01 November 2022 – Minutes
THAME TOWN COUNCIL
Minutes of a Meeting of the Policy & Resources Committee held on 1 November 2022 at 6.30pm in the Upper Chamber, Thame Town Hall.
Cllrs B Austin, D Bretherton, P Cowell (Town Mayor), A Dite (Deputy Town Mayor), D Dodds (Deputy Chairman), M Dyer (Chairman), H Fickling, A Gilbert, K Gregory, H Richards
M Sturdy, Town Clerk
K Slater, Responsible Financial Officer (RFO) & Office Administration Manager
A Oughton, Asset Manager
L Fuller, Committee Services Officer
1 Apologies for Absence
Apologies for absence received from Cllrs Champken-Woods (personal) and Midwinter (personal).
2 Declarations of Interest and Dispensations
Cllrs Bretherton and Dyer declared an interest in Item 15 – War Memorial as members of Thame Remembers. A dispensation was in place for Cllrs Bretherton and Dyer to speak and vote on any matter relating to Thame Remembers through the Thame Museum dispensation.
3 Public Participation and Public Questions
There were no applications to address the Committee.
There were no questions put to the Committee.
4 Investment Portfolio
Cllr Gregory entered the meeting during this item.
Mr Thomas (Bertie) Weston-Davies provided Members with the annual investment portfolio review. Overall, the portfolio was performing well despite a challenging market. Rathbones continue to manage the portfolio in line with the Council’s assigned risk strategy and objectives, although it had been a year of cautious portfolio management. As at 25 October 2022, the portfolio value stood at £1.8million with an estimated income of £32,000 and yield of 1.8%, an increase on last year reflecting the rising interest rates.
The 1-, 3- and 5-year portfolio performance, after fees, is measured against five benchmarks. Over 5 years, the portfolio has been above inflation and performing well, but in the last year the Retail Price Index (RPI) was 11.4% and this has impacted assets. The best performing benchmark was the FTSE All Share, a reflection of the high fuel prices. In November and December 2021, the benchmarks were performing similarly, but a combination of the post-covid response, war in Ukraine, and inflation has resulted in market wide impacts that have not been seen for several decades.
Rathbones presented the breakdown of investment contributions within the portfolio over the last year. The worst performing was the Baillie Gifford & Co Ltd, which made contributions to the environment, society, and education.
There are three asset classes to manage risk – liquidity, equity-type risk, and diversifiers, with the latter performing very well as it has a low correlation to equity and bond markets. The Town Council has a low-risk portfolio.
With regards to the dividends, Rathbones advised that these are usually re-invested but currently there is some hesitancy whilst there is market uncertainty.
A question was raised as to Rathbones’ view on bank security? Larger banks are less impacted due to their greater capitalisation, whereas challenger banks struggle to compete on loans and mortgages so tend to focus on shorter term credits. There is uncertainty on how ‘buy now, pay later’ lenders will perform. The current economic climate is a result of inflation rather than oversupply of lending.
Rathbones advised that investments are made in sterling, dollars and euros so the impact of one currency being weak has less impact. It is preferable to invest in the local currency, but consideration must be given to politics and multinational companies.
A question was raised as to how green the portfolio is? Rathbones has an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policy, so all these factors are considered when making investments to strike the right balance. Rathbones invests in BP and Shell, and whilst they do not claim these oil companies to be green and some of their practices should be questioned, there are differing levels of environmental concern and these companies are some of the better ones. Consideration must be given to energy security, and that these companies will play a role in the transition from fossil fuels to a carbon-free world, and it is difficult to not invest in them at present due to the energy crisis; currently there is not a more efficient energy source available.
Cllr Richards stated that her preference would be for the Town Council to divest from all fossil fuels, as the climate emergency is now.
The ‘governance’ aspect of ESG is key when making investments, particularly considering the war in Europe. It is important that all investments are sustainable for the company, society, and the environment. It was noted that greenwashing is an issue, with investments being sold as environmentally friendly, but they are short term in nature.
In terms of Rathbones’ fees, these fluctuate with the portfolio performance but were estimated to be £18,000 for the previous year and are taken from capital.
If the Town Council wished to withdraw a large sum from the portfolio, this would be possible as Rathbones manage investments of £500,000 upwards, but it is a matter for the Town Council to discuss.
It was noted that the annual income, as shown in the Portfolio Performance Summary, has varied since the portfolio was created in 2010. This reflects interest rates changing, and therefore the level of income. The portfolio valuation today is similar to 2010, however it was noted that the Town Council had probably withdrawn around £1million over this time to support various council and community projects. As the portfolio is low risk, investments are in income rather than growth. Currently income is growing as companies start to pay out dividends again post-covid.
Overall Rathbones are pleased with the portfolio performance, and it was an interesting period to be investing. The Chairman thanked Mr Weston-Davies for his presentation, and Councillors for their questions.
The Minutes of the Committee Meeting held on 30 August 2022 were confirmed as a correct record, and were signed by the Chairman.
6 Financial Update
Cllr Fickling left the meeting during this item.
Members received the budget summary and balance sheet up to 30 September 2022 and noted the financial updates.
The budget summary was as expected. Income has increased as a result of increased hall hire. Overspends are expected at the next committee meeting, however the receipt of the remaining 50% precept has helped to offset the unbudgeted utility costs for now.
The Town Council has sufficient funds in reserves to cover at least 3 months overheads. The Rolling Capital Fund has grown, and this means that outstanding capital projects can be progressed as soon as Officer capacity allows.
Members questioned the ‘Swimming Pool Investment’ under Assets on the Balance Sheet, which is valued at £1.3million. The RFO & Office Administration Manager explained that this budget line relates to legacy maintenance funds, but the swimming pool is no longer managed by the Town Council. It was agreed that a full explanation would be provided from the Town Council’s accountant.
Post meeting note: Members received an update via email from the RFO & Office Administration Manager explaining that the funds were initially accrued from the sale of the swimming pool which were then invested with Rathbones. The asset would be renamed accordingly on the balance sheet. The figure on the balance sheet represents cost value not the current sales value.
7 Financial Overspends
The financial overspends as at 30 September 2022 were noted.
Further overspends are expected on utility and fuel costs. A question was raised as to what actions the Town Council was taking in preparation of this? Upon news that prices would be rising, the RFO & Office Administration Manager advised that all suppliers were approached, and this led to 6 of the 8 meters being fixed at lower rates for 3 years. The capped electricity prices up to March 2023 are due this week from the new supplier once the takeover has completed.
8 Internal Audit
Members received the first Interim Internal Audit Report 2022-23.
Once again, Members were pleased to see that the Town Council is meeting all the requirements and thanks were given to the RFO & Office Administration Manager.
9 Health & Safety
Members received the findings of the Air Quality surveys in the Town Hall. The surveys and monitoring had been carried out over concerns that bus pollution was harming staff health. The surveys found no serious concerns, but there are recommended actions for the Town Council to take as an employer with a duty of care for its staff. Members were asked to consider approving £200 to purchase plants for the offices which improve air quality, work ethic and mental health. Further office alterations to improve air quality will be brought back to the committee in due course.
In terms of addressing the issue of polluting buses, the Town Council will continue to put pressure on bus companies and the County Council to transition to electric buses, which will align with the 20mph implementation, Green Living Plan, and town strategy once approved.
- A budget of £200 be approved to purchase plants for the office.
10 Council Policies
a) Loans Policy
The policy was last reviewed in 2018 to enable community groups to prosper through the Town Council, with interest being paid at 2.24%. Currently, the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) are charging 5.5%, and therefore the policy needs updating.
By lending money below the PWLB rates, the Town Council was not doing the taxpayer any favours. Potential solutions to this involved charging at RPI +1%, offering variable rates throughout the loan term or reviewing the policy annually. It was noted that the Town Council must be sensitive to the impact of any decision on community organisations. Whilst this could be a way of generating income, it was noted this should also come from other avenues to take the burden off the taxpayer.
In terms of managing loan repayments, these currently are not made to the Capital Receipts Fund but, subject to administration capacity, the Policy could be updated to enable this on a frequency to be agreed, and then the fund be used to issue new loans.
It was suggested that the policy also be updated to provide guidance on the timing of loans depending on wider market factors, to protect the Town Council from losing money.
Overall, it was agreed that the Loans Policy needed further review and should be brought back to a future committee meeting.
b) Community Engagement Policy
The policy had been renamed from the Community Engagement Strategy, as the policy states what we do, and the strategy – once developed – will say how we deliver community engagement. Various other amendments have been made to the policy, as shown in red text.
c) Emergency Response Plan
The Emergency Response Plan had been created with the idea of simplicity, however it was felt that in due course the plan needed to be more detailed and integrated with the Business Continuity Strategy and Action Plan.
d) Officers’ Code of Conduct
The policy was presented with minor changes as shown in red text. Members noted that the policy had no guidance on social media usage. This could be added to the policy, but it was noted that the staff handbook, and IT and Social Media & Media Relations policies cover this.
e) Play Area Inspections
The policy was presented with minor changes as shown in red text. The fencing at Elms Park Play Area is in poor state of repair, which appeared contrary to the policy on maintenance. The Asset Manager advised the Maintenance Team is aware of the deterioration and works are scheduled for the summer months. Hopefully the wider Elms Park refurbishment will happen soon. It was confirmed that it is a statutory requirement to keep play area inspection records for 21 years.
f) Working at Height
The policy was presented with minor changes as shown in red text.
- The Loans Policy be deferred until a further review has taken place.
- The Community Engagement Policy, Emergency Response Plan, Officer Code of Conduct, Play Area Inspections Policy, and Working at Height Policy be approved as presented.
11 Local Government Pension Scheme – Pensions Discretions Policy / Terms of Reference
The Pensions Discretions Policy reflects how the Town Council handles staff requests to take an early pension. Whilst it is handled on a case-by-case basis, the policy is a statutory document. The policy is presented with no changes required.
The Terms of Reference were created in 2018 and are now due for review, however the Pension Contributions change annually and employer contributions change every 3 years, with the latest figures expected in 4 weeks’ time. It was suggested that the Contribution Rates be referenced so that the table be removed from the policy.
Staff are informed of their contribution rate when the join the Pension Scheme and receive an annual statement.
- The unchanged Local Government Pension Scheme Pensions Discretions Policy be approved.
- The Local Government Pension Scheme Terms of Reference be approved, subject to removal of the table on Pension Contribution Rates.
12 Marking the Death of a Senior National Figure Procedure
The procedure had been updated with minor changes, as highlighted in red text.
- The updated Marking the Death of a Senior National Figure Procedure be approved.
13 Information Centre Opening Hours
Members were asked to consider approving, in principle, to opening the Information Centre on Saturdays from April 2023 subject to a more detailed analysis of current and future community need and securing resourcing.
It was noted that the Town Hall will be closed from 4pm on Friday 23 December 2022 to 9am on Tuesday 3 January 2023. The usual provision of notices / emergency telephone number will be provided, and some officers may choose to work on the closure days.
- It be agreed, in principle, to open the Information Centre on Saturdays from April 2023 subject to a more detailed analysis of current and future community need and securing resourcing.
14 Phone Box outside the Town Hall
Members noted the report and that a listed building application has been made. Members supported proposals to adopt the Phone Box as it has been in a poor state of repair for some time. It was questioned whether a defibrillator was needed in this location, given the proximity to defibrillators at the Masonic Hall and Brothers, however it was noted that every second counts and would be particularly beneficial if required for anyone in the Town Hall.
- The Council approves, in principle and subject to Listed Building Consent approval, to apply to BT to adopt the kiosk outside the Town Hall and repurpose it to display local information and house a defibrillator. Associated costs and maintenance as outlined in the report be approved.
15 War Memorial – Additional Names
The report was noted. Following listed building consent being granted, costs have been obtained and total just over £10,000 which, if approved, will be funded from the War Memorial Ear Marked Reserves. The Town Council’s Planning & Environment Committee had recommended that a lectern be installed to enable the public to differentiate between the original and additional names, and understand how / why the names were added. The lectern will match the existing Thame Remembers bench and is covered within the total project cost. The intention is to purchase the plaques now to avoid costs rising, and to begin works next year.
Members were also asked to approve up to £5,000 for an unveiling event, likely to be 30 July 2023 to coincide with the anniversary of the original unveiling of the War Memorial. Members raised concern that this was a lot of money for one event, particularly given uncertainty regarding next year’s budget. The cost was based on the Freedom Parade, which included road closures and a reception. There would be additional costs depending on who unveils the plaques. The funds could come from general reserves, the 2023/24 budget, or from the War Memorial’s Earmarked Reserves however some of this would need to be retained to cover general maintenance costs at the War Memorial.
Thame is known for delivering and presenting events well, and by agreeing expenditure for this event, it would enable event planning to begin. It may not be necessary to spend all £5,000, but at this stage the costs were unknown.
- Works / repairs and purchase of the World War I Lectern Cabinet, as listed under costings in the report, at a cost of £10,055.00 be approved and funded from War Memorial Earmarked Reserves.
- Up to £5,000 be spent on an unveiling event, date to be decided, and funded from general reserves.
16 Thame Barns Centre
The minutes of the Annual General Meeting were noted. The Barns Centre had recovered well from the impact of covid-19. The Town Council and St Mary’s Church are joint owners of the Barns Centre, and the lease is due to be renewed next year. There are differing views on the lease, so it will be important that Councillors are involved in discussions and support the Town Clerk in ensuring the Barns Centre continues to be a resource for the town.
17 Town Guide
The report was noted. The Town Guide has successfully been produced in house for two years, however this year due to significantly higher printing costs combined with lower sponsorship due to businesses facing higher running costs, the production of the Town Guide was currently at a £1,400 shortfall (this is lower than stated in the report due to additional sponsorship being committed).
A suggestion was made that a local printer could cover printing costs if their logo was placed on the publication.
It was questioned whether the guide had to be printed, but it was felt necessary as the only hard-copy information document produced by the Town Council, particularly given there was no longer a local newspaper. The Town Guide could offer an opportunity to promote income-generating activities, such as hall hire, too.
- A budget of up to £2,200 from Economic Development Earmarked Reserves to support the continuation of the Town Guide this year be agreed.
18 Reports from Representatives on External Organisations
The reports were noted.
Thame Youth Projects:-
The group have been through two rounds of recruitment but are struggling to recruit a new Youth Worker due to no-shows at interview and a shortage of suitable candidates, despite offering a competitive salary. In positive news, both the Youth Café and Youth Zone are well-attended and expanding. An activity day was held during half-term last week, featuring a street art wall which was well-received, and thanks were given to the Maintenance Team for their support with this event. A question was raised as to how the Youth Café is publicised? Social media and websites are the main method, but once a Youth Worker is appointed it will be possible to go into schools to promote it.
Given that the new health hub is no longer being progressed, and access to healthcare services is an important matter for residents, what was next for the health hub as there was little publicity on the matter? Cllr Richards advised she had been trying to start a dialogue but to date had not had any success.
A general question was raised as to the criteria for external organisation representatives, as groups such as Thame Wombles and the Foodbank did not have representation. Representatives are appointed where the Town Council has a financial interest or is invited by the organisation. The external organisation appointments are reviewed at the Annual Meeting.
19 Thame Museum
It was noted that the planning application to extend the museum is now live and open for consultation. The Town Council would consider this application later this month.
20 Town Hall Telephone System
It was noted that the new system was installed on 26 August 2022 and is now operational.
21 Website Support & Hosting Contract
It was noted that positive discussions have been held with the current supplier and work is underway within the existing support contract hours to resolve various matters that have been highlighted. Given that the current level of service is satisfactory and costs are comparable to other suppliers, Officers consider that at present changing suppliers would not be a good use of Officer time or resources.
22 Compliments & Complaints
The report for April 2022 to September 2022 was noted.
The main complaints related to the fairs, town centre parking changes, and works carried out by fibre companies. It was concerning, and potentially libellous, that ‘brown envelopes’ had been referenced with regards to the planning application at Oxford Road. It was noted that the Town Council had held an online meeting with around 30 residents to explain its position with regards to this planning application, which had hopefully alleviated concerns.
23 Free Use / De Minimis Delegated Authority
The report of the Free Use 2022-23 (and equivalent cost) granted by the Town Clerk through Free Use / De Minimis delegated authority was noted.
24 For Information
The CCTV report April – October 2022 was unavailable and would be circulated after the meeting.
The meeting concluded at 8:29pm
Chairman, 14 February 2023