To put questions, if any, to Cabinet Members and Committee Chairpersons (or their representatives) under Council Procedure Rules 11(1) and 11(3).
(1) Councillor R. Elliott asked the Leader of the Council “We anticipate the Government will not issue free school meal vouchers for the Christmas holiday. The Leader must confirm now that RMBC will ensure that children will be fed, or will he stand back again while a Cabinet Member promotes inequality across the Borough for children by making a unilateral decision on behalf of his Ward only?” In asking his question Councillor R. Elliott welcomed the change in policy from the Government regarding free school meals that had occurred since he had submitted the question.
In response the Leader noted his agreement with Councillor R Elliott regarding the welcome change of policy by the Government. The Leader noted that the decision had been made by Members representing the Wales Ward to support the provision of free school meals, using funds from their allocated Community Leadership Fund. The Leader noted that this action did not promote inequality as Members in other Wards could have acted accordingly if they had so wished. The Leader advised that this decision had been taken before the Government announcement that the proposed extension of the holiday activity programme, including funding for free school meals to cover England during the school holidays in 2021 had been made.
There was no supplementary question.
(2) Councillor Cowlesasked the Cabinet Member for Housing “In the next stage of Selective Licensing I am informed that it may take up to 3 years to complete house inspections. Surely it is unreasonable, indeed unfair, to force landlords to pay for a license 3 years ahead of any inspection being carried out”.
In response the Cabinet Member for Housing stated that that he did not think it was unreasonable or unfair. The Cabinet Member advised that it would, however, be unreasonable and unfair to abandon tenants in areas with acute needs and where the standard of properties was poor. The Cabinet Member advised that the Selective Licence Scheme and its associated fee did not solely purchase a housing inspection, but also paid for enhanced engagement and targeted enforcement in order to seek to improve properties in the designated areas.
The Cabinet Member noted that the Selective Licensing declaration had been a 5 year scheme with inspections being targeted based on risk with those properties that had been assessed at a higher risk being dealt with first, with further inspections being arranged where further concerns were raised. The Cabinet Member advised that the new designations for Selective Licensing areas had been made on the basis of properties being in areas with high levels of deprivation and sought to improve the quality of property in these areas so that the poorest residents of Rotherham had access to good quality housing.
As a supplementary question Councillor Cowles asked whether the delays in an inspection being paid for and taking place were acceptable. Councillor Cowles also questioned the ability of any rental property to reach the level of electrical safety as required by the latest 19th Edition standards.
The Cabinet Member advised that all properties that had had an inspection paid for had received one, and noted that detailed inspections took time, and as such should not be rushed.
(3) Councillor Cowlesasked the Cabinet Member for Housing “You informed me that during the 5 years of the highly successful Selective Licensing Scheme, 5 Enforcement Notices were issued in Eastwood for environmental infringements, an average of one per year. Despite the fact that backyards full of rubbish can still be found, and one per year being highly successful, what number between zero and one equates to success?”
In response the Cabinet Member advised that the previous 5 year Selective Licensing project in Eastwood had provided enhanced enforcement and support for landlords with 65 licenses being revoked in Eastwood during the lifetime of the Scheme. The Cabinet Member noted that 5 of these revocations were directly related to anti-social behaviour and environmental issues.
The Cabinet Member noted further that one revocation had been due to the failure of a landlord to remove waste from a rear garden on Russell Street, Eastwood where the landlord had also failed to satisfy the Council that they had taken necessary steps to ensure sufficient background checks had been carried out in relation to a new tenant. The Cabinet Member advised that other license revocations that had taken place related to landlords or their tenants, being linked to a series of anti-social behaviour incidents relating to either disorder, noise or harassment.
The Cabinet Member advised that the revocation of a license was just one of the many tools available for officers to use in such circumstances and stated that the number of actual Enforcement Notices served over the life of the Scheme that covered environmental and housing issues had been 1,053 in Eastwood and 5,235 across the Borough as a whole during the 5 year period. The Cabinet Member assured Councillor Cowles that in addition to these formal Notices the Council had also undertaken a much larger number of informal actions to address concerns about properties without the need to use formal legal processes.
As a supplementary question Councillor Cowles asked for a response to the email that he had sent that had requested further information on the reasons for the licence revocations.
The Cabinet Member advised that Councillor Cowles should contact him to request the information that he required and that he would be able to supply the information that showed that all activity that had been carried out correctly. The Cabinet Member reaffirmed that over the period of operation of the Scheme 1,053 Enforcement Notices in Eastwood and 5,235 across the Borough had been issued.
(4) Councillor Carter asked the Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Health “How many of the Borough’s care homes have active cases of Covid-19 and what measures are the Council taking with other agencies to try and mitigate its impact?”
In response the Cabinet Member noted his sincere thanks to all care home staff across the Borough for their hard work and dedication over the period of the pandemic in keeping residents in care homes safe. The Cabinet Member advised that cases in care homes varied daily, but based on the information held on the day that Councillor Carter’s question was submitted (Friday 6thNovember 2020) that there had been 7 care homes reporting more than 2 confirmed cases of Covid-19, out of a total of 84 care homes in the Borough. The Cabinet Member noted that this level of cases triggered a Public Health Incident Management Team meeting that was attended by the care home manager and health and social care professionals in order to investigate the outbreak and to ensure that there were sufficient infection control measures in place.
Councillor Carter noted his agreement with the Cabinet Member’s remarks regarding the excellent work of care home staff throughout the pandemic. As supplementary question Councillor Carter asked for further information on how the Council worked to manage virus outbreaks in care homes.
The Cabinet Member detailed the specific actions that the Council had implemented along with Rotherham CCG to support care homes and to mitigate the impact of a Covid-19 outbreak, and advised that in extreme cases the Director of Public Health could stop all visits to a care home.
(5) Councillor Albiston asked the Leader of the Council “How many individuals were provided support, through the Community Hub/Covid volunteer scheme by Ward between March and June?” Councillor Albiston also noted her thanks to all Council staff and volunteers who had and continued to provide support to residents via the Community Hub.
In response the Leader concurred with Councillor Albiston’s thanks to the staff and volunteers who had been involved in delivering Community Hub services and supporting Rotherham residents. The Leader advised that for the period 26th March to 30th June, 3,280 requests for support had been received. The Leader advised that for the period from 9th April information on the number of requests received was also available for each Ward and advised that this information would be sent to Councillor Albiston.
As a supplementary question Councillor Albiston asked how the Council was ensuring that all those in the community who needed support were being identified and receiving the support that they needed.
The Leader advised that the Council used information from a wide variety of sources to identify residents in need of support, and noted that while he was confident that everyone the Council knew about who were in need of support was receiving it, unfortunately there would always been a small number of people who were not known about and therefore could not be reached.
(6) Councillor Carter asked the Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Health “How has the Drug and Alcohol Service been affected by and adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic?”
In response the Cabinet Member advised that Change, Grow, Live Rotherham, who was the local provider of services, had remained open to people accessing the Service or who were needing to access drug and alcohol support throughout the pandemic. The Cabinet Member noted that in order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff and Service users, all face-to-face group work and non-essential drug testing had however been suspended. In addition, changes to the inside of buildings had been made in order to allow staff and Service users to safely social distance and interact safely. The Cabinet Member stated that any face-to-face contact had been and continued to be prioritised for those requiring a clinical intervention, for example access to prescribing or where there were welfare concerns.
The Cabinet Member advised that so far during the pandemic, the Service had introduced virtual group work, intervention posts over social media and had also maintained contact with Service users by telephone, and that where they had been concerns over someone’s welfare, doorstep checks had been completed. It was also noted that for any Service user without a telephone, access had been provided to phones and for people without access to the internet who wanted to engage in virtual group work, they had been provided internet access free of charge.
As a supplementary question Councillor Carter asked whether there had been a reduction in the number of referrals to support services during the pandemic and what action was being taken to encourage those who may need help to seek assistance.
The Cabinet Member advised Councillor Carter that he would arrange a for a written response to be sent to him as he did not have the figures to hand on referral numbers.
(7) Councillor Albiston asked the Leader of the Council “What steps are the Council taking to ensure people who lack access to the internet and technology are not further disadvantaged through service, information and support being driven online?”
In response the Leader stated that the Council would never disadvantage any resident from accessing the services that they required regardless of how they contacted the Council. The Leader noted that the Council’s Customer Access Strategy recognised that Rotherham’s communities were diverse, with a wide range of people who all had differing needs and preferences, which was why the Strategy had been designed to ensure that all residents would have equal access to the information and help they needed. The Leader assured Councillor Albiston that it was recognised that not all residents could get online, and as such service delivery methods had been designed in such a way that a resident would always receive the same information and service regardless of how they had chosen to contact the Council.
The Leader advised that since April 2020, over 104,000 digital forms had been completed with 76% of these being completed through self-serve online, and 24% being completed by staff in the contact centre. The Leader also noted that between April and September 2020 the Contact Centre had answered over 240,000 calls and had also made thousands of outgoing calls in response to customer requests for help and advice. The Leader reaffirmed the Council’s commitment to face-to-face customer access and noted the ambition of the Council, that once safe to do so, increased face to face access would be developed in Libraries across Rotherham.
As a supplementary question Councillor Albiston asked whether the development of the Council’s Digital Strategy could be done in way that took account of the impact of the pandemic and asked that a set of measures for assessing how disadvantaged residents were accessing services be set in order to enable the Council to see how the Digital Strategy was ensuring access to services for these residents.
The Leader noted that the issue of access to services was a multi-faceted problem, with access to the internet being one of several issues that some residents faced in accessing services. The Leader advised that the increased availability of wi-fi in Neighbourhood Centres would be looked at in order to make access to services easier. The Leader advised that while face-to-face customer service access was not currently possible, extra efforts were being made to reach residents by phone.
(8) Councillor Carter asked the Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Health “As the pandemic has led to changes in Adult Social Care based at the homes of residents compared to those in residential and nursing homes. How does the Council see the changes to this sector moving forward?”
In response the Cabinet Member advised that the most significant challenge for all Adult Care Services across the Country would continue to be the financial sustainability of the sector and the fair pricing for Care and Support Services following a decade of austerity. The Cabinet Member noted the frustration of many that despite promises from the Government that there was little sign of Government taking any action to reform the Social Care Sector. The Cabinet Member advised that the Council was anticipating an increase in demand for Home Care and Support Services and, therefore, there would be a greater demand on reablement teams to support Home First and hospital discharge processes. It was noted that this demand could result in care homes for older people being not viable due to high void rates with a reducing number of placements and lack of interest from self-funders.
The Cabinet Member advised that there were also concerns regarding the impact of Covid-19 resulting in an increased demand in some areas such as mental health provision. It was also noted that additional support for informal carers would also require significant national investment on an ‘invest to save basis’ as informal carers had had to respond to the impacts of the pandemic and reduced levels of care and support options for extended periods of time in recent months.
The Cabinet Member noted that addressing Adult Social Care workforce shortages as a result of existing vacancies, not just the pandemic, would also need to be a priority, and advised that a lack of career progression and the attractiveness of rival NHS positions and retail jobs made the recruitment to the sector challenging. The Cabinet Member advised that by applying the Council’s Social Value policy and campaigning for fair pay for care and support staff at the Living Wage Foundation rate of at least £9.30 per hour remained a key objective in order to ensure that vacancies were filled, turn-over was reduced and service quality remained high.
As a supplementary question Councillor Carter noted the difficulties surrounding the workforce strategy in this area and asked whether the rates of staff turnover previously experienced had worsened during the pandemic and whether staff turnover had impacted negatively on the provision of services.
The Cabinet Member advised that staff absences due to illness or having to isolate had impacted more on service delivery than staff turnover during the pandemic. The Cabinet Member noted however that it was still important in order to ensure high quality care to make the sector a more attractive career choice.
(9) Councillor Albiston asked the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Children’s Services and Neighbourhood Working “What factors are considered when identifying suitable properties to use as emergency accommodation, for our most vulnerable children and young people?”
In response the Deputy Leader stated that the Council only used emergency accommodation for Looked After Children in exceptional circumstances and where this was necessary in order to keep a child safe. The Deputy Leader advised that the Council had 3 properties in the Borough that were sometimes used for this purpose, and that each property would be identified based on the individual context of each child and on the reasons why they needed to be accommodated in an emergency.
The Deputy Leader advised that such allocations would always be based on the individual needs of a child that may include considerations such as the need to accommodate a larger sibling group or the geographical location of the accommodation required.
The Deputy Leader went on to advise that the Council’s strategy was to develop its own residential provision, including plans to register 2 homes for emergency accommodation. It was noted that the identification of properties for this purpose had been based on a number of factors, including the amount of space available, the availability of outdoor space, proximity to services and schools and proximity to neighbours. It was noted further that the quality of the property, both indoors and outdoors was also a factor for consideration in order to ensure that children were living in suitable accommodation that felt like a home regardless of their length of stay.
As a supplementary question Councillor Albiston asked whether it was appropriate for the Council to place Looked After Children in inadequate accommodation in a deprived area that was close to where elderly people lived. Councillor Albiston advised that such an action had caused problems for neighbours with antisocial behaviour and noise nuisance.
The Deputy Leader noted the results of the OFSTED inspection of services and that as such stated that he did not recognise the basis of the allegation of an inadequate placement, but advised that Councillor Albiston should pass any concerns directly to him so that they could be investigated.
(10) Councillor Carter asked the Cabinet Member for Jobs and the Local Economy “With home working becoming an ever more permanent feature, does the Council plan to cut its building-based office spaces, and renegotiate the contract for its plush office space at Riverside House?”
In response the Cabinet Member advised that during the pandemic, working from home had played a crucial part in maintaining essential Council services, but that equally Riverside House had continued to provide a physical base for essential services that could not be operated remotely, for services normally based in other buildings that had temporarily closed, as well as additional services such as the Community Hub. The Cabinet Member stated that whilst the number of staff using the building throughout the period had dramatically reduced, the flexibility and space of the building had enabled these services that had needed to be operated from an office base to operate safely and in line with social distancing rules.
The Cabinet Member advised that the Council continually assessed and challenged the use of the Council’s operational property, and that as well as providing resilience throughout the pandemic, Riverside House had enabled ongoing improvements and efficiencies for the Council’s estate. It was noted that since 2018 in addition to a £500,000 annual saving negotiated on Riverside House, the Council had closed 13 separate buildings which had reduced annual revenue costs by £372,000. The Cabinet Member noted that working from home had presented both challenges and opportunities for staff welfare and for the operation of services, and that in the long-term the future of how the Council’s office-based services would be delivered would remain under consideration.
The Cabinet Member concluded in noting that the Council would not be drawn into a race to the bottom as the Council’s staff were dedicated public servants and deserved a decent environment in which to work. The Cabinet Member advised the facilities at Riverside House were not plush, but provided the facilities that all staff should expect, being a desk to work at, in a safe environment, alongside colleagues.
Councillor Carter noted his support for homeworking and asked as a supplementary question whether Riverside House would be kept in the future.
The Cabinet Member reiterated that since 2018, in addition to a £500,000 annual saving negotiated on Riverside House, the Council had closed 13 separate buildings which had reduced annual revenue costs by £372,000.
(11) Councillor Carter asked the Cabinet Member for Housing “As the second lockdown starts and a harsh winter looming, what are the latest figures for homelessness within the Borough?”
In response the Cabinet Member advised that the current homeless caseload was 410, compared to 354 before the pandemic in March 2020. The Cabinet Member noted that this figure included people in temporary accommodation and at risk of homelessness and was not the number of rough sleepers.
As a supplementary question Councillor Carter asked what measures the Council was taking to reduce rough sleeping and assist those in temporary accommodation or at risk of homelessness to gain secure accommodation.
The Cabinet Member provided information on the activities being carried out by the Council and advised that the Rough Sleeper Team actively went out and about locating rough sleepers in the early hours of the morning alongside the police and voluntary sector partners. It was noted that the Rough Sleeper Team would always respond to all reports of anyone sleeping rough and offer temporary accommodation to anyone on the street, or at risk of being on the street, with a same day or next working day, assessment. The Cabinet Member also advised that the Council had been awarded funding from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme funding, to provide additional financial resources available in order to find more permanent homes for those temporary housed during the pandemic.
The Cabinet Member advised that the amount of temporary accommodation owned by the Council had increased but noted with sadness that demand was increasing due to increased levels of homelessness that was being caused for many reasons in addition to the impact of the pandemic.
(12) Councillor Carter asked the Leader of the Council “Two weeks after the City Region announced funding for regional economic support packages to businesses the details have not been made available for applications via council websites. Does the Council Leader feel this delay is acceptable given the impact this could have on local jobs and the viability of local businesses?”
In response the Leader noted the numerous changes of Government policy with regard to supporting businesses in tier two, tier three and later in national restrictions that had caused huge amounts of extra work for the Council in creating the processes needed to administer the available support. The Leader assured Councillor Carter that officers were working hard to implement the systems needed to enable businesses to apply for support they needed and that the application process for businesses entitled to further support would be finalised very shortly. The Leader reaffirmed the Council’s commitment to supporting businesses and noted that the finalised scheme would be able to operate on a South Yorkshire-wide basis in order to provide support to businesses in a joined-up manner.
As a supplementary question Councillor Carter asked which types of businesses would be targeted for discretionary support with the funding that had been made available to the Council.
The Leader advised that £30million of discretionary support had been made available for all of the South Yorkshire area up until the end of March 2021 and as such the ability of the Council to support businesses was limited. The Leader assured Councillor Carter that the priority would be support businesses that had not been able to claim any support from nationally operated schemes.
(13) Councillor Carter asked the Cabinet Member for Waste, Roads and Community Safety “In the past 6 months how many complaints has the Council received about an acrid smell in Brinsworth, and what enforcement action has the council taken to address this?”
In response the Cabinet Member noted that she would welcome any current information on the problem that Councillor Carter had regarding the problem and advised that in the last 6 months, the Council had only received contact from one new complainant, relating to an acrid smell in the area. The Cabinet Member assured Councillor Carter that the case was still however live, and in response to this long running concern the Council had introduced daily monitoring of smells in the Brinsworth area. It was noted that observations were also being made from the boundaries of 2 plants involved in the production of bituminous materials which were possible sources of this type of odour. The Cabinet Member advised that one of the suspected plants was within Rotherham and that the other was located in Sheffield. It was noted, however, that to date, it had not been possible to identify the source of the odour beyond reasonable doubt, but that daily visits continued to be made and that any further complaints would be swiftly looked into.
As a supplementary question Councillor Carter asked which Authority would be responsible for any enforcement action when the source of the smell had been identified.
The Cabinet Member advised that the Authority where eventually the smell was found to emanating from would be responsible for any enforcement action and noted excellent working relationship between the Environmental Protection Team at Sheffield City Council and their counterparts in Rotherham.