The Council noted a report from the Cabinet which provided information on issues considered by the Cabinet at its meetings held on 2 and 9 March 2011.
Councillor Martin quoted from the Local Member Consultative Charter detailed within the Constitution that “the county council is committed to providing its elected members with accurate helpful and timely consultation advice and information in relation to any matters of any significance or sensitivity which relate to their particular electoral division and where circumstances render it appropriate to involve a local member.”
He queried the two sports-related items dealt with by Cabinet on 2 March, and asked if the Leader of the Council agreed that:
a) it was unacceptable for any local member to be made aware of proposals to close a sport centre in their area first through the front page of the Northern Echo?
b) that it was unacceptable for some members to hear of such proposals well before other members, sometimes members within the same division?
c) that it was unacceptable for members to learn of public meetings concerning the future of outdoor playing pitches and sports facilities from an e-mail sent out to parish council clerks, and for some Councillors who have no parish councils in their areas to find out purely by chance?
Councillor Martin expressed the opinion that the Local Member Consultative Charter was not being adhered to and asked what the Leader of the Council would do to ensure that the Charter was upheld, and that members were not treated as second class citizens of the County. Councillor Martin also sought a personal guarantee that when proposals came forward for other significant and sensitive matters, such as the future scope of Library provision across the County, that all members will be informed of the proposals being made at the same time in order that they had an equal opportunity to represent their constituents.
In response, Councillor Henig said that the local member consultative charter was approved by council because of the Council’s commitment to provide all its members with the information referred to in the question. When proposals were formulated and ready for consultation, Corporate Directors and staff should ensure that they are discussed with local members. Such consultation should be done in an impartial and fair manner and as far as is practicable, members should be advised at the same time. The Leader commented that both he and his Cabinet colleagues supported the terms of the charter and expect chief officers and staff to adhere to it. The issue of member consultation was one carefully considered by the Corporate Directors.
Councillor Henig commented that it was unfortunate that reports had appeared in the press but advised the Council that the press reports were not as a result of any approved press release from the service grouping involved and the publication of the report in question pre-empted member and staff consultation which had been planned. This was clearly outside of the control of the officers involved in producing the report. Councillor Henig also stated that the reference to parish councils may have arisen from an exercise by the service to collect information on who currently provides playing pitches in the county. Information was requested from parish councils as part of this process.
Councillor Henig also clarified that no proposal relating to the closure of branch libraries had been drawn up and re-iterated that Members would be fully consulted once proposals had been formulated.
Councillor R Bell asked the Leader of the Council why the council had failed to negotiate the best deal available for County Durham in relation to the reclassification of County Durham as a Metropolitan PTE area. Councillor R Bell had written to the Transport Minister about the issue, and the reply he had received made it sound clear that the objective of the new Department for Transport guidelines was that councils should overall be "No Better, No Worse Off', and that councils may choose the classification of metropolitan/non metropolitan that best represented this position in their local area.
In response, Councillor Henig informed the Council that attempts had been made to negotiate with the Department for Transport over the classification of County Durham as having the characteristics of a metropolitan area, with regard to concessionary fares. In their response, the Department for Transport had made it clear that there was a choice for the Council in following the guidance, but it was not clear cut. Critically, it was the 'bus operators' rather than 'the Council' who were required to be 'no better or no worse off', and the bus operators would have a right of appeal if they felt that they were not being adequately compensated for carrying concessionary passengers and the Department for Transport guidance would be used to inform the appeal process.
It became evident that bus operators had made it clear in the Council’s negotiations with them that they would appeal, whilst stating that they would rather work on a negotiated solution recognising the financial pressures facing the public sector at this time. This was the approach the Council had adopted which had led to the Council securing a payment, through negotiation, which would be less than the amount which would be paid if the Council had followed the Department for Transport guidance.
Councillor B Ord praised the work done in relation to the ‘Future Delivery of Waste Collection’ services and hoped that the new arrangements would be more efficient and solve a lot of the issues raised by constituents within his electoral division.
In relation to a question from Councillor R Bell regarding time and charges relating to concessionary fares scheme, Councillor Henig commented that the scheme had been introduced in Lancashire and was seen as a scheme of good practice which would be rolled out to other areas. The charge had been set at a level which officers believed would make the necessary savings and once implemented, the savings would be monitored for effect.
Councillor A Hopgood asked the Leader of the Council if he would consider an extension to the sport and leisure consultation given that she had attended a user group meeting the previous evening which had just received consultation information, three weeks into the consultation. Councillor Henig commented that the front loaded cuts meant that the Council were loosing money on almost a weekly basis. The Council had pleaded with all party support, along with other Council’s and the Local Government Association for no front loaded cuts. The government sadly ignored those pleas, therefore the Cabinet had no other option but to make savings as soon as it could. The three months allocated for the leisure services consultation was adequate and he hoped that groups would come forward and forge proposals to run the complexes.
Councillor E Murphy asked who the hard to reach groups were in relation to sport and leisure strategy. The Assistant Chief Executive clarified that these groups would be older people, ethnic minorities, disabled groups and those with caring responsibilities.