Nine questions were received:
1) Question from Councillor Gorton to the Leader of the Council:
“The publication of the draft Local Plan, which highlights the importance of residents having access to public transport, coincided with the decision by First to axe the bus service between Audley and Hanley. The frequency of services on other routes has also been reduced.
Does the Leader of the Council agree that the time is right to: a) reconsider the current arrangements for operating bus services across the Borough; b) for the Borough Council to work with the City Council and other authorities across Staffordshire to put in place a new structure for providing bus services which could involve services being run by new bus operators?”
The Leader stated that this was in relation to Route 7 that originally came through Audley which had been picked up by D&G. The Council did not have any specific powers around bus services but did feed into the County wide Policies. The Government had brought forward a national Bus Strategy that was asking County Councils / Highways and Transport Authorities to set up enhanced partnerships with the bus services and to bring forward an improvement plan. The Council was working with the County Council through the Leaders Board and was looking to put in a bid to Government for devolved powers, one of which could be around the area of transport. There could also be a North Staffordshire Bid Public Transport Improvement which would include bus services.
2) Question from Councillor Edgington-Plunkett to the Portfolio Holder for Sustainable Environment:
“In the Leader’s statement it expresses that the administration will continue to improve the recycling and waste service, can the portfolio holder for sustainable environment please tell the residents and members what his action plan is for this service to improve? It also states that agency staff will be employed to help with the service, can the portfolio holder also inform members how many agency staff will be employed, how much this is costing the council and how many colleagues in the waste and recycling service are currently off on long term sickness?”
Councillor Hutchison stated that there were 7 staff currently on long term sick leave out of a workforce of approximately 77 drivers and loaders. Pressures within the NHS were leading to appointments being cancelled and therefore delaying actions to help staff back into work. Against this, short term sickness causes temporary service disruption.
To increase resilience, the Council was increasing the driver / loader team posts through existing staff who would be able to do both. Four new drivers had been recruited and the Council would be advertising for four more. The Council was in the process of developing a Workforce Strategy to attract younger people with career progression opportunities.
The garden waste service was seasonal in nature. Agency staff were brought into the service as required to cover absences such as annual leave. This was the most efficient way to manage the variation in resourcing. The aggregate value for agency staff would be in the region of £212,000 per year. The Council was in the process of an Agency Framework Review that would standardise rates and maintain strong governance in terms of training and induction.
Councillor Edgington-Plunkett asked a supplementary question about whether the Portfolio holder thought a union undertaking a consultative ballot for industrial action would add to the recent issues in waste and recycling.
The Portfolio holder stated that a written reply would be issued for this.
3) Question from Councillor Edgington – Plunkett to the Leader of the Council:
The question, regarding J2 had been answered earlier in the meeting and was therefore withdrawn.
4) Question from Councillor Bryan to the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Town Centres and Growth:
“I note that the outturn for 2022/23 shows a favourable variance of £8,000 against the budget. Given the financial pressures that the Council is under, how did you achieve such a positive outcome?”
Councillor Sweeney stated that the actual forecast position compared to the budget set in February, 2022 was continuously monitored by the Finance Team, Corporate Leadership Team and Portfolio Holder in order to detect any significant variances of expenditure or income from the approved amounts. Prompt corrective actions had been taken to ensure that the Council delivered a balanced budget position for the year 2022/23.
Councillor Bryan asked a supplementary question about the Portfolio Holder’s confidence regarding the strong financial management continuing into current and future years.
Councillor Sweeney was very confident. The recent Peer Review spoke glowingly about the Council’s Financial Planning and Management and quoted their findings.
5) Question from Councillor Brown to the Leader of the Council:
“This year, Love Parks’ week runs from 28 July to 6 August.This annual campaign celebrates parks, green spaces, and the dedicated volunteers and workers that look after them all year round. These vibrant, living spaces bring communities together and provide an opportunity to connect with nature in the heart of our cities, towns, and neighbourhoods. Can the Leader provide Council with an update and explanation as to why council has decided not to support this initiative?”
The Leader stated that the Council continued to support such events as Love Parks and other initiative that enabled communities to become actively involved in green spaces and looking after their neighbourhoods. Support and advice was also made available to community groups that want to hold events on their local green spaces and carry out projects to improve them which could be seen through Britain in Bloom. Tree planting in the Council’s carbon catch areas on 60 green spaces that had been protected. Even though the Council had not organised a specific event for Love Parks it was still supported.
Councillor Brown asked a supplementary question about what the Council would be doing at the park during the Parade for Love Parks Week so that she can share it with her residents.
The Leader suggested getting in touch with the Parks team who deal with maintenance and promotion to ask what could be done to help and what they could do to put on an event.
6) Question from Councillor Stubbs to the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Town Centres and Growth:
“The Office of Budget Responsibility has predicted that “Real Household Disposable Income” (The Measure of Real Living Standards here in the UK) per person, is expected to fall by a cumulative 5.7 per cent over the next two financial years. Would the Portfolio Holder for Finance update us how the Borough Council will step in to protect the most vulnerable here in the Borough who are facing the largest two-year fall since records began in 1956-57.”
Councillor Sweeney stated that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) was often wrong and any forecast was rarely completely accurate. Forecasts from the OBR were predictions rather than warnings. Thanks to measures announced at the Spring Budget the predicted recession had gone away. The Government would now follow its economic plan to ensure that living standards continued to rise in the UK. The Government was protecting the most vulnerable with a £94bn package of cost of living support worth £3,300 per household. The Council continued to passport funding out to residents and businesses within the Borough.
Councillor Stubbs asked a supplementary question about the 5% cut equated to a real time cash fall of £1,841 for every household and the £97.2m subsequently withdrawn from the local economy which could affect both the businesses within the Borough and budget setting at the Council.
Councillor Sweeney mentioned the government’s £94bn cost of living package as per the previous question.
7) Question from Councillor Stubbs to the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Town Centres and Growth:
“Nationally, the Conservative Government have crashed the Economy leaving Newcastle Residents to pick up the pieces. Does the Portfolio Holder for Finance agree with the Prime Minister that my residents in Talke and Butt Lane, and residents across the Borough, should “hold their nerve” when it comes to rising interest rates and stubborn inflation, or does he agree with me that the Prime Minister is simply out of touch?”
Councillor Sweeney responded that since 2010 the UK economy had grown faster than France and Japan and was currently outpacing Germany as well as having the fastest growth in the G7. The inflation was falling faster than predicted and interest rates were set independently from governments by the Bank of England.
Councillor Stubbs asked a supplementary question about research suggesting that 3,774 households in Newcastle faced a mortgage penalty of £2,300 per year and where the residents already suffering from a cost of living crisis could find the 8.7 million to cover increased mortgages.
Councillor Sweeney expressed the opinion that this was outside of the scope of the Council.
8) Question from Councillor Stubbs to the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Town Centres and Growth:
“End Child Poverty is an organisation that highlights the real impacts that poverty has on the daily lives of Children across the UK. Would the Portfolio Holder care to comment on the latest figures for Newcastle under Lyme suggesting that around 7,829 children are currently living in abject poverty?”
Councillor Sweeney responded that relative poverty, which was the metric calculated in the research referred to, was a measure of income inequality and not of absolute poverty. Every member of the Council would agree that all children should grow up safe, healthy and cared for with no limitations placed on their potential based on the circumstances of their birth. Evidences to reduce poverty were essential in continuing and no government National or local would ever say otherwise. The best way to lift families out of poverty and support living standards was to work better skills and high wages that is why the Borough Council's corporate priorities included successful and sustainable growing Borough and why its Administration was bring forward a local plan based on well-planned growth, attracting high school, highways, jobs and store area opening up opportunities for all residents. The government had also put those mostly needed a financial support first when it came to financial support as it had been demonstrated through the millions of families supported through the coronavirus pandemic and then through the unprecedented cost of living support packages made available in response to the spike in energy costs.
Councillor Stubbs asked a supplementary question about poverty putting pressure on struggling families and undermining their ability to cope as well as the role of the wider administration to address the 33 percent child poverty rate in Newcastle.
Councillor Sweeney responded that the Council was currently offering £3,000 support to every family.
9) Question from Councillor Stubbs to the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Town Centres and Growth:
“According to the Office for National Statistics, the average family in Newcastle-under-Lyme has seen the price of the weekly food shop rise by a staggering £700 per year. Given there will be an estimated 30,200 households within the Borough directly affected by this, that is a further £21.1M being absorbed by struggling families with minimal help, and indeed my previous questions, would the Portfolio holder agree to join with me in writing to our Local MPs to demand more support from a Government that is currently failing our residents?”
Councillor Sweeney responded that Councillor Stubbs should issue a motion for the Council to debate. Inflation was invidious, eroding the means of all families in the borough and making everything more costly for the Council as an authority. Energy Prices rose sharply in 2022 as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost of producing storing and transporting food shut up along with domestic energy bills. Before the war both Russia and Ukraine ranked among the top three Global exporters of wheat, barely, maize and rapeseed oil, sunflower seed and sunflower oil. Short supply of these Commodities had also pushed up prices on the global market.
Help from the government to tackle the cost of living was provided through the energy price guarantee capping utility bills, the 400 pound Energy bill discount for all households, the 150 pounds council tax rebates, the 650 pounds cost living payment for those on benefits, the 300 pounds pension of cost of living payments, the 150 pound payment for those on disability benefits, the 500 million pound household support fund to provide targeted discretionary support to exactly those low-income families who need that extra help, a 94 billion package in total worth 3 300 on average per household. The government was doing everything it could to reduce inflation which was a single action that would most help the greatest number of people.