Unusual scenes at Surrey Heath

This evening was one of the most unusual Council meetings attended for some time.

It started off with a first in all of my almost 10 years as a councillor with a public meeting starting over 10 minutes late.  So what – you might say – most of your work meetings probably fit into this category but Council meetings are different. If a meeting is due to start at 6pm, it will start at 6pm and I am pretty sure it’s even written in our constitution that it must start on time. However, to witness a number of senior officers, Exec members and an unknown gent (who turned out to be a QC) having a clearly frantic chat outside the Chamber door meant that something unusual was happening.  It turns out the QC was here to advise Cllrs about the Deepcut Neighbourhood Forum and as this matter took place in closed session with the public excluded (and I had to leave at this point anyway for another meeting), no-one apart from Cllrs and officers knows what the advice was but clearly it was serious.

Turning to the other items which were in public, we had a finance report and it turns out that in this time of austerity and services being cut that the Council has outstanding debts (i.e. over 30 days) of £597 000. Of this, an astonishing £437 000 relates to overpaid benefit!  This is a huge amount of money especially as we were also told in the report, “the level of repayment is very low”.  Now of course we must be sensitive here in collecting from people when they are not at fault and our fraud officers are very proactive but even so, why should other services be cut or your council tax go up when we have overpaid to this level?

The next two items were a new Housing allocation policy and Tenancy Strategy. For this item, I had spotted a number of inconsistencies and sent these by e-mail in advance for example our proposed policy talks about people being ineligible to our Housing Register if they are “guilty of unacceptable behaviour or a member of their family is guilty of such behaviour.”

Problem is the Tenancy Strategy later agreed at the same meeting talks about “where the tenant or a member of the tenants household is guilty of anti social or criminal behaviour that has an adverse impact on the wider community.”  On first glance, this sounds the same but is in fact completely different. What exactly is “unacceptable” and to who as there is no definition to my knowledge although there is for anti social and criminal behaviour. Also, I have family who live in Scotland – why would their behaviour in Scotland matter to my housing application?  Of course, people should be responsible for their household but this may or may not consist of family members. Strangely, even though these obvious problems were pointed out to the Lead Member, he refused to change his mind.  Unless the Council get this right, it will result in major problems with our local residents and potential tenants so it is quite possible that I will use the rare “call in procedure” and try to get people to see sense and change this before it ends up being a total muddle.

Then we move on to community grants. For some reason, our Executive thought it was a good idea for small community groups who may only want a few hundred pounds to fill in a grant application with 61 questions plus copies of constitution, accounts, estimates, evidence of other grants etc. etc.!   This apparently will be “much easier for them” which of course is complete nonsense.  I do agree that lengthy forms for larger applications up to £25k are much needed to monitor public money but I don’t know many charities or faith groups that would be bothered to fill in for smaller amounts when they can easily get small funds elsewhere such as their local SCC Councillor.  My plea for a separate shorter form for applications under £2k was sadly ignored so a victory for unnecessary Council red tape over common sense…

Moving on and we come to a discussion about whether to grant Frimley Green Football Club a 15 year lease.  The Exec member (Cllr Funnell) had an interest so decided not to vote on this.  Now the most thoughful contribution in my view was from Cllr Chris Pitt who called for a longer lease to be considered on the grounds that most grant applications requested a minimum of 15 to 25 years lease to release funding.  I rarely agree with Cllr Pitt but on this occasion, I thought he made a number of sharp points and certainly did not deserve to be shouted at by the Chair/Leader who angrily stated that this was what the Club wanted and they had only requested a 15 year lease. Re-reading the papers at home show that the Football Foundation in fact state “a minimum of 10 year unexpired lease period for Clubs at Level 6 to be eligible to apply for match funding.”  The point he was correctly making from his experiences on sporting bodies was that leases quickly run down which means that clubs are then not eligible for grants. I hope he perseveres with these observations and is not put off from making them.

And then we end with the mysterious legal discussions on Deepcut and the proposed Neighbourhood Forum and Plan…. all very interesting and we await what happens next.

 

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