Report back on Newcastle City Cabinet meeting 28th January 2015 by Cllrs Wendy Taylor and Greg Stone

January 30, 2015 10:29 AM
By Wendy Taylor & Greg Stone
As the Opposition group on the city council, the Lib Dems are allowed two "observer" places at Cabinet meetings. We generally ask more questions to officers and the leader about council policy and performance than the Labour cabinet members, or the deputy cabinet members, who we believe add little value for money. At this meeting Cllr Greg Stone and Cllr Wendy Taylor were the Opposition observers
The main items for discussion were the council's funding settlement report, covering the council's estimated financial allocations from Government, the family services review, covering new arrangements for the city's Sure Start services for under 5s, and reports on Your Homes Newcastle housing issues.
* Funding Settlement
We accept the council's financial situation in terms of reductions to Government funding remains difficult and we have supported the council's submission to Government calling for a fairer funding distribution. However, we continue to question aspects of the presentation of the council's finances. The Labour council administration does not publish full open and transparent statements of directorate expenditure and accounts, and we continue to be critical of the council's reluctance to discuss significant additional funding provided by Government including for regional growth, public health, and social care. At this meeting we pressed the council officers leading on the budget and finances why they had excluded significant additional funding from the Better Care Fund (Government funding targeted at ensuring vulnerable people leaving hospital have access to appropriate care) from their figures. We also questioned whether the council was aware of the Treasury's publication (Nov 2014) of figures for regional public spending which show an increase of £100 per head for local government in the North East last year.
* Family Services Review
Considerable work has been done by the council and its partners to reduce the very serious risk to Newcastle's Sure Start Centre provision, after the council's 3 year budget forecasts predicted that funding cuts may force the closure of centres. We are broadly supportive of the direction being taken at present, which will refocus a number of services via "Family Hubs", whilst seeking to deliver a reduced service level at some of the existing centres, though we are conscious that there is still more work needed to finalise recommissioning arrangements and around communication with parents and families likely to be affected. We asked about how the recommissioning risks will be managed by the council and welcomed a lengthy answer from senior officers about the approach being taken, with encouragement given to existing providers to seek to form consortia bids (potentially also including primary schools who have shown close interest). We also believe the council is right to (belatedly) make more use of new public health funding from Government, and think it should also explore making use of Pupil Premium funding where possible. Wendy Taylor did a radio interview with BBC Newcastle on this issue afterwards.
* Your Homes Newcastle (Asset Management, Performance Review, Rents and Charges Review)
These reports appear to signify a degree of "closer" Cabinet involvement in YHN management issues, marking a change in recent times from the previous "arms length" management arrangements instituted by the Lib Dems, where YHN has had considerable operational independence. With regard to asset management and investment, we pressed officers of the "Fair Housing Unit" about a "sustainability index" assessment of the vitality of estates and housing stock condition, and have asked for further details to be shared with the Opposition. Wendy also asked officers about whether any plans existed to invest in and regenerate some of the (non tower) Shieldfield blocks - a particular interest of the Ouseburn Lib Dem councillors - after it was reported that some less popular and less sustainable low-rise blocks in North Kenton were to be replaced with new housing (Fawdon Ward). On performance, we welcomed the news that tenant satisfaction with YHN is at an all-time high, and asked for a follow-up report on the council's review of the current arrangements with the Tenants Federation. On rents and charges, an increase of 2.2% is proposed for next year. This is considerably lower than recent years (although still four times current inflation) and has come about after a change in the Government formula for rent increases (from RPI to CPI) and the ending in May 2014 by the Coalition government of the policy introduced by Labour of "rent convergence" i.e. bringing social housing rents gradually closer to private sector rent levels.
* Other items
A report on commissioning of specialist NHS provision for drug / alcohol / mental health treatment was agreed - this was a "confidential" item so we are not in a position to provide further details, although we are supportive of the proposals. Similarly, a report on specialist home care packages for people likely to be put at particular risk by a change of provider, and transition arrangements for people who would benefit from a more gradual changeover to new provision, was also "confidential" due to commercial contract information. This is an expensive service (more than £1m per year for around 65 people affected) but an important one given what can often be complex needs, and again, we were supportive of the approach taken.