Scrutiny Committee Minutes

Tuesday, 19th January, 2010
Committee Room 1, Council Offices, Gernon Road, Letchworth Garden City

Attendance Details

Councillor Mrs A.G. Ashley, Councillor David Billing, Councillor John Bishop, Councillor John Booth, Councillor S.K. Jarvis, Councillor Lorna Kercher, Councillor Marilyn Kirkland, Councillor Alan Millard, Councillor Elliot Needham, Councillor Lawrence Oliver, Councillor Michael Paterson, Councillor R.L. Shakespeare - Smith
In attendance:
Strategic Director of Finance and Regulatory Services, Strategic Director of Customer Services, Head of IT and Customer Services, Service Manager - Grounds Maintenance, Scrutiny Officer and Committee and Member Services Officer
Also Present:
Councillor F.J. Smith (Leader of the Council) and Councillor Ian Knighton (Portfolio Holder for Leisure and E-Government)
Item Description/Decision
Apologies for absence were received from Councillor Howard Marshall (Councillor John Booth substituting).
RESOLVED: That the Minutes of the meetings held on 8 December 2009 be approved as a true record of the proceedings and signed by the Chairman.

No other business was submitted for consideration by the Committee.
There were no presentations from members of the public.
No urgent or general exception items were received.
Since the last meeting, no decisions had been called-in by the Scrutiny Committee.
(1) Members were reminded that the proposed meetings of this Committee with Hitchin Committee to consider an item titled “Award Hitchin Churchgate Development Contract” will now take place on Monday 22 February 2010 at Hitchin Town Hall.

(2) Members were reminded that any declarations of interest in respect of any business set out in the agenda, and the nature of the interest, should be declared as either a prejudicial or personal interest at the commencement of the relevant item on the agenda. Members declaring a prejudicial interest should leave the room and not seek to influence the decision during that particular item;

(3) The Chairman gave a further reminder that any advice from a Member of the Committee concerning a party whip direction should also be declared.

The following questions had been submitted by Councillor David Billing:

(A) Comprehensive Area Assessment

“Which councillors were involved in any parts of the assessment for the Comprehensive Area Assessment which led to the dismal result for North Herts DC of ‘performs adequately’ ”.

The Head of Policy, Partnerships and Community Development had provided the following response;

“A considerable number of officers and members were involved in different areas of the Comprehensive Area Assessment, as the inspection is different from former ‘single assessment’ inspections akin to those undertaken under the former CPA regime.

The full assessment required three sections to be completed

• External assessment of partnership working across the county, conducted by the Audit Commission and which looked primarily at the work of the district LSPs and how they linked to the County LSP - Herts Forward.
The Leader of NHDC, Cllr F John Smith, was interviewed as part of that process, one of only two district reps who are represented at the county LSP.

• Through the ‘Use of Resources’ section, which is discussed with the budget portfolio holder and policy portfolio holder once the self assessment templates had been completed by officers

• The final, on site, assessment which required participation of officers and members into relevant, but separate focus groups. These included a separate focus group interview with all members of the Cabinet, then with the chair and vice chair of both PARC and Scrutiny, and finally leaders of the opposition groups (or their nominated representatives).

It is also worth noting that whilst the main purpose of the change of assessment form CPA to CAA was for the measurement of ‘Place’, the intention was (and remains) to ‘raise the bar’ for local government generally. So for the Authority to have achieved ‘performs adequately’, alongside 50% of the other Herts local authorities is a reflection that NHDC have sufficiently robust financial, audit and governance arrangements in place, and thus is not only a measure of performance per se or indeed a comparison of like for like with previous inspections.”

Councillor Billing advised that the complete version of the Organisational Assessment interpreted ‘performs adequately’ as an organisation that only meets minimal requirements and asked the following supplementary question:

“When will the Performance, Audit and Review Committee receive a report on what needs to be done to remedy issues together with a list of actions necessary”.

(B) Gritting of pavements during bad weather

"After the bad weather in February, I raised with the North Herts Highways JMP the matter of responsibility for gritting pavements, and was told it is delegated by Highways to NHDC on the basis that street cleaners cannot do that job when the streets are covered in snow and ice, so they use the time to grit pavements instead. This does not seem to have happened during the snow and ice we have had since 17 December. Please could I know what is NHDC's understanding of who grits pavements - not just in town centres but in residential areas where there are significant inclines and near schools, health services and the approaches to rail stations? If not a NHDC responsibility, then what is the Council doing to ensure an acceptable level of priority is given by Highways to these pavements?

Secondly, does NHDC have a detailed schedule of Herts Highways priorities for gritting roads and (if their responsibility) pavements? By detailed, I mean names of roads, not just the types of roads with various levels of priority. What influence does NHDC have over this schedule, for example in relation to roads with schools or health services or steep inclines?

Lastly, does NHDC have a list or map of salt bin sites, and any influence over where additional ones should be placed and over the frequency of their refilling?"

The question had been referred to the Head of Policy, Partnerships and Community Development who will circulate a response as soon as it becomes available.

The Strategic Director of Customer Services advised that Hertfordshire County Council was responsible for keeping highways clear; that this responsibility had not been delagated to NHDC, although support had been offered. He also advised that it was not practical to grit all paths and that there had been a shortage of grit. He also informed Members that NHDC did not hold a list of salt bin locations.

The following question had been submitted by Councillor David Billing at the Scrutiny Committee meeting held on 8 December 2009 :

(C) Cycle to Work Policy

"Does the Council have a Cycle to Work policy, and/or any schemes to assist staff with the purchase of cycles and/or cars, and if so how do such schemes further green policies, and what are the outline details of amounts and eligibility?"

The Strategic Director of Planning, Housing and Enterprise and the Corporate Human Resources Manager had provided the following response:

“In the past, NHDC operated a "Bikes for Work" salary sacrifice scheme to encourage cycling to work but it was discontinued due to its very low take up. Take up rates for similar schemes in other local authorities have also been consistently very low. Shower facilities were provided in the main District Council Offices and provisions for cycle parking were made at the main Gernon Road office and at the Town Lodge building.

There are a number of issues to consider about cycling to work including cycle parking and security, the provision of showers and changing rooms, and facilities for clothing and equipment storage. An NHDC Travel Plan was recommended by the Transport FSR and is part of the Climate Change Strategy’s Transport key theme. The Travel Plan will consider a package of measures including walking, cycling, passenger transport use, car sharing and the use of pool cars. At present the Council offers car loans to members of staff whose posts are designated as essential car users.”

Councillor Billing asked the following supplementary question:

“Hertfordshire County Council has a mileage allowance scheme for staff who cycle to work. Does this Council have such a scheme?”.

The Strategic Director of Finance, Policy and Governance advised that we do.
The Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee presented the Draft Forward Plan to the Committee, which covered the period 1 January 2010 to 30 April 2010.

The Chairman reminded Members that a report regarding proposals to convert Hitchin Town Hall to a museum and community facility had been considered by this Committee on 13 October 2009 and that this issue was not expected to be considered by this Committee again, unless matters were different to those already scrutinised.

Members considered that the report regarding “Adoption of a New Common Housing Allocation Scheme”, due to be considered by Cabinet on 30 March 2010, should be scrutinised by this Committee and the report regarding “Allocation of Housing and Planning Delivery Grant”, due to be considered by Cabinet on 30 March 2010, should be considered by the Finance Sub-Group of this Committee.


(1) That the Draft Forward Plan, covering the period 1 January 2010 to 30 April 2010, be noted;

(2) That the item marked “Adoption of a New Common Housing Allocation Scheme” due to be considered by Cabinet on 30 March 2010 be considered by the Scrutiny Committee;

(3) That the item marked “Allocation of Housing and Planning Delivery Grant due to be considered by Cabinet on 30 March 2010 be considered by the Scrutiny Committee Finance Sub-Group.

REASON FOR DECISION: to ensure that the Scrutiny Committee is able to scrutinise key decisions prior to consideration by Cabinet.

Councillor Ian Knighton, the Portfolio Holder for Leisure and E-Government, thanked the Chairman for the opportunity to address the Committee on the E-Government element of his portfolio.

Councillor Knighton introduced Tim Cowland (Head of IT and Customer Services). He informed the Committee that he would focus on key issues as follows:

• A considerable amount of strategic work had been undertaken;
• Consideration had been given to funding of IT and how IT is and can be used to support how the Council works;
• This year had seen the culmination of the contract with Anite;
• Other issues have been service integration, document management and storage, property issues, IT effectiveness and developments in home working;
• Action plans in place to enable Officers to continue with this work;
• Increased use by customers of internet, e-payments and e-bookings resulting in Officers being available for other duties and easier access for the customer;
• IT restructure was deferred pending the appointment of a Head of Service, this would now be reviewed taking into account how IT supports service delivery;
• Emails blocked by the filters were previously manually checked by a member of IT, but a new system is now in place which allows the receiver to monitor their own incoming emails;
• Gov Connect, a way to connect with National Government, has resulted in tighter security, including controls on forwarding emails to non NHDC email addresses.

Councillor Knighton informed Members that current priorities were:
• To make best use of current resources;
• Improve service delivery;
• Continually improve services and cost efficiency of service@north-herts;
• Ensure development of a formal IT strategy continues;
• Restructure of staff;
• Look at information management including what information do we collect, how do we use it, how do we benchmark and how to meet requirements;
• New technology is being considered to maximize use and efficiency;
• Consider how IT can support Mobile working, home working and hot desking;
• Continuity of Citrix connections imperative;
• Considering IT needs of Members to enable best outcomes and benefits;
• Website upgraded and tested to ensure it conforms with accessibility standards.

He then advised the Committee of future plans which included:
• Server virtualisation, which would reduce the number of servers required from over 50 to single figures, thus reducing space required, licencing costs and carbon emissions;
• Considering the changing requirements of the Authority and the consequential IT needs.

Members asked several questions including whether sufficient back up procedures were in place in case of system failure; whether too much money was being spent on IT; whether consultants were employed too regularly; whether web-casting of meetings would be considered in the future; what could be outsourced regarding document management; how NHDC encouraged interactions via electronic means and what opportunities were available for partnership working.

The Head of IT and Customer Services advised Members that day to day back ups take place and that standby equipment was available should it be required in ‘a disaster scenario’.

Councillor Knighton informed Members that NHDC purchased the best IT system to produce the desired outcome and best value; that web-casting and paperless meetings were issues to be considered in the future and that the NHDC website was publicized via Outlook, CSC and Leisure contractors.

The Strategic Director of Customer Services informed the Committee that the fees for consultants had included an interim Head of IT and technical support for specific projects and advised that benefits of IT systems included more efficient mobile and home working; that NHDC had a large amount of data and ways of storing and retrieving these were being considered and that a wide range of partnership opportunities were being explored, including through Pathfinder.

The Chairman thanked Councillor Knighton for his informative presentation and invited him to return at a later date to present details of the leisure aspect of his portfolio.

Councillor Smith, the Leader of the Council, thanked the Chairman for the opportunity to address the Committee on his representation of North Hertfordshire on outside bodies.

Councilor Smith informed Members that he represented NHDC on both regional and local levels and drew attention to the following groups:
• East of England Regional Assembly;
• Greater Cambridge Partnership Board
Consists of Leaders of Councils surrounding the Cambridge area as well as leaders of the business and scientific world, police and voluntary organisations. One of the aims was to encourage international bodies to the area including considering what improvement to services would support this;
• Herts Leaders Group;
• Hertfordshire Core Group
Looking at cooperation between councils;
• CCTV Board
This board includes Stevenage, Bedfordshire, East Herts and schools. The CCTV Board was expanding and becoming more cost effective as it grows;
• Also represent on Local Strategic Partnerships, Local Area Agreements and SNAP as well as many others.

In response to questions raised by Members Councillor Smith also advised that Hertfordshire Forward performed a useful liaison purpose, with results becoming apparent over a long period; that he was a substitute on and East of England committee group, which meant he received detailed information; that he represented NHDC as effectively as possible at the many diverse bodies on which he sits.

The Chairman thanked Councillor Smith for his presentation.

The Service Manager - Grounds Maintenance (SMGM) presented a report regarding Development of New Contracts for Grounds Maintenance. He advised the Committee that the purpose of the report was to bring the issues relating to new contracts for grounds maintenance to the attention of Members, but that this was the start of the process and although advice from NHDC Officers had been that there were no known risks at this stage, risks would be identified as the process progressed. He informed Members that starting the process early would enable clearer financial planning during a difficult financial period and that opportunities would be available to investigate partnership working. He advised that the results of any investigations would be presented to both Area Committees and Cabinet in due course.

Members sought clarification regarding when the proposed contract would be awarded and when it would start.

The SMGM advised that it was proposed to award the contract during March 2011 with a start date of March 2012.

Members debated the report and were pleased to note that partnership working would be considered and supported the intention to investigate options at an early stage. However, they expressed concern that the possible risks had not been identified at this early stage particularly in regard to the existing contract management in the final year. Members suggested that consideration be given to preparation of documents in advance, but felt that the completion of the process should not take place so far in advance of completion of the existing contract. Members questioned how the equalities implications at paragraph 8.1 impinged on this report.


(1) That recommendations in the report be supported;

(2) To note that the early letting of the contract for grounds maintenance will not be finalised without specific authority.

REASON FOR DECISION: To enable the Scrutiny Committee to comment on the report entitled “Grounds Maintenance Contract Renewal”, prior to consideration by Cabinet on 26 January 2010.

Councillor Kercher (Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee Finance Sub-Group) explained that the sub-group had considered Corporate Business Planning - Draft Budget for 2010/201, Review of the Parish Amenity Capital Improvement Fund (PACIF) and the Council’s use of Consultants. She informed Members that, in respect of the Draft Budget for 2010/11, a more sophisticated system for assessing and quantifying risks was being developed and that as more risks were identified and quantified the 5% revenue balance of £881,000 should be revisited to consider if it was still justified. The group had noted the efficiency proposal not to inflate grant aid to organisations from the 2009/10 levels and considered that Hertfordshire County Councillors could be requested to use their discretionary budgets to help organisations. In respect of PACIF, Councillor Kercher advised that the group welcomed the proposal to extend available funding for a further year and considered that Section 106 monies might also used to fund local projects where these were eligible to lessen the impact on the Council’s capital reserves. In respect of the Councils use of consultants, she informed Members that the group had noted the spending of £370,000 on temporary posts and questioned whether a vacancy control period of four months was counter productive and, following discussion on IT expenditure, had requested that a report on IT spending be bought to a future meeting of the Sub-Group.


(1) That, in respect of the Revenue Budget 2010/11, the proposal not to inflate grants to organisations should be subject to further consultation, inviting the organisations concerned to notify the Council of any adverse impact on their agreed service:

(2) That, in respect of the Review of the Parish Amenity Capital Improvement Fund (PACIF), Section 106 monies be used, where appropriate, as an additional source of funding for local projects.

REASON FOR DECISION: To ensure that the Scrutiny Committee is kept fully informed of financial information and decisions.

The Scrutiny Officer presented the report regarding the Scrutiny Committee Work Programme. He advised that nominations were required for membership of the Task and Finish Group regarding Facilities for Teenagers; that a workshop would be held for Councillors on 3 February 2010 regarding Scrutiny powers and that the Trade Waste Task and Finish Group aimed to present its finding to the Waste Project Board.

(1) That the Scrutiny Work Programme for 2009/10 be noted;

(2) That Group Leaders be requested to advise the Scrutiny Officer of nominations for membership of the Task and Finish Group regarding Facilities for Teenagers;

(3) That the Task and Finish Group on Trade Waste be authorised to present their findings directly to the Waste Project Board, providing that the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of this Committee are satisfied with the report.

Published on Friday, 29th January, 2010