Tonight saw a brief full council meeting of East Cambridgeshire District Council.
There were no public questions, petitions, or motions. My colleague Sue was unwell, leaving just myself and Christine Whelan on the yellow benches.
I asked two questions: whether the council believed it had committed enough resources to maintenance of its ditches and watercourses; and what effect the council expected there to be on waste collection arrangements, both at present and in the future under the new trading company, of the decision by China to stop importing a lot of our recyclable waste. I was very surprised indeed that both of these questions were answered by council officers; I always thought councillors should hold themselves accountable, rather than passing responsibility on to staff, however senior.
But the council believes it has committed enough officer time and money to looking after our ditches and watercourses – something to bear in mind in the event of flooding. And the Chinese decision to knock the bottom out of much of the UK’s recycling market has caught everybody on the hop – the risk of falling values for recyclable materials is shared between the district council and recycling facility operator Amey, and is likely to lead to increased costs, though no-one yet knows how much.
Council tax discounts, council borrowing, and a second trading company
All of these matters were referred to the full council by its various committees. The council recently carried out a consultation on its local scheme for council tax reductions for people on low incomes. I asked for the responses to be published on the council website, and when they were, I was very disappointed to see that they came from four individuals, Sanctuary housing (thank you, Sanctuary!), and one organisation that chose not to identify itself. There are many local organisations with experience of supporting people in poverty or on low income, and it is clear that the council didn’t succeed in engaging them in this consultation. I asked the Leader of the Council to commit to bringing some thoughts back to a future meeting on how the council can better involve local organisations in its consultations, and he agreed to do so.
The council then proposed to double the ceiling on its external borrowing, from £5 million to £10 million. Some of this will be needed to fund the council’s existing trading company, and some to buy waste collection vehicles for the new contract in April. (Will the Chinese decision mean we might have to change the way we collect the co-mingled blue bin recyclables? If so, might we end up with the wrong sort of waste vehicles? Who knows?). But clearly those items won’t add up to an extra £5 million – so what’s going on? I asked the council to reconfirm that the council’s existing trading company won’t receive from the council more than the £5 million it was originally set as a limit, and the council has confirmed that it won’t. I also asked whether the remainder of the borrowing limit was to allow the council to carry out its new scheme of investing in commercial property. The suitably vague response was that it would allow the council ‘flexibility’ to take up new opportunities. Christine and I voted against this huge increase in the borrowing limit.
The council also decided to set up a second trading company, to receive the waste contract. I’ve written before about how the council admitted last month, in response to a question from me, that it was going to have to set up a new company in a hurry to take on the waste contract, because it had got itself into a mess over the amount of non-council work the existing company was allowed by law to do, and it would now be illegal to give the contract to the existing company. The council was proposing to pay the independent Chairman of the new company an allowance (£4,000 a year) to chair the board. I proposed that he should be paid nothing, because when the waste contract was awarded to the existing company last February no mention was made of increasing the Chairman’s allowance, and after all there’s no more work to be done so why should the allowance be increased just because the work is now split across two companies? Conservative councillors opposed my amendment, but obviously some of the messages must have hit home because they passed a revised motion referring back the question of the Chairman’s allowance to the council’s Shareholder Committee to reconsider. Christine and I abstained on the establishment of the second trading company: I’m pleased that the council has taken on board some of the comments I made about its analysis of the risks, but it’s all a bit of a mess and is likely to come back to haunt the council.
Finally, I asked a question of the Leader of the Council, who is the council’s representative on the Combined Authority: will the Combined Authority’s forthcoming review of bus services include non-scheduled services (like the new East Cambs Connect) and community transport? It appears it will. They say of buses that you don’t get one for a while and then several come along all at once. It’s a bit like that with bus reviews too, with the county council also carrying out partially overlapping reviews of various parts of the service.