To consider the report of the Service Manager Performance and Democratic.
Consideration was given to the report of the Service Manager Performance & Democratic.
The Managing Director commenced by stating that this report had been considered and endorsed by both the Corporate Overview Scrutiny Committee and Executive Committee. This statutory report was required to be produced and published by 31st October annually. However, the new Local Government & Elections (Wales) Act 2021 had changed the reporting arrangements going forward and in future, the Council would be required to develop reports on the progress made against the Corporate Plan priorities and the Well-being of the Future Generations (Wales) Act. Therefore, this would be final report that would be produced in its current format.
The report recognised that 2020/2021 had been an incredibly difficult year for Council’s and communities and it was acknowledged that some priorities had been delayed as resources were directed into critical services and as the Council’s response focussed on the pandemic and subsequently, the recovery phase.
At this juncture, the Managing Director paid tribute and expressed her appreciation to staff who had worked so tirelessly during this period. The report detailed the progress made within areas of Council activity and this tremendous achievement during such a difficult time was a credit to the workforce, Members, communities and partners.
Members were then given to the opportunity to raise questions/comment on the report. These comments were summarised as follows:
- The Leader of the Labour Group commenced by highlighting that this was the Council’s own assessment of its own performance and said he felt that report read too positively and did not highlight sufficiently, the improvements that were required. An example of this was the recent Estyn Thematic Review which, had highlighted positive areas but had focussed less on the required improvements.
The report was overly optimistic and a far more balanced report should have been provided for the public because it portrayed the opposite view to what members of the public perceived i.e. litter and in particular, animal trespass was increasing in all parts of the County Borough – it was pointed out that requests had been made for a new service to be established to address this issue. In addition, as part of the previous year’s budget, a proposal to enhance the CCTV service had been presented – again, it was pointed out that Blaenau Gwent was the only authority in Gwent that did not have a manned CCTV service.
The Leader of the Labour Group continued by referring to consultation and said that the Council had failed on this aspect and cited recent topics whereby he felt that there had been a lack of engagement i.e. Festival Park, General Offices and Rail Car Parks and the Ebbw Valley Rail Investment.
However, with regard to the Covid-19 emergency response, the Council had been magnificent and the Social Services Department and staff had been fantastic - this had been qualified in a recent Care Inspectorate Wales Report.
The Leader of the Labour Group concluded by stating that whilst there were areas of good work within Blaenau Gwent there needed to be a focus on less positive areas - previously the Council had been criticised by Audit Wales with regard to being too optimistic and said a far more balanced report would have sufficed.
Other Members commented as follows:
- The work undertaken by the Council and staff throughout the course of the pandemic was commended.
- A Member echoed the comments of the Leader of the Labour Group and said that the Council was going through challenging times as a result of the pandemic and commended the authority on its response. She continued by referring to CCTV and said that she had had extensive consultation with Gwent Police previously and pointed out that the report had failed to mention that Gwent Police would be willing to pay for cloud storage (images would then be able to viewed live at Police Headquarters) if the Council provided a CCTV control operator. The report had also omitted to mention that the Blaenau Gwent was the worst performing Council in Gwent with regard to CCTV.
With regard to animal trespass, there was a considerable amount of work still to be done with regard to fencing and this was an area that was under-resourced.
The Managing Director on a point of accuracy and clarification advised that no offer of funding had been made for CCTV to the authorities from Gwent Police. This service was fully funded by the Council.
The Member confirmed that the Office of the Police & Crime Commissioner had offered to pay for cloud storage when a CCTV operator was in post to monitor the cameras. Blaenau Gwent was the only authority in Gwent not operating in this manner.
The Managing Director welcomed proposals around cloud storage to improve Police access to footage and said that whilst early discussions had taken place, no firm proposal had been provided. However, the Council was willing to participate with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and other authorities on this initiative.
- The level of public engagement and participation had deteriorated since the pandemic. It was pointed out that there were incidences whereby residents were still travelling to the Civic Centre because they were not aware the building had closed.
- A Member commented in terms of straying animals, that farmers should take more responsibility for their animals and look after them in a reasonable and safe manner.
The Leader of the Labour Group agreed that it was a duty on farmers to take more responsibility for their animals. Whilst the impounding service had ceased in previous years, this had been as a result of £32m direct cuts during that period and at the time this decision had been taken, impounding incidents had decreased. However, each time a proposal had been made to reinstate this service, financially the Council had been in a far better position and, therefore, the service should have been reinstated.
Another Member referred to particular issues with horses on a site in his area which, had been the subject of several meetings and said that there was still a need to consider re-instatement of the impounding service sooner rather than later. Another Member said that the Council had to take responsibility for straying animals as they were straying onto the highway and estates and causing public safety issues. It was noted that in addition to sheep, there had been incidences of large horses and cows straying.
- Blaenau Gwent was the only authority in Wales that had not erected signage in town centres during the pandemic advising people to ‘keep safe a safe distance and maintain 2m apart’ and a Member asked the reason why this decision had been taken because he had received complaints from retailers regarding the lack of signage. With regard to car parking, this situation had not improved since the Council had taken over the Civil Parking Enforcement powers from the Police because vehicles were still parking dangerously in town centres and the Member had received numerous complaints regarding the lack of enforcement activity in this area.
The Corporate Director of Regeneration and Community Services confirmed that upon receipt of the town centre Covid funding, it had been agreed in discussions with traders, to focus the funding on business activity. A view was taken that people were well aware of social distancing rules through media channels and the considerable amount of public messaging, which was reinforced with an enforcement presence in areas, including town centres.
With regard to civil parking enforcement this was a new service being operated by the Council which had been passported to the authority from the Police. With the level of resources provided, the service was effective in terms of what it could deliver and a number of tickets had been issued pre Covid-19 and the enforcement activity had started to manage the ‘hotspots’.
However, if Members had particular concerns about certain areas, the Corporate Director requested that the relevant details be forwarded and resources would be targeted accordingly. However, if additional activity or changes to the service was required, this would require a separate discussion.
- As Education continued to remain a priority in order to improve standards in schools so that all children were able to reach their full potential, the following two questions were posed to the Executive Member for Education and Corporate Director of Education:
Question 1 – As a result of the pandemic, GCSE examinations had been cancelled and had been replaced by teacher assessments and in addition, there had also been a relaxation to report results of the local authorities. The Executive Member was asked whether she was confident that education standards in Blaenau Gwent were improving, especially within the two particular schools that that were currently in an Estyn category and whether these schools would be removed from these measures.
The Executive Member commenced by stating that it would not be for her to decide if the two schools would be removed from the categories, this would be a decision for Estyn to make. However, she was satisfied that the schools causing concern were making very good progress and there was a rigorous process in place to check and balance the progress that schools were making.
Question 2 - Performance at the Blaenau Gwent Learning Zone. Concern was expressed regarding the number of young people taking ‘A’ level courses because according to the previous year’s data, that this number had decreased. The Corporate Director was asked if he was aware of the percentage of young people attending further education in Blaenau Gwent, as a percentage of young people that had enrolled for ‘A’ Level courses compared to other schools and colleges in other local authority areas. The following concerns were also raised by the Member:
There were a number of young people who were choosing to attend other establishments rather than attend the Blaenau Gwent Learning Zone, for example Merthyr College and Crickhowell High School.
In a year when no school should be aware of each other’s results, one school had circulated a letter to prospective parents indicating that it had the best results in Blaenau Gwent.
Correspondence was being circulated to children attending secondary schools in north Gwent asking them to consider Crickhowell High School as a destination for a secondary education.
The Corporate Director commenced echoing the comments of the Executive Member that the two schools currently in Estyn categories did feature as part of the regional schools causing concerns discussions and he did have confidence that both schools were making real progress.
With regard to the Blaenau Gwent Learning Zone, the data was encouraging in terms of the performance at ‘A’ Level – A* to E grades were 99.1% pass rates and this performance was in line with the Welsh national average across the country. Further work was being undertaken with the Learning Zone moving forward to make further progress on A* - A grades for the more able and talented learners.
It was noted that one of the main reasons that the Learning Zone had been established was to create a balance between academic and vocational learning opportunities and parity of esteem and the Learning Zone was holding its position in terms of the amount of ‘A’ Levels offered and there were more post 16 learners attending the college than ever before. In addition, the amount of vocational learning was also increasing. In terms of the proportion of learners taking ‘A’ Levels, this had stabilised this year and there were circa 324 ‘A’ Levels results in 2021.
With regard to learning establishments, it was a matter of parental and learner choice to decide which establishment to be educated at. However, the Strategic Post 16 Partnership Board was currently working with headteachers and Coleg Gwent to identify the reason that learners were choosing alternative establishments and to ensure a smooth transition from Year 11 to Post 16. It was noted that discussions had already taken place with the headteacher in Tredegar as a number of the learners from that establishment had decided to attend Merthyr College.
The Corporate Director undertook to have a separate discussion with the Member regarding the letter that had been issued by a school regarding its results because he had not been sighted on this correspondence.
In terms of Crickhowell High School being a destination school, currently there were 3 of 4 secondary schools in the County Borough that were experiencing capacity issues in terms of admissions arrangements. This was an indicator that parents were choosing secondary schools in the County Borough, that the levels of confidence were improving and gave an assurance in terms of secondary performance across the County Borough.
- Concern was expressed regarding members of the public exercising their animals on playing fields and the amount of dog fouling in communities.
The Corporate Director of Regeneration & Community Services advised that enforcement activity on public open spaces and for littering had been reintroduced from the start of September. Although the areas where dogs where prohibited were clearly marked, further messaging would be released into communities to remind people not to exercise their animals on public spaces and enforcement activity within these areas would continue.
A Member proposed that Option 1 be supported. This proposal was seconded.
The Leader of the Council confirmed his support for Option 1. In recognising that Members had taken the opportunity to highlight some issues, he pointed out that each administration had to make decisions based on circumstances and in the public’s best interest. However, it was the intention that reports which would address some of the concerns raised, would be considered and discussed through the democratic process in due course.
With regard to the issue of engagement issue, he accepted that some of the communication of late had not met the required standard, however, the Council had collectively engaged over the last 4 years, and Audit Wales had commented that this engagement had been ‘as well as any and maybe better than previous Councils’. However, unfortunately the engagement within town centres and supermarkets via the highly successful roadshows, which had been attended by politicians from all groups had been unable to continue as in previous years, due to the pandemic.
The Leader of the Council said that the report set out the key activities, measured against the improvement plan on a portfolio basis and highlighted notable service activity and the report was very much balanced in this regard.
The Leader of the Labour Group requested that in future the Leader, Deputy Leader and Executive Members participate in the whole debate and not just sum up at the end of the discussion. This was a political report and should be defended and led by Members and not officers. He concluded by advising that he took an alternative view regarding consultation and engagement.
It was, thereupon, unanimously,
RESOLVED, subject to the foregoing, that the report be accepted and Option 1 be endorsed, namely, the retrospective progress made and included within the Council’s Assessment of Performance for 2020/2021 which also fulfilled all statutory legislative requirements, be approved.