Agenda item

Questions from Members of the Council under Standing Order No 20

To receive questions from Members of the Council to the relevant Portfolio Holders for this Scrutiny Committee. The Portfolio Holders are:-


Councillor Denning -   Portfolio Holder for Council Housing Development and Support Services

Councillor Foale     -   Portfolio Holder for Corporate and Democratic Services and Environmental Health

Councillor Pearce   -   Portfolio Holder for Communities and Homelessness Prevention

Councillor Williams -   Portfolio Holder for Place and City Management


Advance questions from Members relating to the Portfolio Holders should be notified to the Democratic Services Manager via the email.





In accordance with Standing Order No. 20, the questions below to the Portfolio Holder for Council Housing Development and Support Services - Councillor Denning, the Portfolio Holder for Communities and Homelessness Prevention - Councillor Pearce and the Portfolio Holder for Place and City Management - Councillor Williams, had been submitted by Councillors Atkinson, Moore, Miller and Rees and had been circulated in advance to Members of the Committee. In the absence of Councillor Atkinson, her questions were read out by the Chair. The responses of the Portfolio Holders are set out in italics.


Question to the Portfolio Holder for Council Housing Development and Support Services - Councillor Denning


Councillor Atkinson

In July 2023, the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 became law. This Act updates the Regulator of Social Housing’s responsibilities and powers. Presently the Regulator can only investigate landlords such as the City Council when someone refers a complaint that passes a threshold that the conduct complained of “seriously harms (or could seriously harm) tenants.”

The Act means that, starting in April 2024, the Regulator can more routinely and proactively, take action in a wider range of circumstances under the consumer standards.

Proposals for amending the standards registered providers must meet so tenants live in safe, quality homes, have choice and protection, and can hold landlords to account are currently being consulted. This consultation closes at 6:00pm on 17 October 2023.

Has the City Council responded to the consultation and what is our view about whether the proposed new standard will improve healthy living in Exeter’s Council Homes?

Has the Regulator investigated a complaint that a landlord has breached the consumer regulation requirement that the conduct harms of could seriously harm tenants?


The Council housing team are aware of the consultation from the Regulator for Social Housing and have been preparing a response to the consultation which has yet to be completed and agreed. As stated this consultation has to be submitted by the 17 October and will be agreed by the Portfolio Holder before being dispatched.

The regulation is welcome by the Council as it will ensure all social landlords in the city have a clear set of standards which they must comply with in a number of areas including complaints and the quality of homes. With regards to the council housing the Council has a fully costed Housing Revenue Account (HRA) Business Plan which includes works and maintenance in relation to health and safety and compliance priorities. These standards are already part of our programme and service delivery and will be continually monitored to ensure we comply in all areas.

The Regulator has not investigated any complaints in relation to the consumer standard for the housing service and their main powers in relation to Local Authorities with retained stock come into power in April 2024.

In the period leading up to the new regulation the housing team are working on a review to ensure full compliance with the new consumer standards which will be considered by the Council Housing and Development Advisory Board once completed.   

From Councillor Moore


The all parliamentary group for Council Housing is conducting an Inquiry and is looking for views on some or all of the following:-


·         How important is council housing in addressing local/general housing need?;

·         Does your area still have directly-own council housing? If not, do you think new/acquired council homes are needed? Please say why?;

·         If your area has council housing, what condition is it in, what investment is needed, and what is stopping that investment?;

·         What is your experience of stock transfer, Private Finance Initiate (PFI), Arm’s Length Management Organisation (ALMO), Special Purchase Vehicle (SPV)s or other alternative mechanisms to build and manage council (or former council) housing?; and

·         What do you think we need to do to secure a new generation of good-quality council homes?


Would the Portfolio Holder consider coordinating a response on behalf of the Council by the deadline?



The following is the response the Council gave to the Inquiry.

Re: All-Parliamentary Group for Council Housing


Thank you for your correspondence asking for our views in relation to Council Housing which we welcome the opportunity to provide.


Exeter City Council is proud to have retained the council housing stock with approximately 4,800 homes provided at a social rent. As the largest social landlord in the city we believe it has a critical role in the provision of affordable housing to its residents. Council housing makes up 10% of the homes in the city and therefore also plays a key role in delivering great neighbourhoods and communities for residents to live in.


In terms of the stock condition of the Council’s properties, we have a costed Housing Revenue Account (HRA) Business Plan and will seek to address all maintenance priorities during that period. This will include an ambitious retrofit programme which, to date, has seen us complete full retrofit works to over 700 properties and a resulting carbon reduction of the properties and energy efficiencies of between 40% and 60% for the respective tenants.Given our dependence upon rental income for delivering our service, and the fact that our costs are generally driven by a CPI increase, there has to be a close link between the two.  Where there is a gap, as in the rent cap this year that gives us an ongoing shortfall and reduces the base figure that we apply future a percentage increases to.   


In order to demonstrate how important council housing is in addressing local general housing need we would offer the following local information:


·         According to our housing needs survey (2020) the average house price in Exeter is £249,000

·         The ratio of income to house prices for lower quartile incomes and lower quartile house prices in Exeter is 9.27 (i.e. to buy a house a lower quartile home requires almost 10 times the average gross annual wages).

·         The median monthly private sector rent is £802 (higher than the rest of the south west). The highest monthly social rent in Exeter is £326.

·         The median incomes in Exeter are £29,749

·         Based on 25% of income being for renting and 3.5 x income multiple for buying the income required to access different tenures is as follows

o   Social rent £15,648

o   Affordable rent £29,040

o   Market rent £38,496

o   Market sale (10% deposit) £64,029

o   Shared ownership (50%) £47,389

·         There are over 2,600 applicants on the housing register (which is a Devon-wide choice based letting scheme).

·         Approximately 500 properties become available to let each year of which over 320 are from the council’s own stock.

·         Of the properties let over 30% were allocated to homeless applicants.


In order to deliver a new generation of good quality council homes we believe that there needs to be an ambitious build programme across all tenures that will allow for all tenures to be grown.


Exeter has an ambitious Council own build programme to deliver 500 new homes by 2030. This programme focusses on brownfield regeneration of sites in the Councils ownership, including garage sites and the regeneration of non-traditional stock. This brownfield regeneration approach comes with the additional costs associated with this type of development; demolition and associated asbestos removals; services redirections; land contamination; substation requirements; water attenuation; and existing tenant decants/home loss payments. This makes the development of these types of sites considerably more expensive than greenfield development, and coupled with material and labour cost increases across the industry the viability to deliver this much needed housing is very challenging.


Grant availability does assist (Homes England and Brownfield Land Release Fund), but does not by itself make these sites viable or deliverable. The biggest challenge to the viability of these schemes is the current interest rates, if the government’s interest rates for borrowing were reduced this would ensure that these sites were viable again and would facilitate the delivery of these schemes.


Whilst we welcome the introduction of greater regulation in the sector to ensure quality, safe services and homes are provided to tenants this has brought with it additional costs implication that will impact on our ability to build additional homes. For example the regulator has just advised us that there will be a fee payable for their services which will equate to £35,000 to £40,000 of additional money being taken out of our new build or planned works budgets. We are also considering our resourcing levels in order to ensure we meet the regulatory requires which may adversely impact on our ability to deliver on other projects.


Whilst you have not asked the specific question we welcomed the self-financing changes at the time of introduction and do believe it is a fairer system than previously used. However it was significantly hampered by the introduction of the 5 year 1% rent reduction at the same time which impacted significantly on our HRA business plan anticipated income levels.


I hope this information is useful and if you require more information or detail from Exeter City Council we would be happy to assist with the final report or hosting an event in the south west.


Councillor Denning advised that a date was being arranged for representative of the All Party Parliamentary Group to meet locally with tenants. 


Supplementary question and answer.


Do rent levels match the Council’s policy on convergence rent levels and do funds from Right To Buy contribute to wider Council housing policies.




A written answer will be provided on statistics relating to convergence rent levels. Whilst there are commendable aspects to Right To Buy, the Council loses some 40 properties a year, effectively losing as many as can be built.


Customer Focus Scrutiny Committee agreed that a further submission be made to the Inquiry on the points raised from the supplementary questions.


Questions to the Portfolio Holder for Communities and Homelessness Prevention - Councillor Pearce


From Councillor Atkinson

Local authorities like Exeter in England do not have a duty to secure accommodation for all homeless people.

Rough sleepers are one of the most vulnerable groups in society. Studies have found strong correlations between homelessness and a multiplicity, and increased severity, of both physical and mental health conditions.

Despite the Government’s Housing First strategy and present 2022 Ending Rough Sleeping for Good policy to end Rough Sleeping by 2024, the incidents of rough sleeping seems to be increasing.

How effective does the Portfolio Holder believe this strategy and support for Councils is in meeting this target. What needs to change?


Whilst both of the cited strategies have undoubtedly promoted positive changes in practice towards supporting rough sleepers to come off the streets they ultimately have limited reach in light of wider issues such as underperforming house-building targets and the steady erosion of health and social care services. The ongoing cost of living pressures including record rising rent levels is registering a significant impact on affordability of homes, especially for lower income households including single person renters and those on benefits.

The HF and ERS strategies have been backed by funding to help Councils and local areas to add much needed capacity in terms of units of accommodation dedicated for homelessness including emergency “off-the-streets” accommodation for rough sleepers through the RSI initiative. Resettlement capacity has also been boosted by the Next Steps and Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme funding streams. However in many areas these recent additions to the local area supported accommodation for rough sleepers has only partially replaced the supported accommodation units lost over the last 13 years following the wind-down of the national Supporting People programme.

In terms of change some of the key significant factors could include changing the Local Housing Allowance rates, i.e. the rate of housing benefit assistance for households on lower incomes. The current rates paid to either UC or HB claimants remain set on the lower quartile of the local average rent figure which means for most claimants there is a significant and growing “top-up” required to be paid from personal benefits income. For example a person aged 25+ renting a room in a shared house in Exeter will typically need to find a weekly top-up of £45 from a personal benefit of £85. When adding significantly increased utility bills this leaves basically no disposable income for food and other essentials.

Arguably a major investment in social housing development is also needed in order to provide more affordable housing to help meet the growing waiting lists whilst also preserving the current capacity from continual erosion due to policies such as right to buy. An equally significant level of investment in early help, family mediation, social care and child-to-adult transition services would conceivably help support a reduction in future risk of homelessness as would investment in accommodation step-down services from institutions such as prisons and offender institutions, hospitals and mental health institutions.

A further point of change, as recommended following last year’s local homelessness scrutiny assessment, is for homelessness funding to be less short-term (typically 3 year funding cycles or less). Longer term funding packages to housing authorities, registered social landlords and third sector housing and support agencies would arguably drive better investment into the provision of dedicated and specialist housing and tenancy-related support services for homeless people including rough sleepers. 

From Councillor Moore


Please can the Portfolio Holder set out how the Council’s homeless support service reviews and responds to Inquest findings of people who have died while rough sleeping or while in the care of any service in the city offering support to people who are homeless? Please can examples of any changes as a result be given?


Please can someone give me a ring about the Healthy Homes email - I am not clear about the request.


The Director subsequently contacted the Councillor.




The Council reports all deaths in service (including street-based) to Public Health (Devon); the details of which are databased and assessed when Public Health and the Devon County Council Safeguarding assess fatalities and incidents (including suicides and near misses) for serious case review purposes. The City Council actively takes a prevention role for high risk cases by holding multi-agency meetings with providers and Devon County Council. The work is to set up support and engagement pathways for people who are most at risk, often from near miss overdoses, and to put appropriate service interventions in place to address associated problems and to engage with addiction and or therapy services. Public Health (Devon) has recently devised and implemented a suicide prevention model policy and approach with city and countywide partner agencies.


The Council’s Housing Needs and Homelessness service also has its own death in accommodation policy and procedures which incorporates review of each case/serious incident including a multi-agency approach to review and learning points. Although the statutory responsibility does not sit with the City Council, it remains the Council’s ambition to work with statutory and voluntary partners to better formally review preventable deaths, The Council is continuing conversations with Devon County Council and Adult Safeguarding to agree on a way forward via advocating formal serious case reviews in homelessness. There have been no serious case reviews in homelessness as the details are normally assessed by the Coroner’s office. To date, no practice changes have been identified or recommended as services have been able to demonstrate clear understanding of risk, recording of reasonable interventions (given available resource capacity in the sector) and application of due diligence in their respective duty of care for individuals.


Supplementary question and answer.


Has there been a review of Inquiry findings of any specific cases of individuals dying as a result of rough sleeping?




The Council works closely with Devon County Council, Adult Safeguarding and the Coroner’s Office and information can be provided if notified of the detail of any specific case.


Question to the Portfolio Holder for Place and City Management - Councillor Williams


Councillor Atkinson

The Government said it plans to make it mandatory for local authorities to collect dry mixed recycling segregated by household. Is this still being progressed?

Has it published a-monetised costs of ‘”main affected group”? Such as the costs of transition ongoing costs to households and businesses of sorting waste for new collection requirements and the wider impacts on the recycling and waste industry?



The Government consultation on ‘Consistency in Household and Business Recycling in England’ finished in June 2021. This followed on from an earlier consultation in 2019. The results of this, together with a number of related waste consultations, including a deposit return scheme and a producer responsibility scheme, have not been published or their implementation has consistently been pushed back. 

Whilst this consultation did not specify how recycling would be collected from residents, it did indicate that food waste collection would eventually be mandatory. Recent announcements by the Government indicate that no direct announcement on statutory guidance for any of the revised waste proposals, or how they are to be funded, will be released anytime soon. Concerns regarding the delays were also expressed at a meeting of the Devon Authorities Strategic Waste Committee.

Councillor Moore


How long is the average current waiting time for residents to receive new bins, including garden waste, and what has the trend been over the last six months?


Since January 2023 the Council has experienced exceptionally high demand with respect to bin deliveries as a result of new housing developments being occupied and the roll out of food waste in parts of the city. In total, the Council has delivered 35,513 waste receptacles to households which include 32,672 food waste caddies. At present, the Council is seeing a three to four week delivery time for new bins, with this being up to eight weeks on a Monday due to the level of new build properties in this delivery day area. Whilst additional resource has been allocated with additional Saturdays worked to bring delivery times down, demand is higher than resource capacity at present.


Supplementary question and answer.


When will the request for new bins be met?




As soon as possible, subject to available resources, sickness etc.


What is the current level of reports and complainants, and the service performance trends over the last six months for each of the following areas:-


·         Assisted bin service.The Council has conducted 3,283 assisted waste collections per week. Since January 2023 there have been 552 reports of missed collections (excluding food) out of the 128,037 scheduled collections which equate to 0.43% of the overall collection rate;

·         Food waste collectionsThe Council is currently conducting 21,000 food collections per week and had 1,598 reports of missed collections since January 2023;

·         New bins, including garden waste– since January 2023, the Council had 762 enquiries from customers regarding their bin delivery order and;

·         The collection of sharps since January 2023, the Council had 792 enquiries from customers regarding their sharps collection. It must be noted that doorstep sharps collections are a discretionary service provided by the Council which is not provided by all Council’s nationally.


Supplementary questions and answers.


Is the Council prioritising the collection of missed assisted bin collections?

Can bin stickers be provided on what can and cannot be disposed?

What is the average length of time to respond to requests for removal of sharps? 




There are occasions when residents miscalculate the collection times of assisted bins and other times where crews make mistakes but all incidents are individually investigated and resolved.

Residents were notified when the new food waste collections service was introduced for their area and advised on the appropriate disposal of waste. Information is also available on the Council’s website.

A written response will be provided in respect of sharps.


Bromhams Field re-establishment - please outline the problems with the topsoil and other issues that has led to the long delays to the re-establishment of Bromhams Field and how much has this cost the Council?


At the end of the Environment Agency (EA) flood alleviation works the EA contractors failed to reinstate the Bromhams pitches to playing field standards, as per its former status. The initial delay to the progression of investigations and works was as a result of the EA considering undertaking the work in house. Subsequently the EA agreed to fund the works but for the City Council to manage and deliver the project to its satisfaction. The main issues identified with the topsoil were as follows;


Natural debris (stones and rocks);

Soil compaction;

Undulating terrain;

Inappropriate vegetation; and

Poor drainage.


As a result, a remedial works package was agreed with a view to removing the topsoil, screening it, burying/sorting any stones, and re-establishing the topsoil with appropriately designed drainage and gradients. Additional clean topsoil, seeding, and fertilisation will then be used to ensure the site meets a minimum playing field quality. The EA is funding the remedial works at Bromhams fields with no current financial impact to the City Council.


Supplementary question and answer.


When will the reinstatement works commence?




A written answer will be provided.

Post meeting Note : The answer to the supplementary question regarding the time scale for Bromhams Field was already included in the Portfolio Holder’s report on Page 17 item 3 where it states “Public and Green Space anticipates the contract for works will be awarded mid to late January 2024. Operations permitting, site development will take place from Spring 2024 with an anticipated opening date Spring/Summer 2025 subject to change. 


Rougemont footpath: does this work include reopening the gate in the City wall between the two parks?


The Rougemont footpath works, once complete, will allow residents and visitors to move freely between Northernhay and Rougemont Gardens. This however, will be through the tower access route not the lower archway. The Archway repairs continue to be investigated by the City Council’s Heritage Officer and the Corporate Property team, and will take place at a later date when funding and resources allow.


Supplementary question and answer.


Has the investigation been completed and when will the works commence? 




The Corporate Property Team and the Council’s Heritage Officer have completed the investigation and are considering solutions in light of the quotes for the repair works on other sections of the city wall, vastly exceeding available funding.


Councillor Miller


In your report you mention that over the summer there has been a difficulty in releasing members of the grass team to carry out other work across the city such as maintaining shrubbery. Please can you go into a bit more detail about whether this has impacted any particular areas of the city, and how this compares to last year?


Historically we have a dry summer period which considerably slows grass growth and allows grass cutting staff to be diverted onto other activities. For the last two years, the warm, wet conditions have extended the grass season over the full course of the spring and summer period. This prevented grass teams being diverted onto those alternative activities such as shrub maintenance for six weeks mid-season. The impacts for the last two years had been the same and would have been noticeable city wide as shrubs became encased in bindweed and other growth, starting to encroach onto footways. The lack of resource meant that rather than a proactive programme of maintenance, the Council was forced to take a reactive approach, and only maintain beds where encroachment compromised access or safety.


The service establishment is fixed year round, based on the ability to offset operations seasonally i.e. shrubs/hedges are usually maintained over winter and grass is spring/summer work. Every year, operational teams take on two additional staff to inflate resource over the spring/summer to meet peak demand, however this additional resource is not enough if the Council can-not release the grass teams during the season. Should these weather patterns continue the Council will be forced to take on additional summer/spring resources to meet demand?


You mention in your report a struggle to recruit waste delivery drivers, and that you and the team have taken steps to address this. Please can you go into a bit more detail about what you see as the causes of this, and whether there is anything more as a Council we can be doing?


Over the last two years there has been a national shortage of Large Goods Vehicle (LGV) drivers which has impacted not only local authorities but also the private sector. As a result of this shortage, the private sector offered lucrative hourly rates which local authorities were unable to match. This resulted in qualified drivers leaving for better pay settlements. In addition, locally the Council has a very loyal but aging workforce. A number of drivers reached retirement age and are now happily enjoying their retirement. This led to a perfect storm which meant that the Council struggled for a period of time to recruit. However a development pathway was set up for staff, which, whilst was not an instant fix led to the Council developing members of the loyal workforce becoming drivers and thus creating a more long term sustainable solution to the workforce programme. This resulted in seven staff becoming drivers with a further two currently undertaking the training. In addition, over the last few weeks, recruitment agencies are reporting an increased amount of driver availability looking for work.


The Council has also struggled recently with the recruitment of loaders and MRF operatives. It is hoped that this is just a seasonal issue due to high vacancies in other sectors over the summer months, but should this not improve it will cause operational issues. The Council regularly undertakes recruitment drives to fulfil positions that become vacant but this can be difficult finding the right person for the role.


Supplementary question and answer.


Is there potential within existing budgets to recruit additional drivers? 




Recruitment would need to be considered in light of the ongoing cuts to services required as part of the Medium Term Financial Plan. The Cleansing team is very resourceful in identifying solutions to this problem.


The Portfolio Holder congratulated the Service Manager Public and Green Space and team for the progress made on the internal development programme giving staff within the service the opportunity to qualify as drivers.


Councillor Rees


1. What are the City Council plans for reducing our reliance on temporary and agency staff? 


Over the last 12 months we have been reducing the Council’s reliance on temporary and agency staff. This has been achieved through the adoption of a career progression pathway where loaders and MRF operative have been given the opportunity to progress onto driver training and roles. This has helped ease the issues with respect to driver recruitment which has enable the service to deliver all doorstep collection services over the last 12 months as planned. However, we do regular recruitment drives when staff leave the service. The service still requires the use of agency staff to fill for unexpected absence and vacancies to maintain service delivery, which is factored into the service budget.


Supplementary question and answer.


What lessons can be learnt from other authorities to reduce reliance on agency staff?




The team examines how other organisations retain staff. Although the private sector can offer higher wages, the remuneration relates to longer working hours. The latest pay award will assist in staff retention.


2. How much money is required for the Canal Gate and bank repairs?


The Exeter Canal was the first canal to be built in the UK since Roman times and therefore requires a great deal of ongoing maintenance and inspection. Estimates are being worked up at the moment for the more urgent works and those of a health and safety related nature. These are likely to be all that we can afford with the current financial pressures.


3. You mention teething problems with the initial food waste collection, which is to be expected. Please could you summarise the key learning from this initial phase, and how this will help to shape the future roll out.


Unfortunately whilst the Council was able to expand food waste roll out during the course of the year, new staff delivering the service coupled with unexpected absences meant that we were not able to maintain crew continuity as much as was planned. This had led to some early missed bins and an inconsistent service at times. We have invested in training more crew members on the food collections rounds to have better continuity when there is absence to cover.  Other learning points have been:-


·         to encourage residents to place their food caddy in a prominent position and not hidden behind other larger bins;

·         collecting details of local arrangements that the refuse and recycling crews have been operating to but that were not recorded on the waste collection system; and

·         trialling communal bin facilities in areas where individual caddies are not feasible.


Initially, the Council was not able to return for missed collections due to capacity, but this has now changed due to settled teams on the two food waste vehicles. Crews now have to return to any genuine collections that they miss, thus enforcing the correct collection point for the crews.


Supplementary question and answer.


Have any further measures been introduced to improve collection?




The ability for residents to now log missed food waste bins on line will lead to an improved service.


4. Please could you share the time line/targets for the roll out to the different regions of the city? 


As explained at the scrutiny presentation earlier in the year the Council is now at its capacity to accept food waste at Exton Road under the terms of our Environment Agency permit. It will not be able to commit to a timetable for further food waste roll out until the improvements to the Exton Road depot are completed and the limits on our permit lifted.  


5. Are there any additional challenges or barriers might we face with the roll out to all areas of the city? 


Recruitment of drivers and loaders is always a challenge but there has been more success with driver training lately as mentioned before. The uncertainty over central government policy on waste and recycling and the possibility of associated funding for new burdens also does not help with investment decisions.


Supplementary question and answer.


Are the problems associated with the collection of communal caddies being addressed?  




Collections from houses in multiple occupation are less straight forward.


The Government’s delay in providing guidance on household and business recycling, such as a deposit return scheme for glass collection, remains an issue. However, the team continues to seek improvements, such as identifying additional collection capacity as the rounds settle down. Members will be kept advised of progress.   


6. Please could we have an update on the refurbishments of the MRF and the expected timeline for the completion of this work?


The investment in the MRF, which also includes the regulatory work required to alter the Environmental Permit, has been tendered and, like many tenders, at the moment has come back significantly higher than the estimate. With the Council’s ongoing financial pressures this is currently unaffordable and alternative options are being explored via an options appraisal. The results of this work and any additional funding requirements will be brought to members via the usual committee process.


Role of questions and answers under Standing Order 20


Given the length of the time taken to respond to the questions received, the Chair invited suggestions for streamlining the system.


Suggestions included incorporating the relevant questions into the regular Portfolio Holder updates and the circulation of both questions and answers in advance of the meeting. Whilst the timing of the receipt of questions might require fine tuning prior circulation of the answers, this was considered an acceptable solution and would be put to the next meeting of the Scrutiny Programme Board.


It was recognised that a question and answer session helped inform the public of important issues and Members also referred to the need to focus more on the in depth scrutiny of issues/individual areas with an emphasis on outcomes as discussed at the recent scrutiny training exercise led by Bethan Evans.