16 February 2021 – Minutes
THAME TOWN COUNCIL
Minutes of a Meeting of the Policy & Resources Committee held on 16 February 2021 at 6.30pm by Zoom Conference Call.
B Austin, D Bretherton, N Champken-Woods, P Cowell (Deputy Mayor), D Dodds, M Dyer (Chairman), H Fickling, S Francis, C Jones, A Midwinter (Town Mayor) and J Tipping
C Pinnells, Acting Town Clerk
K Slater, Acting Responsible Financial Officer
A Oughton, Asset Manager
L Fuller, Committee Services Officer
1 Apologies for Absence
Apologies for absence received from Cllr Emery (personal).
2 Declarations of Interest and Dispensations
There were no declarations of interest or dispensations.
3 Citizens Advice
Mr Jon Bright, Director of Citizens Advice Oxfordshire South & Vale, and Ms Tricia Hook, Advice Services Manager for Thame, gave a presentation on the Citizens Advice service locally in the last financial year and current year to date. The service has 130 volunteers, 12 FTE staff and 8 trustees with most working from home since March 2020. In 2019-20, the service advised over 11,000 clients which represented the largest number since the Oxfordshire Citizens Advice was set up in 2013. Issues relating to benefits, tax and universal credit remain the most common issue the service assists people with.
The service holds detailed data which enables accurate monitoring of the service. An independent phone survey after clients receive advice had shown that the service was helping most people find a way forward, with 80% of problems solved within 13-18 weeks. Mr Bright was pleased to report that 82% of staff felt well managed and supported in a survey last year.
The year to date since March 2020 had been strange and difficult, but 79 advisors and 22 part-time staff quickly adapted to working from home, and the service had been supporting them since. Unfortunately, 20 advisors, many who were experienced, who could not work from home have left the service. This represented a 20% reduction in advisor capacity; hence the service had been focusing on recruiting and training. In September, the Citizens Advice offices partially re-opened, mainly for training. Since the Autumn, and in particular during January, the service has been allocating the Winter Support Grant on behalf of councils and had allocated around £130,000.
The last year has seen a reduction in client numbers across all four advice centres in Oxfordshire. Mr Bright felt there were several possible reasons for this. Firstly, the moratorium on bailiffs and evictions since April 2020 due to Covid-19. Secondly, in Thame there were 30% fewer advisors, down to 16 from 24, compared to 2019/20, however in response to this, five new trainee advisors had been recruited, a room for face-to-face clients had been converted and the service was working closely with Sharing Life Trust and the Red Kite Family Centre. Thame has also traditionally been a popular centre for face-to-face clients and drop-ins rather than the Adviceline service. In January 2021, the service was starting to see numbers increase, with the number of phone calls doubling since November. Ms Hook added that the new advisors were unable to handle the same number of calls as more experienced advisors whilst they were still being trained.
With regards to the loss of 20 experienced advisors, Members asked whether these were likely to return? Mr Bright hoped so however it was noted that many were close to retirement and the pressures had been substantial.
Members asked whether the service had received an increase in people reporting problems associated with mortgages, rent arrears or domestic violence as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown? It was expected that housing-related problems were likely to increased when the moratorium was lifted. The service was being used by a lot of people who did not usually use the service, for example relating to unemployment and debt. Mr Bright did not have the data on domestic violence to hand but advised that he would look into this.
A question was raised as to why Thame had higher levels of face-to-face appointments than other centres? The centre has traditionally been popular as a drop-in service, and its visible position in the town centre has made the service attractive with Thame residents as well as others who live locally.
With regards to monitoring data and client numbers, Mr Bright advised that the ‘lockdown year’ was an exception as prior to that numbers were increasing. The service continues to closely monitor its data, in particular its ability to answer phone calls and was performing well in this area. It was felt that there was an unmet demand for its advice services.
The Oxfordshire Citizens Advice were seeking to recruit volunteer advisors to assist with meeting this demand. In addition to continuing to promote volunteer opportunities through the Town Council’s newsletter, which had had a good response, Members suggested using the ‘Love Thame’ Facebook group as this had been successful for recruiting volunteers for other organisations.
4 Public Participation and Public Questions
Mr Mark Stevenson, of 6 Youens Drive, spoke in relation to Item 11. Mr Stevenson was seeking support from the Town Council to purchase a piece of land to the front of his property in order to create an additional parking space. The property was currently served by a garage and a single off-road allocated parking space to the front which was approximately as wide as half of the property. Mr Stevenson advised that their second vehicle was currently parked on the road, and it was hoped that the other half of the space to the front of his property, which was currently grass and owned by the Town Council, could be converted into a parking space. The land in question was an odd triangular shape and the land disposal, if supported would not affect any of the trees.
Mr Stevenson advised the land purchase area would be approximately 20m2 and extending about 5m from the existing property boundary to enable vehicular access. The existing parking space was accessed via a shared driveway with the neighbouring property. With regards to the public amenity space, Mr Stevenson advised that he had never seen any members of the public use the particular land in question, however the main green space was popular with children.
It was moved and seconded that Item 11 be taken immediately after this item.
The Minutes of the meeting held on 3 November 2020 were confirmed as a correct record and signed by the Chairman.
6 Financial Update
Members received the budget summary and balance sheet up to 31 December 2020 and noted the financial updates. The Acting Responsible Financial Officer (RFO) advised that the budget summary was self-explanatory and there was nothing to add. The Town Council would be going over budget as the end of the financial year approached and the Acting RFO would provide an estimate for the end of March figures under separate cover. It was noted that the ‘Investment Activities’ line was confusing and perhaps should be removed as it reflected loan repayments, and investments were reported under a separate agenda item.
With regards to the bridging loan to Thame Sports Club this was not showing on the budget summary up to December 2020, however they were in contact with the Town Council and advised that they should be able to repay next week.
It was suggested that the budget summary could show the previous year end figures (March 2020) to enable comparison with the year to date. The Acting RFO advised that she would see whether the document could be amended for the next committee meeting.
7 Investment Update
The Investment Summary was noted. The portfolio was performing well despite the circumstances of the previous year. The Acting RFO advised that income was paid quarterly, and the figures represented the year to date. It was noted that a discussion on reinvesting and withdrawing was needed at a later date.
8 Internal Audit
Members received the First Interim Internal Audit Report 2020-21. The Acting RFO advised that this was the first remote Internal Audit, which had been more time-consuming however it had been a good audit with no particular items of concern. The auditor had thanked the Town Council for all their work whilst working remotely. Members expressed their thanks to the Acting RFO.
9 Reports from Representatives on External Organisations
The reports were noted.
Thame Senior Friendship Centre:-
Cllr Champken-Woods advised that the funding for the weekly fish & chips delivery service for its members had been funded through the community fund at the National Lottery, not internal funds, and it was hoped this funding would enable this service to continue until the end of April.
10 Disposal of Amenity Land at Pickenfield
The Asset Manager explained that the land in question was a triangular shape adjoining 28 Pickenfield containing a mixture of shrubs and was currently owned and maintained by the Town Council. The applicant was seeking to use the area as an extension to the garden and that the current pinch point between the fence and house was ‘too small to even be able to fit a proper gate’. A strip of land between the dwelling boundary and play area would be retained.
Some Members felt the shrub / hedge was untidy and supported the proposal for the applicant to bring the area into their garden. It was also noted that other pieces of land on Pickenfield had been disposed of and therefore the precedent was there, however this raised questions as to the criteria for land disposal requests.
However, it was also felt that the proposal should not be supported as the shrub area was good for wildlife and its loss would be contrary to the Environmental Policy. It was felt that the Town Council should be protecting open spaces, especially in areas where they are in short supply. It was also noted that the applicant already had access to the rear garden to the west of the property.
There was uncertainty over whether the house had been extended which had created the ‘pinch point’. No planning history was associated with the property, but this could be confirmed with the applicant outside of the meeting.
- The Town Council support, in principle, the land disposal request at Pickenfield.
11 Disposal of Amenity Land at Youens Drive
Members expressed regret at the loss of the green space, whilst appreciating the parking concerns and use of the garage for storage. However, the loss of green open space was contrary to the Town Council’s Environmental Policy and it was felt that the Town Council should be protecting and providing green space, rather than allocating it for car parking.
Members were surprised that the land in question was not already under the ownership of 6 Youens Drive and appreciated that the applicant had approached the Town Council to seek permission. It was also noted that Youens Drive was a narrow road with parked cars presenting a hazard to children, and therefore the creation of an additional off-road parking space would assist this issue in a small way.
Overall, Members regretted the loss of the open space however it was felt that the proposal should be supported in principle. It was agreed that further information on the exact size of the land to be disposed of as well as details on permeability and access were needed. The Asset Manager advised that this was just in principle, and that various legal and planning matters would follow.
The Acting Town Clerk advised that from a conveyancing point of view, it was preferable for the applicant if the land was sold rather than changed to parking but maintained / owned by the Town Council.
- The Town Council support, in principle, the land disposal request at Youens Drive.
12 Council Policies
The Acting RFO advised that four policies had been reviewed; two presented no changes and two had minor amendments.
The IT Policy had been updated to reflect working from home, and associated data protection and security. It was also updated to reflect that the Office Administration Officer was now the first point of contact for IT matters.
Concern was raised that the policy suggested that passwords were changed annually. It was felt passwords should be changed every 90 days. The Acting RFO advised that the Town Council had strong IT security systems in place, which had been strengthened with the new IT equipment. The IT policy had been prepared with input from the Town Council’s IT provider and in place for years with no issues, however the Acting RFO agreed to ask the IT provider for advice on passwords.
A question was raised with regards to the use of iPads for personal / private use. The IT Policy was generic but generally intended for staff and did cover personal use. Members were reminded that they signed an iPad agreement that provided guidance on iPad usage.
Various points were made regarding data protection, freedom of information requests and social media, and it was agreed that the Acting RFO would re-review the policy in light of the discussion and bring an amended version to the next meeting.
The Acting RFO advised that the Induction Policy had been reviewed with only one minor change, to ensure the policy was being kept up to date with legal requirements, as highlighted in red on the proposed policy. The Training & Development and Lone Working Policies had been reviewed but no changes were required.
- The updated Lone Working Policy be approved.
- The unchanged Training & Development Policy be approved.
- The unchanged Lone Working Policy be approved.
13 Information Centre Till
The Acting Town Clerk advised that three companies had quoted to replace the Information Centre till machine and associated equipment. The products quoted were identical. The till was 10 years old and operating on Windows XP, which meant that following the recent IT equipment / software upgrade the till was no longer compatible and was now a manual process. It was noted that Company B had withdrawn after it was established that they could not provide the required programming, which was reflected in the cost. It was also noted that the till would be funded from General Reserves and would present a slight overspend on the IT budget.
- The Town Council choose Company C to replace the Information Centre till.
14 Covid-19 Business Continuity Strategy and Risk Assessment
The Covid-19 Risk Assessment and Disaster Recovery Plan were noted. Officers were keeping these documents up to date in line with changes to Government guidance. The Acting Town Clerk advised that the documents were being reviewed and updated at every Management Meeting and had been useful in ensuring the Town Council was complying with the current government guidance.
15 Thame Museum
The Asset Manager reported that more extensive scaffolding was erected at the Museum last month to enable the contractor to safely access the roof and glass lantern. Unfortunately, due to snow and ice last week it was not safe to access the roof as planned and the meeting with the contractors to assess the roof had to be cancelled. The site visit was being rearranged for as soon as possible.
16 Speed Indicator Device
The report and accompanying update on the Speed Indicator Device were noted.
17 Free Use / De Minimis Delegated Authority
Members noted that the Acting Town Clerk through De Minimis delegated authority, has granted the following:
- Free Use of Upper Chamber for the History Fair on 20 June 2021.
It was also noted that the Acting Town Clerk, through De Minimis delegated authority, has allowed Churchill Retirement Living, Yeats Lodge to define the Town Hall as a holding point for residents to be collected by relatives in the event of a critical incident impacting on the premises, as is already in place for Sharman Beer Court.
18 For Information
The items for information were noted.
The meeting concluded at 8:06pm
Chairman, 20 April 2021