To receive reports and any announcements from the Leader and members of the Cabinet on matters falling within their area of responsibility:
(a) Report of the Leader;
(b) Report of the Commercial and Regulatory Services Portfolio Holder (attached);
(c) Report of the Customer and Corporate Support ServicesPortfolio Holder (attached);
(d) Report of the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder (attached);
(e) Report of the Finance and Economic Development Portfolio Holder (attached);
(f) Report of the Housing and Community ServicesPortfolio Holder (attached); and
(g) Report of the Planning and Sustainability Portfolio Holder (attached).
The Council received written reports from the Portfolio Holders. The Chairman invited the Leader of Council to provide an oral report and the opportunity for other members of the Cabinet to give an update on matters concerning their relevant portfolios.
(a) The Leader of Council
The Leader advised the Council that in recent meetings there had been various reports that focussed on the recovery from Covid-19 and many of the Cabinet reports at this meeting would touch upon this in greater detail. The Council had to start looking to the future and needed to make sure that all the plans put forward in February 2020, as part of the budget, were implemented and he stated that his report would focus on some of what had been achieved and how we as a Council would move forward.
At Cabinet in February 2020 the Leader reported that the Highways Rangers would be brought back to Epping Forest, recruitment had taken place and there would be two Highway Rangers starting in mid-August 2020. Additional funding had been secured and repairs to finger posts would be matched funded by Town and Parish Councils. This was a positive action during the Covid-19 lockdown, it showed that the Council had been working on moving forward.
The Leader advised that recently there had been some reports in the media on Qualis and he felt it was time to clarify some points that had been reported. The Qualis group of companies had been set up by the Council, they would benefit the Council in several ways and formed a key part of the medium term financial strategy and budget.
Through Qualis the Council were looking to achieve an improved and more efficient service to customers, for example housing repairs, which was a key driver behind the setting up of Qualis. Qualis were looking at an estimated growth investment by the Council of approximately £150 million over the next five years delivering a 3% net return across the portfolio. In real terms this would translate in a return to Epping Forest District Council of £1.5 million for the first year rising to £12 million by year five of operation.
The Council through Qualis was looking to deliver 300 new homes for the district, new amenities including a new leisure centre in Epping, supporting economic growth, creating new jobs and a portfolio of new investments.
The Council have always been open and transparent on how Qualis would operate and this had been discussed in several forums, it was critical that Qualis were allowed the space to operate commercially to achieve the industry role the Council had to rise to and ensure we have the correct skills and expertise in business.
In February 2020 all Members were invited to a workshop for legal advisers to go through a Shareholder Agreement and how the monitoring of the new company would be undertaken. This was followed by a Cabinet paper that agreed quarterly reports on the finance and performance of Qualis would be presented to Cabinet and Council which would provide the correct monitoring.
Following recent comments and criticisms regarding costs and transparency and given the challenges faced during Covid-19, at a meeting with members of the Cabinet it was proposed that the following changes be applied when the Qualis permanent board was recruited in September 2020. There would be one Council Member outside of the Cabinet to be appointed to the Qualis board on the equivalent Councillor allowance, this would ensure the transparency by providing a link for the Council to Qualis and would also reduce the cost from the three interim board members down to one. The recent decision to second a Strategic Director from the Council onto the Qualis board would reduce the requirement of having two Councillor appointee members thus creating a further saving to the overall cost of the Qualis board. All members of the new permanent Qualis board will be interviewed by the Council’s senior appointments panel as agreed, followed by recommendations to Full Council, this will be a robust process and will ensure the Council has the required skills and experience required to run the group of Qualis companies. The February Cabinet report set out the benchmarking cost for these roles and this was the correct market rate.
The quarter 1 and quarter 2 financial operational reports of Qualis have been reviewed by the Qualis board and will come to the next Cabinet meeting and then on to full Council.
I hope this clarifies the situation with regard to Qualis, this Council has always been open and transparent and we need to work towards Qualis being the unrivalled success it needs to be to drive forward our Council.
(b) Housing and Community Services Portfolio Holder
Councillor H Whitbread advised that in light of recent events she would like to highlight and add some information to her published report.
There had been reports of illegal raves in the district and across the country in recent weeks also large gatherings during the lockdown period. We have been working closely with the Police on this particularly around the kind of noise related reporting. The Council have an out of hours reporting service for any loud noises also in terms of a Closure Order where any kind of illegal large gatherings like there were in Water Lane in Roydon at an Airbnb. The Council was able to get a Closure Order in place, through the court system, which was excellent work by the Community Safety Team.
Town Centre Teams
I recently met with the Town Centre Team at Waltham Abbey and the District Chief Inspector on the first anniversary of the scheme. The Town Centre Teams consisted of two Police Officers based exclusively in the Town Centre, they had a really good proactive community policing attitude working with the local businesses and residents. They would tackle shoplifting, anti-social behaviour and any give any other assistance that they could.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for all the work they are doing with the local community as their work needs to be recognised.
Woodland Grove, Epping
In June this year a fire broke out in a block of flats in Woodland Grover, Epping. This was a very sad incident where one resident of the flats lost their life. The community response, the Council’s response and the Fire and Emergency Services’ response was remarkable.
Councillor H Whitbread advised that she had stayed at the rescue centre all day where the Red Cross attended and immediately jumped into action, equipped with all sorts of help materials for the victims. Julies Café at Stonards Hill served refreshments all day, the Council Housing team made sure that everyone had overnight and the longer term provision they needed in terms of housing and support.
Councillor H Whitbread gave thanks to all those involved in that response and remarked how well managed it was on the day.
The Bell Hotel, Epping
There had been a lot of attention in the press recently in relation to a video that had been circulated via YouTube, which gave some misleading information.
Councillor H Whitbread advised the Council that she would like to address and clear up some of this misleading information.
The Bell Hotel has been procured by the Home Office to house asylum seekers for a temporary period during the Covid-19 pandemic. There had been no increase in crime during this period, local food charities have not been giving food to these people, the Home Office are providing their food and also they are not illegal immigrants they are asylum seekers and this point needs to be made clear.
(c) Planning and Sustainability Portfolio Holder
Councillor N Bedford advised that he would like to refer back to his report as there had been an update to the Local Plan.
Housing Requirement in the emerging Local Plan
It was important that plans were reviewed in the light of later and better information and that the emerging Local Plan moves forward towards adoption so that sustainable and environmentally sensitive growth can occur in the District.
It was common practice that after publication of more recent household projection data such as that recently published by the Office of National Statistics, 2018 population projections, that authorities were encouraged to look at their housing requirement and the Inspector examining the Local Plan had written to the Council asking us to do that in the light of the new data which shows a reduction in projected household growth over the plan period compared to that used to support the plan which used the 2014 population projection data.
In the light of this the next steps for the Council were to ask the Opinion Research Services who undertook the original Strategic Housing Market Assessment, and on which the housing requirement in the emerging Local Plan was evidenced, to review the latest data to see whether the housing requirement for the District was still the right approach, this was based on the 2012 approach as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework. This was scheduled to be completed by the end of August.
If the current Local Plan requirement was still correct taking account of the proposed alterations already being considered to meet the actions identified by the Inspector, the Council will advise the Inspector and move towards the Main Modifications consultation and adoption of the plan in line within the current timetable.
If the current housing requirement cannot be justified further reduction in the proposed allocations and removal of sites will be considered with preference being given for removing environmentally sensitive sites. A revised timetable will then be agreed with the Planning Inspector to agree the additional work required to evidence the plan, this could include traffic modelling, air quality modelling and the provision of infrastructure such as school provision and similar.
Taking all the above into account the Council’s focus has to be getting the Local Plan over the line and getting the Habitat Regulations Assessment and the associated Air Pollution Mitigation Strategy agreed by Natural England and the Conservators of Epping Forest, so that we can start to determine the planning applications that have been held in abeyance as soon as possible.
I hope this gives Members confidence that we are moving forward at an alarming pace and nothing will stop the Council from getting this plan through.