Aberdeenshire Council – 28th November 2013

Councillors discussed the annual report of the Chief Social Work Officer, the external auditor’s management letter and proposals by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to close the Aberdeen Control Room when the full Aberdeenshire Council met on 28th November 2013.

The Provost opened the meeting by recognising the achievements of three members of staff who competed in the Young Scotland Programme last month. Arlene Gibbs, trainee solicitor, David-John McRobbie, Fisheries Project Officer and Vicky Vaughan from Housing represented Aberdeenshire at the national competition.

She reported that the Council had been successful in achieving the Healthy Working Lives Silver Award, enabling employees to feel better supported through the implementation of supportive policies, opportunities for healthy eating, physical activity at work, and training on how they can improve the mental health of their workplace. Referral from Policy & Resources Committee:Cllr Stephen Smith put forward a motion relating to works at Mackenzie Crescent. The area suffered from a landslip in January 2012 and the area committee had previously supported an option for remedial works for a ‘bored pile wall to support the public road and to allow it to re-open, at an estimated cost of £610,000.’

Cllr Smith advised that the council had previously undertaken works to address landslips at both Pennan and Stonehaven.

The motion was seconded by Cllr Stuart Pratt who said that failure to address the issue now was storing up trouble for later. He urged councillors to support the unanimous decision of the area committee.

Cllr Jim Gifford put forward an amendment to support the decision previously made by P&R committee which was to ‘close the road on a permanent basis to vehicular traffic, at an estimated cost of £20,000, while still enabling access to all properties from either end of the road.’

He said that the closure was a sensible, pragmatic solution.

The secondment was seconded by Cllr Martin Kitts-Hayes who said that the council had to draw a line somewhere and could not fund works when costs had risen from £200,000 to £600,000 and could still rise further.The amendment was supported 36 votes to 28.Cllr Allison Grant asked the council to consider a motion referred from Social Work and Housing Committee about welfare reform.

1. That Aberdeenshire Council write to the Westminster Government asking them to revoke the Bedroom Tax & Welfare Reform Act

2. That Aberdeenshire Council also contact the Department of Works and Pensions, asking them to ensure that all local authorities are supplied with the necessary information on Disability Living Allowance & Personal Independence Payments, to enable them to appropriately assess the impact on the person, & to set in motion supportive measures at an early stage.

Cllr Grant welcomed the opportunity to comment on a very current issue which had created widespread concern, and that was affecting the council and the residents of Aberdeenshire.

The motion was seconded by Cllr Brian Topping who said that the motion was simple and clear, that welfare reform was affecting the most vulnerable members of society and that the council should write to the Westminster Government o the matter.

Cllr Karen Clark put forward an amendment.

1. To acknowledge the significant amount of work carried out by Housing and Social Work staff and staff across Aberdeenshire Council services to address the impact of Welfare Reform.

2. That the chair of Social Work and Housing monitors the Scottish Government’s use of its existing powers so that where a tenant can prove that they are in rent arrears directly as a result of under-occupancy deductions of housing benefit, the Scottish Government will compensate councils and registered social landlords and;

3. That, should the UK Government carry out for a full review of the public costs/benefits of the under-occupancy deductions of housing benefit, then Aberdeenshire Council will co-operate fully with this review.

Cllr Alisan Norrie seconded the amendment.

Councillors held a lengthy debate, voicing their concerns around welfare reform – both on the issue of the principle of the legislation and on the importance of ensuring the continued support of the council to mitigate the effects of the legislation on those most adversely affected.

A range of issues were explored including the position that previously anticipated savings as a result of welfare reform were now unlikely to be met and therefore it was an appropriate time to set out the council’s concerns.

There was also a view that writing to the Government was futile and that the efforts of the council should be on mitigating the effects of the legislation.

Reassurance was also given that, at a recent meeting with the Minister and the DWP, the council’s concerns about the lack of information on Disability Living Allowance & Personal Independence Payments, had been raised.

Cllr Grant summed up by saying that the work required to support this legislative change is huge and it’s having a major impact on the council and the residents, which is why it’s important to make the views of the council known to the Government.The amendment was supported 37 votes to 27.Director of Housing & Social Work Ritchie Johnson introduced the report which provided an overview of social work activity in relation to discharging the council’s statutory duties. He stated that good progress had been made in relation to improvements identified from last year and that the focus now needed to be on responding to the emerging issues of a growing and ageing population and financial trends.

Cllr Karen Clark welcomed the report and paid tribute to the social work team, this was echoed by Cllr Anne Allan who added it was good to see previous issues having been addressed.

Cllr Raymond Christie asked about incidents of child trafficking in Aberdeenshire. Bob Driscoll Chief Social Work Officer reported that as of this week neither Police Scotland nor Aberdeenshire Council have been involved with specific instances of child or human trafficking in Aberdeenshire. He recognised that this was not to say that these practices do not exist in Aberdeenshire, but there have not been any known instances.

He added that the council was well prepared to respond, that Aberdeenshire subscribes to the national position that child trafficking is child abuse. As such the council follows the robust National Child Protection Guidance, which contains a specific section on child trafficking. The report was welcomed and agreed. External auditor’s management letterHead of Finance Alan Wood introduced the report which set out the External Auditor’s Management Letter and the council’s responses to the recommendations made.

Mr Wood explained that the audit certificate is unmodified which is the highest standard that can be achieved. The external auditor’s management letter sets out areas for improvement, in 2012 there were 35 recommendations and the letter for 2013 sets out 11. Five areas were listed as requiring significant improvement.

Cllr Gifford welcomed the report, noting the marked improvement, accepting the recommendations and accepted the areas for improvement. The report was approved.Council Leader Cllr Jim Gifford advised that following a meeting with the Accounts Commission, he had received extremely positive feedback in relation to the activities of Aberdeenshire Council. The council was seen to be easy to work with, and open to suggestions and ideas.

He recognised that work still needed to be done and that the council couldn’t be complacent, but the findings from the Accounts Commission were very positive.

Cllr Martin Ford reflected on some of the issues raised in the report, including the reduction of senior posts, improvement activity and performance indicators.

Cllr Vernal asked that a report be brought back to Policy & Resources Committee on improvement activity.

Cllr Ian Tait highlighted issues relating to the transparency and objectivity of Scrutiny and Audit Committee, benchmarking and the role of the chair of Scrutiny and Audit.The report was agreed.Head of Housing & Social Work Ritchie Johnson presented a report highlighting the proposals contained in the recently published Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Strategic Intent document.

He advised that following the merger of Scotland’s eight former fire and rescue services a review had been carried out of the support estate. The review includes the potential closure of the Aberdeen control room – reducing the eight current control rooms to three, at Dundee, Johnstone and one in the north of Scotland. The final decision on location will be made at the January meeting of the Board.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Board, MPs and MSPs have been consulted, but there has been no consultation with local elected members.

Councillors agreed to write to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Board to express its concern at the lack of consultation on the proposals. They also asked the board for a rationale for the proposal to close the Aberdeen Control Room, reassurance was also sought that changes would not compromise the effectiveness of the service offered to Aberdeenshire residents.

It was further agreed that the Leader of the Council would ask the Leader of Aberdeen City Council to send a similar letter to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Board to present a united approach to this issue.The approach was unanimously adopted by the Council.