Agenda item

Budget Scrutiny Challenge

The purpose of the Budget Challenge reports is to provide the Streets, Environment & Homes Sub-Committee with sufficient information to reach a view on the following 2022/23 budget proposals:-

1.     Independent Travel Service

2.     Grounds Maintenance

3.     Emergency & Temporary Accommodation (To follow)


The Sub-Committee considered reports set out on pages 19 to 30 of the agenda and in the agenda supplement, which provided information on three specific budget areas identified for scrutiny as part of the budget setting process. The findings of the Sub-Committee would be reported to the next meeting of the Scrutiny & Overview Committee. The three areas identified for further scrutiny by the Sub-Committee were:-

1.     Independent Travel Service

2.     Grounds Maintenance

3.     Emergency & Temporary Accommodation

The Independent Travel Service section of this item was introduced by the Council’s Head of Independent Travel, Daniel Shepherd, who outlined the current pressures to the service, in particular the increased demand for the service of special education needs travel. There was a statutory requirement for the Council to provide appropriate travel for students with special needs, the cost of which was increasing with due to inflationary pressures. The Individual pressure around high-cost routes due to the needs of students also needed to be managed.

Following the introduction to this section of the report, the Sub-Committee was given the opportunity to question the information provided. The first question asked whether there had been any work carried out to explore the possibility of forming sub-regional partnerships for SEND transport and whether this would improve the budget pressure. It was confirmed that these type of arrangements were in place and other options for optimise efficiencies were being explored.

As it was noted that the travel application process had been reduced from 46% to 43%, it was questioned whether this would reduce further for 2022-23? It was clarified that the percentage of people being transported was relative to those who may be eligible but not using the service. The percentage was higher this year due to the challenge of rolling out travel training because of the pandemic.

It was questioned whether adherence to policy would lead to some families being excluded? It was highlighted that there were exceptional circumstances that would considered through the challenge process. Decisions were based on the need of the students, with support available to enable families to meet the policy requirements and to help facilitate specific difficulties.

In response to a question about whether taxis were used for multiple drops, it was advised that consideration was given to a variety of different ways of providing transport, to ensure the service was optimised to deliver the best efficiency. It was advised that the cost of using the Council’s in-house provision equated to approximately £3,000 per pupil per year. The cost for external providers was higher, equating to approximately £10,000 per pupil per year.

It was questioned whether the growth programme included the cost for additional travel trainers? It was advised that there was no plan to increase the current number of travel trainers and those in post were working towards clearing the backlog.

The Sub-Committee discussed the potential risks to the independent travel budget and noted that there was not currently an earmarked reserve in place. Consideration needed to be given to possible demographic or other pressures in order to manage these risks. It was confirmed that a sustainable level of reserves was being considered for the service.

The Chair thanked Mr Shepherd for his attendance and moved onto the discussion on grounds maintenance, welcoming the Council’s Interim Head of Environment Services and Sustainable Neighbourhoods, Jim Perkins, to the meeting to introduce the report and answer the Sub-Committee’s questions.

During the introduction, it was confirmed that the growth proposal would re-introduce some of the funding that had been removed in the previous year’s budget. In doing so, this would allow the ground maintenance service to return to a more sustainable and manageable level. The level of funding requested would amount to £360,000 and would permit the employment of additional seasonal workers.

The Cabinet Member for Sustainable Croydon, Councillor Muhammad Ali was also in attendance for this item and highlighted for the Sub-Committee how the previous budget reduction had impacted upon service delivery. The budget growth proposed would allow for more frequent cutting and the delivery of the strategy for ensuring the best use of green spaces. It would help to deliver better park services, allowing these spaces to raise revenue.

Given the challenges in the job market, it was questioned whether officers were confident that skilled seasonal workers could be recruited. It was confirmed that this should be possible, providing the budget was agreed as soon as possible to allow recruitment to being before the main cutting season. Reassurance was given that the procurement of new equipment was underway and should be available as required, with the main challenge being the lead time required for the delivery of new vehicles.

It was confirmed that the growth increase would be accounted from the general fund revenue budget and not the Housing Revenue Account.

It was advised that the investment in the service would provide direct benefits for residents, as the issues experienced in the past year were solely related to the lack of posts available to perform the tasks required within the expected timescale. It was questioned whether the proposals were as ambitious as they could be. In response, it was highlighted that for the purpose of the growth bid was to re-instate funding to allow more frequent cutting and enable to Service to meet it required service levels. It was highlighted that there needed to be flexibility in the grass cutting schedule to allow for longer or shorter frequencies depending on the area in question.

Concern was raised about the plans for rewilding and meadowing, both of which involve structured, planned planting. It was confirmed that the budget growth proposal incorporated the costs for these initiatives, with the recruitment of a skilled staff ensuring that any areas rewilded would be properly maintained.

In response to questions about the Parks Strategy and whether it would identify which areas have been re-wilded as a tool to measure progress going forward, it was confirmed that the Strategy provide clear guidance to allow an informed approach to initiatives such as rewilding.

Regarding the focus on income generation, it was confirmed that there was a priority for the Service to remain self-sufficient. This would include working with partners to drive innovation and the commercialisation of existing assets, such as parks.

Following this section of the item, the Chair thanked both the officers and Cabinet Member for their contribution and moved onto the emergency and temporary accommodation budget challenge item. The Cabinet Member for Homes, Councillor Hay-Justice introduced the report, highlighting that a growth bid of £2m had been made to address increased demand within the service. At the same time 15 work-streams had been identified to deliver a net target of £2.5m savings.

With regards to the work-stream reviewing staffing within the service, it was questioned whether this was included in the growth bid. It was highlighted that restructuring could be delivered to enable better outcomes and improved services at a reduced cost, if delivered efficiently.

In response to a question about would the risks to the delivery of the budget were manage it was confirmed that a new IT system was being procured for the service which would assist with the mitigation of risk.

Concern was raised about the number tenants recorded as being in temporary accommodation for more than 12 months. It was advised that the figures provided were a general overview and that the Council relatively better than many other authorities in this area. It was noted that there would be work to improve performance on the turnaround of void accommodation, which would help to address demand.
It was agreed that early engagement and improved processes would be key to helping residents in temporary accommodation move into the private rented sector. It was also essential that staff vacancies within the service be addressed as soon as possible to alleviate capacity concerns.

At the conclusion of this item, the Chair thanked the officers and the Cabinet Member for their engagement with the questions of the Sub-Committee.


Following its discussion of this item the Streets, Environment & Homes Sub-Committee concluded the following:-

1.     From the evidence provided, it was understood that there were robust plans in place to mitigate against the risks that had caused the Independent Transport and Temporary Accommodation services to be overspent in recent years.

2.     The Sub-Committee was encouraged by the growth plans for the Grounds Maintenance Service, but agreed that further detail was needed before a judgement could be made on whether the Council’s plans for rewilding and meadowing were sufficient.

3.     It was agreed that given the history of significant overspends within the Independent Travel and Temporary Accommodation services, the delivery of these budgets should be monitored by the Sub-Committee in the forthcoming year.


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