(Leader of Council) To receive an overview of the Council’s Corporate Priorities for 2020/21.
The Committee received a presentation from the Leader of Council on the Council’s corporate priorities for the municipal year 2020/21.
The Leader informed the Committee that the following would be the priority for the Cabinet over the next twelve months:
(i) to retain a strong financial position for the Council and support of local businesses;
(ii) to benefit from the investment opportunities for the Council in its services and property assets through Qualis, to provide a long-term income stream for the Council;
(iii) to complete the refurbishment of the Civic Offices to provide increased income streams and make available the Conder building for development;
(iv) to progress the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, with local high streets as a priority and the introduction of new rates for parking to encourage this;
(v) to implement the Local Plan, and address the issues raised by Natural England and the Planning Inspector during the Examination in Public;
(vi) to progress the Council Housebuilding Programme;
(vii) to link Community and Health issues with Housing issues, as good housing led to good health and good communities within the District; and
(viii) to maximise the use of Council-owned assets in order to protect the Council’s front-line services.
A number of Councillors supported the initiatives to aid the recovery of the District’s high streets, including the reduction in parking fees although it was accepted that this did encourage the greater use of cars rather than alternative forms of transport. The Leader acknowledged the concerns of the Committee and reiterated that the priority was currently to protect the District’s high streets. However, the Cabinet was always considering different ways of supporting green initiatives, and more people had been walking to their local high streets during the pandemic lockdown.
Cllr S Murray enquired why Epping and Waltham Abbey were deemed the priority for high street recovery grants? The Leader explained that Epping High Street had been included in the Local Plan whilst Waltham Abbey High Street was the one most in need of regeneration within the District. Buckhurst Hill, Loughton High Road and Loughton Broadway had all benefited from enhancement schemes in the past, however, bids for other schemes throughout the District were being put together. There was a need to increase investment throughout the District and have a credible Economic Strategy in place.
There was some support from the Committee for the proposed new cinema in Epping to be an independent cinema rather than be part of a big, national chain, but the Leader stated that he wanted a viable cinema on the proposed site, regardless of whether it was an independent cinema or not.
Some of the Committee had concerns about the level of accountability of Qualis to the Council and Councillors, and that the decision-making needed to be more open and transparent. In addition, there were also concerns about Qualis possibly offering services in the future that were already being provided by more established companies, for example accountancy services. Qualis also needed to show that it could run projects on time and to budget before expanding into other areas. The Leader reminded the Committee that Qualis was wholly owned by the Council, and the income generated by Qualis would protect Council services and benefit residents. The intention in the future was for Qualis to provide a wide range of services, but the current focus was on the developments within the Local Plan and maintaining the Council’s housing stock. The Leader felt that Qualis needed to prove that it was a profit-making organisation. The Leader also believed that Qualis was accountable to both this Committee and the Audit & Governance Committee, and it was intended to have a Councillor who was a non-member of the Cabinet on the Qualis Board in the future.
The Committee wished to place on record their appreciation of the efforts made by Officers to respond to the fire in Epping the previous day, and the Leader added his thanks to the Red Cross who were also on the scene to assist those who were affected. Cllr C McCreedie advised that the Epping Food Bank could support those residents displaced by the Fire.
Cllr D Wixley enquired if virtual meetings would continue whilst the Civic Offices was being refurbished? The Leader commented that it was his ambition for Committee meetings to be opened up to the public again, possibly in September when the Schools had re-opened; but the possibility of hybrid meetings had not been discounted. In respect of the Council’s current financial position, the Leader stated that different scenarios were being examined but the Council was not looking to cut any services at the current time. The Council was fortunate to have strong financial reserves to fall back on in the next year or so, but the Cabinet would work hard to protect the Council’s services. Finally, the Leader stated that he was keen to see the Apprentice scheme expand further.
(1) That the presentation from the Leader of Council on the Corporate priorities for the municipal year 2020/21 be noted.