for the urgency.
6 Declarations of Interest
Councillors will be asked to say if there are any items on the agenda about which they have a disclosable pecuniary interest which would prevent them from participating in any discussion of the item or participating in any vote upon the item, or any other pecuniary interest or non-pecuniary interest.
7 Minutes of Previous Meeting
The Councillors will be invited to confirm that the minutes of the meeting held on 22 September 2021 are a correct record.
Concern was raised by a Member of the Panel that the plans for a Covid-19 memorial blossom circle were already agreed and planting about to begin, even though the Panel were expecting to receive a formal report on options in order to be able to make recommendations to Cabinet regarding this before plans were finalised. It was argued that the site chosen, Kings Head Meadow [North of Castle Park, Colchester], was not accessible for members of the public with reduced mobility and was not appropriate. Other Panel members agreed and voiced concern that the Panel had been circumvented, having expected the matter to come back before the Panel so that recommendations could be made to the Portfolio Holder. There was also no chance to call in the decision. Panel members posited that a message should be sent to Cabinet that communications need to be better, in the spirit of cooperation and goodwill, and that the Panel must be given opportunities to make recommendations.

Rory Doyle, Assistant Director – Environment, explained that the intention had not been to mislead the Panel and that the plan had been to take the proposed site for approval by the Portfolio Holder and report back to the Policy Panel. Other commemoration actions were planned. Insufficient funding was available for planting multiple blossom circle sites across the whole Borough unless external funding was sourced. Officers were looking at alternatives which could be rolled out or supported.

Panel members expressed dissatisfaction that members had not been briefed on the blossom circle going ahead and instead learned about it via the local newspaper. A Panel member informed the Panel that Sir Bob Russell, High Steward of Colchester, also had concerns regarding the location of the blossom circle and had been told that the Policy Panel had approved the site. The Panel had not approved or recommended this site and this point needed to be clarified. The Panel had not recommended specific sites but had recommended that sites be found across the Borough. A suggestion which had been made was Trinity Church churchyard, in Colchester Town Centre, as a location which would allow people to come together for quiet reflection. Panel members confirmed that this was still a site that they felt should be looked at.

It was noted that the tree planting in Stanway had been cancelled, and detail was requested as to any Council plans to plant a blossom circle or memorial tree for the Stanway community. With reference to the planting season just beginning, a Panel member suggested that the Policy Panel could put forth suggestions for planting sites as recommendations to Cabinet or the Portfolio Holder.

The Assistant Director – Environment informed the Panel that a number of tree planting schemes were commencing across the Borough as part of the Colchester Woodland & Biodiversity Project starting with the Blossom Circles at Kings Head Meadow on 27 November 2021. Members of the local community had been able to apply to join the planting day and a second planting day had been arranged with NHS staff, volunteer groups and community groups on 1 December 2021. Consultation on the site had been carried out and invitations now issued to guests for the planting. Regarding the planned planting on the Stanway site, unexpected archaeological issues at that site meant that planting had to be cancelled.

A Panel member argued that the finance made available was insufficient and that more was needed so as to allow planting to take place across the Borough in a meaningful way. The Assistant Director explained that the £10k initial funding was a fund for the Civic Team to coordinate a commemorative event proposed to take place in March 2022 but this is still in the stages of planning.  Partner funding and donations were also being sourced to support this. The tree planting had been funded separately through the Woodland and Biodiversity Project and from funding for Cabinet priorities. There were significant numbers of other planting sites across the Borough as part of this programme.

The Panel considered the commemoration event, with one view being that Charter Hall was not the right venue and would not have the appropriate atmosphere.

A member of the Panel informed the Panel that a member of the public who had planned to attend and speak on the commemoration plans and planting had not been able to attend. She grieved her relatives lost to the pandemic and had wanted to make her view known that the blossom circle site in Kings Head Meadow would not be accessible to her and that a more inclusive position should have been found.

RESOLVED that: -

a) The Chairman of the Policy Panel would write to Cabinet to express the Panel’s disquiet and concerns regarding the handling of Covid-19 memorials and the lack of opportunity for Policy Panel to make recommendations;

b) The Chairman of the Policy Panel would invite the Portfolio Holder to the next meeting of the Policy Panel [12 January 2022] to answer questions on plans and actions for Covid-19 memorial sites and events, and to hear the concerns of the Policy Panel;

c) The minutes of the meetings held on 22 September 2021 be confirmed as a correct record.

RECOMMENDED to CABINET that Cabinet consider the Policy Panel’s suggestions regarding the siting of memorials, including for a town centre memorial to be provided in a location such as the church yard of Trinity Church.
8 Have Your Say!
The Chairman will invite members of the public to indicate if they wish to speak or present a petition on any item included on the agenda or any other matter relating to the terms of reference of the meeting. Please indicate your wish to speak at this point if your name has not been noted by Council staff.
This report details how the Council can support residents who no longer receive the Universal Credit uplift, and help reduce financial inequalities. 
A Panel member had received a statement on this item from Citizens’ Advice Colchester [CAC]. CAC had operated in Colchester since 1939 and listed the pressures affecting local residents this Winter. The most widespread issues bringing people to contact CAC were debt, Universal Credit [UC] and benefits/taxation difficulties. Council Tax arrears alone had led to 798 queries being submitted to CAC. The loss of the UC uplift had disproportionally affected the young, those with disabilities and those dealing with mental health issues. CAC detailed the work they carried out to support those in need, and the intention to seek to place advisors at sites used by the Foodbank and at the C360 centre in the Town Centre. It was stressed that many of the most in need had no access to internet, and that phone and face-to-face contact options were vital.

The report was presented by Leonie Rathbone, Assistant Director – Customer, and Jason Granger, Group Manager – Customer. The officers highlighted the key points as to how the Council could and did help those in need, including those who had been in receipt of the uplift in UC. Of UC recipients, some were working on low income, some were out of work and some were unable to work. The last Budget announced an increase in work allowances by £500pa for certain recipients who were in paid employment and a reduction in the taper rate. Appendix A to the report showed what assistance the Council could and did supply.

The Council had an existing financial support team working to help those in hardship. The team had used some of their capacity specifically to assist those affected by the loss of the UC uplift. Members of the team were working on-site with partners to provide support and advice directly. The pandemic was still affecting people and services. The financial support team had distributed £1.57m in test and trace support payments and continued to make support funds available.

There had been significant changes in the labour market and people were entering and experiencing the welfare and benefits system, many for the first time in their lives. The team could advise and support those using the system and assist in challenging decisions which were felt to be unfair. Officers could offer advice to maximise income and help individuals make the most of employment opportunities, with two employment support officer positions being funded by the Department for Work and Pensions. This allowed the team to take a longer-term approach to helping people gain training and employment. Fuel poverty was also being addressed by officers, with a range of mitigations available.

The Digital Access Support Team’s work was outlined, to reduce digital exclusion within the Borough.

Regarding housing, the Group Manager gave assurance that, for the Council and Colchester Borough Homes [CBH], eviction of tenants remained an option of last resort, with CBH’s Financial Inclusion Team working with residents to identify solutions to financial problems. A Panel member asked what happened regarding tenants subject to CCJs and who were unable to pay rent, and what happened to arrears and evictees in the case of eviction. The Assistant Director (Customer) explained that these questions would need to be raised with CBH, as they managed matters relating to evictions. The priority remained to build sustainable tenancies. Discretionary housing payments continued to be made to residents struggling to cover rent payments and £415k of grant funding had been obtained to help maintain tenancies. The Panel noted that this was a smaller sum than was provided in the previous year, and that inflationary factors were increasing upon households.

CBH have restructured to expand the team working to help rough sleepers, where many cases of rough sleeping revolved around mental health conditions which required action to address. Elsewhere, the Healthy Homes Team worked to ensure improvements in living conditions and grants and loans were still being processed to allow disability adaptions to be installed. Expanding upon this, the Assistant Director (Customer) informed the Panel that an extra fund was expected soon to be available to help vulnerable renters on low incomes. Work as to how funds would be made available was in its early stages.

Addressing concerns about accessibility of services and advice, the Assistant Director (Customer) informed the Panel that officers were to join the C360 one-stop-shop in Colchester Town Centre [Long Wyre Street] so as to be able to conduct face-to-face work with residents at that location. This was in addition to other face-to-face options and contact avenues online and via telephone. The Council’s target was to answer all telephone calls within 60 seconds; all staff working via ‘phone were trained to ensure that residents received the correct support.

The officers were asked, in relation to the 14,801 UC claimants in the Borough, how many residents in total were dependent on UC payments, including dependents of claimants. A Panel member noted if the total was just twice the number of UC claimants, then around one in ten residents of the Borough relied upon UC payments being made. Officers explained that data to answer this question was not readily available, but that it would be fair to make assumptions of the type made [as noted above].

The Panel discussed the impact on the local economy of 14,801 claimants on low incomes in the local area. The difficulties and perceived stigma attached to claiming UC were raised, especially with additional hardships such as rising energy prices. Praise was given to work done with local food banks, with advice provided and ‘business cards’ with signposting information included within food bank packages. It was queried whether the available funding would be sufficient, and whether the County Council could lobby central government for additional funds. The Panel were told that local levels of need remained unknown at this point, but information could be reported back as the situation became clearer over time.

The Assistant Director (Customer) answered questions about digital exclusion, explaining that some without online access gained help from friends and family, that support was available from the Council’s Digital Access Team and from Council advisers at various locations, including at GP surgeries. ‘Phone contact remained a popular option and home visits could be arranged with the Digital Access Team to assist those who had difficulty in accessing online contact options. There remained a good range of non-digital contact options. A Panel member queried whether there was potential for the Council to be able to issue reconditioned devices to those without hardware capable of connecting to the internet.

The Panel discussed the likelihood that the coming Winter would be hard for many, and details were requested as to liaising with Citizens’ Advice Colchester to ensure that vulnerable people didn’t fall through the system and miss out on potential help and advice. It was also queried whether any funding gained to support residents through the Pandemic were still available and could be used to meet emergency needs of residents during the Winter. The Group Manager gave assurance that the Council had a long relationship working with Citizens’ Advice which was most effective when the organisations worked together from the C360 Hub in Colchester. This helped the organisations collaborate in assisting residents.

Essex County Council funding had been sourced for a Welfare Benefits Adviser role, to help support and advise residents in hardship during the coming Winter. 

The Panel discussed the ending of the £20 uplift to UC, with different members stressing that, whilst this was a national issue, the Panel’s duty, and the report’s purpose, was to look at the local situation and examine what the Council could do to address hardship experienced by residents. The report and work of officers were praised, and a Panel member argued that, as funding was limited, this emphasised the need for partnership working with others, so as to maximise what could be done to help residents, and what additional funding pots could be applied for. In response to being asked if the Council could provide more funding to Citizens’ Advice, the Group Manager outlined the general levels of funding, support and advice that the Council provided and agreed to find out the details as to current funding provided and to circulate this to the Panel.

A Panel member raised concern regarding UC recipients who were already in low-paid employment, or unable to work, and the pressures on UC recipients from inflationary pressures such as rising fuel costs. The officers were asked how individuals might apply to receive a share of the support fund which had been mentioned as now being available. The Assistant Director (Customer) explained that officers were working with the County Council to get details as to how Household Support Fund payments could be disbursed to those who needed them. ECC had given assurances that these could be disbursed via the Essential Living Fund. The Council would promote the details of this and advice potential claimants, working with C360 and Citizens’ Advice to advise residents on how to apply. The Group Manager agreed to provide details of the Household Support Scheme to members of the Panel.

Addressing the claiming of UC by those unable to work, the Group Manager explained that Personal Independence Payments [PIP] and attendance allowances were underclaimed. The Council was working to identify those who qualified and advise on how to claim.

The Panel requested more information on the outputs and impacts of the Council’s work and mitigatory actions and asked what was done to analyse the effectiveness of measures used, and levels of uptake. It was suggested by one member that there was a case for increasing the flow of information and data to Cabinet members. The Assistant Director (Customer) explained that all data relating to outcomes from Financial Support Team interventions were available. The Council also had access to data from the Essential Living Fund, via ECC, and used this to find ways to increase uptake of support. The Council focused on evaluating data and outcomes to ensure maximum effectiveness.

It was noted by the Panel that the report did not mention the possibility of changing the taper on Council Tax rates as a potential mitigation and it was asked whether the Policy Panel could explore that option. The Group Manager confirmed that there had been discussion of the taper rate. Officers had discussed options relating to how claims for Local Council Tax Support were tapered, according to claimant earnings. Details were given of the ‘disregard rate’ and clarification given that 20p in each £1 was deducted from payments to claimants who exceeded the earnings threshold. The details of the Local Council Tax Support Scheme started to be set out in June each year, and the Panel were advised that June was therefore the best time for recommendations to be made relating to the Scheme for the following financial year .

The Panel discussed increasing fuel costs and asked if there would be any extra support for those with disabilities and/or those who were out of work. The officers confirmed that addressing fuel costs/poverty was a central part of their work. Winter Fuel Grants were underclaimed and the Council was increasing its advertising of these.

A Panel member requested that the Council’s website continue to advertise advice and support options and keep a banner on its homepages to provide a link to advice and help. It was asked if the Council would continue to operate its pop-up shop presence and continue face-to-face access to services and support, rolling this out across the Borough. The Assistant Director (Customer) gave assurance that the website would be updated, and support links maintained. Information on winter support would be updated as and when developments occurred. It was planned for all elected members to be emailed with details as to where information can be found on the website, so this could be circulated to residents by their councillors. The pop-up shop would continue alongside work to create more digital access for Council services. Officer placements in community centres/facilities and GP surgeries were described. Elected members were encouraged to work with parish councils to find service access points in communities.

A Panel member remarked that information on the Warm Home Discount Scheme shown on the Council’s website was impenetrable and needed to be simplified. The Assistant Director (Customer) explained that all areas of the website were being revamped and information on the Warm Home Discount Scheme would soon be simplified and improved, with reductions in technical jargon and simplified information on the application process. This would be completed by January 2022.

The Panel expressed a wish for future updates on the matters within this item and report, especially given the number of current unknowns. Whilst the Council had limits to what it could do, the Panel emphasised that the Council could act as a facilitator, guide and coordinator. The Panel thanked the officers attending, and their teams, for all the work that they had carried out, and for the information provided.

(a) The report and appendix be circulated to all elected members of the Council;

(b) An all-member briefing be held in February or March 2022 to provide further information on Council mitigations and outcome data;

(c) Cabinet considers this report and the comments and deliberations of the Policy Panel.
This report sets out the current Work Programme 2021-2022 for the Policy Panel, providing details of the items of business that are currently scheduled for each meeting during the municipal year. 
Rory Doyle, Assistant Director – Environment, explained the rescheduling of the Grounds Maintenance Business Case agenda item from this meeting to the Panel’s meeting scheduled for 12 January 2022 and gave an overview of the current contract and the work to move forward with its replacement once it ended. The contract value was around £10.4m. Policy Panel had previously set out its preferred structure and its key considerations and priorities. There had been no slippage in the process of producing the draft business plan, and the rescheduling had been recommended to ensure that all information was ready for the Policy Panel to consider prior to making recommendations to Cabinet. It was confirmed that it was unlikely that the item to consider the Business Case would be confidential.

It was suggested that there should be an update for the Panel on the subject of the Council’s mitigations of financial inequality at the Panel’s meeting scheduled for 2 March 2022.

A member asked whether the Panel would get another chance to receive and discuss information relating to Covid-19 commemorations, and to make recommendations to Cabinet. The Chairman confirmed that he would write to Cabinet regarding this, in line with resolutions (a) and (b) under minute 30 from this meeting, to raise the situation and ask the Portfolio Holder to attend the Panel’s meeting on 12 January to hear members’ concerns and to provide an update on the Council’s preparation of memorials and commemorations.

RESOLVED that the Work Programme be approved, with the addition of a further item for the Panel to consider an update on the Council’s preparation of memorials and commemorations at its meeting scheduled for 12 January 2022.
11 Exclusion of the Public (not Scrutiny or Executive)
In accordance with Section 100A(4) of the Local Government Act 1972 to exclude the public, including the press, from the meeting so that any items containing exempt information (for example confidential personal, financial or legal advice), in Part B of this agenda (printed on yellow paper) can be decided. (Exempt information is defined in Section 100I and Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972).
Part B

Additional Meeting Documents


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