13.33 pm: Hi, I’m Helen from the communications team and I’m at Shire Hall, Monmouth to watch today’s meeting of full council.
There are some interesting issues on the agenda and I thought while I’m here I’ll liveblog it to give you a flavour of what’s going on. If it’s useful, let me know and we’ll try to make it a regular thing. If not, let us know and we’ll look at other ways of sharing what’s happening and getting your feedback.
Apologies in advance for any typos or abbreviations, if I refer to ‘us’ or ‘we’ that will mean the council as a whole and I’ll quote some of the debate where I can.
2.05pm Cllr Giles Howard is telling those at the meeting how this week Tintern Old Station won best tea house in Wales by the True Taste Awards – he said he is really pleased for the team and passes on his congratulations. Local member Cllr Ann Webb joined him in wishing the team a big well done.
2.16 Cllr Bryan Jones is about to give us a statement relating to Wormtech.
Bryan has researched his answer to this and has given me a copy of the statement he’s making now:
As Members will be aware Wormtech Limited, based at the MOD Training Camp at Caerwent, which is contracted by the Council to compost its green, food and cardboard kerbside collected waste had their license suspended by the Environment Agency on 19th July 2012. I should also point out that Monmouthshire was not the only Council using this facility. Other Councils were Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent, Rhondda Cynon Taff and May Gurney on behalf of Bridgend.
Council officers have a very good working relationship with the EA regarding the Wormtech site. Officers have been able to plan services and contingency arrangements in light of what was emerging from our own and the EA monitoring at the site.
The Council was made formally aware of the suspension both by the Environment Agency and Wormtech on that day, and on the 20th all Members were informed of the action and assured that service delivery would continue as normal and a contingency plan was in place for ongiong composting of this waste.
I have been asked to provide a statement on the Council’s knowledge and management of this issue as well as provide an update on the risk of harm to human and animal health and the local environment.
Before I go into the Monmouthshire County Council perspective I think it is important that members have a full picture from the Environment Agency as they are the lead regulators for the site. Whilst MCC is a client, the statutory responsibility for allowing waste operations such as Wormtech to exist lies with the EA. The EA have given a statement for today which I will read out now.
On Thursday 19 July 2012, Environment Agency Wales issued a suspension notice to the site operators at the Wormtech composting facility in Monmouthshire. The suspension notice is effective from Friday 20 July 2012 and means that the company cannot accept any more waste into its treatment site. The suspension will remain in place until the site operators prove that all the areas used for the treatment of waste are sealed and that liquid from the composting process, known as leachate, cannot escape from the site and pollute the local environment. The suspension follows an earlier enforcement action taken by the Agency on Thursday 5 July 2012 to prevent leachate escaping the site and soaking into the ground. Since the first notice was served, further investigations by the Agency’s officers indicated that there was a serious risk of pollution to groundwater from the site. Samples taken at the site show that there are high levels of Ammoniacal Nitrogen in the leachate that runs off the composting process. Evidence of E.Coli and Salmonella were also confirmed. Public Health Wales and Monmouthshire Environmental Health have been informed. Public Health Wales have commented that they are satisfied there is no wider public health risk at this stage. The MOD have alsobeen kept up to date on activities and issues at the site so that they can assess any risks to their troops. We plan to undertake further joint visits with Environmental Health, Animal health and for us to walkover the site and surrounding area. Environment Agency investigations are ongoing. As yet, no pollution to the Great Spring or surface waters has been identified. The main pollutant, Ammoniacal Nitrogen is a non-hazardous pollutant that will naturally degrade within the environment. Therefore our priority has been to stop further leachate being produced and escaping.
I think it is important that we reflect on the EA’s statement and I will add in some further advice received from our own Environmental Health department.
The suspension notice was issued because of concerns over the robustness of the site’s infrastructure to contain any leachate or contamination on the site. It is encouraging that the EA are able to currently report that “no pollution to the Great Spring or surface waters has been identified”. It is also encouraging that Public Health Wales have commented that they are satisfied there is no wider public health risk at this stage.
From all of this I would propose that preventative action has been taken before a full pollution incident can occur.
The samples that were taken and referred to by the EA were undertaken in full partnership with Monmouthshire County Council officers. Indeed it was from a standard site inspection by our own Waste Strategy Manager with the Environment Agency to review the site, that samples were asked to be taken between our own environmental health officers and the EA.
Advice received from both the Environment Agency and Environmental Health was that the contamination appears to be contained on site. However because of the concern about the site and wider risks Environmental Health are currently and will continue to conduct weekly visits to the site to monitor for any pooling of leachate off site.
I understand and fully respect the concerns that have been raised about wider human and environmental impact as it is no secret that Wormtech were prosecuted and fined in 2011 for the pollution of the Neddern – a local brook. As part of their post conviction plan Wormtech had to undertake measures to ensure that the gully’s and brooks on the site were bunded to ensure no leakage into the local watercourses. I am assured that from current inspections that the infrastructure has not been breached, even with the significant rainfall that has occurred. Therefore advice received is that currently the local environment – and therefore wider human or animal health are not at risk. I cannot reinforce enough however that both MCC and the EA will continue to monitor the situation very closely.
As a result of the sampling findings MCC also took additional action to ensure the continued safety of its workforce who entered the site to unload waste. Immediate action was taken to reinforce safe working practices. This included additional vehicle washing and reinforcement of hygiene practices such as wearing gloves and hand washing. The Health and Safety Executive was contacted to seek their views on actions taken and they advised that MCC had taken appropriate steps to ensure the continued safety of its workforce entering the site. HSE were also made aware by the EA and MCC of the concerns on site as worker welfare on the site is an HSE responsibility.
It could be asked why with all these concerns and findings MCC allowed its contract to continue. I will now turn to the contract management process and framework.
MCC has a contract in place with Wormtech. This was awarded in 2009 and the end date is March 2018. I visited the site last year and as a result I asked officers to ensure that we had a robust contract management process in place. This includes site visits, routine management meetings and constant dialogue with contractors to ensure continual service provision and safe working practices are being followed. Regular liaison and a site visit with the EA forms part of this process. As a result of the issues on the site MCC has, within the framework set by contractual law and the contract that is in place, issued Wormtech with two Default Notices to date which instructs them to put right issues. The first notice was issued in April 2012. The second Default was issued when the first EA notice was issued in early July. As a result of the action last week a further default is to be issued by the end of the week. Persistent failure to put right can ultimately lead to contract termination. The defaults and supporting documentation make it clear that MCC does not tolerate activity from a contractor which puts human health or the local environment or human at risk.
As part of the Default Notice process MCC has reinforced to Wormtech what it considers to be fundamentals for the contract. This not only relates to high diversion from landfill and high composting performance, but that they should at all times maintain all agreements, licenses, permits and permissions to ensure they operate within the confines of the law and the regulatory regime.
It has been made abundantly clear to Wormtech, as I stated earlier, that continual defaults can lead to termination. It would not be appropriate for me to say today whether we will or will not terminate the contract in the future. What I can do however is reassure Members that the contract is being managed very robustly, dialogue will be maintained with the EA so that any hint or evidence of non-compliance with current notices will be managed appropriately and swiftly.
To turn now to immediate actions to keep our service functioning.
As part of the Contract with MCC, Wormtech are required to have a contingency plan in place for the continued haulage and treatment of this waste. MCC used to deliver approximately 60% of all kerbside collected green/food waste directly into the site with the rest being deposited at Llanfoist Transfer Station prior to haulage by Wormtech onto their site.
As of Friday 20th July all kerbside green/food waste is being deposited at Llanfoist prior to onward haulage to Wormtech’s contingency treatment facility. Operationally this has had an impact and incurred costs for MCC because additional lorries, drivers and loaders are having to be utilised to ensure continual service delivery to the public. This is in recognition that haulage up to Llanfoist from the South of the County places considerable pressures on operations – particularly as this is the busiest time of year for this waste.
Currently Five Lanes Transfer Station is not permitted from the EA to take this type of waste. Steps were already in train with the transfer station contractor Dragon Waste and the EA to determine if the site is suitable for the management of this waste as this would ease operational burdens considerably.
However I must stress that MCC can and will charge Wormtech for all the additional costs incurred as a result of this contingency arrangement. What I cannot do today is inform you what those actual costs will be as we are only 5 working days into this situation. But officers have established a separate log to ensure we fully know the cost this has placed on us to charge it back.
In terms of what is now happening to the material. Wormtech have confirmed with MCC that on Friday 20th July the waste deposited at the transfer station was taken to Bryn Compost, an approved Invessel Composter based in Nelson, Caerphilly. As of Monday 23rd July it is being taken to RoseHill Invessel Composter at Dymock, Gloucestershire. There is no facility within South East Wales which could cope with Monmouthshire’s waste and whilst not pleased I am somewhat comforted that the waste is only going to Gloucestershire and not further afield.
Looking forward it is accepted that this contingency cannot last forever. Dialogue is ongoing with Wormtech as to their longer term plan whilst their site is out of action. MCC will also be asking Wormtech formally as part of its contract review and default process to demonstrate how they intend to make good the situation on the site.
It is fully recognised that Wormtech have to undertake a lot of improvements to the site before waste can once more be taken there for treatment. The EA have given them until January to submit assessments and reports on the robustness of the buildings and the drainage systems to manage this waste appropriately. Subject to what is submitted the EA will then consider the permit for the site.
As a Cabinet Member I can reassure you that I was well briefed on the situation from an early stage and also that the local ward member Cllr Phil Murphy was kept fully abreast of developments. Wider member awareness was not undertaken because the advice was that the issues were contained on site and also because regulatory issues and announcements need to be made by the EA as the lead agency regarding this facility.
A coordinated MCC effort has been employed by officers with regular dialogue and updates provided. We will continue to monitor the site and the local environment very closely and maintain regular dialogue with the Environment Agency. If any evidence of off-site pollution is reported to MCC we will make members aware.
As a closing remark I can reassure members that we are managing this appropriately, strongly and within the frameworks of contractual law and I hope this statement has been able to reassure you that all steps are and will be taken to manage this properly.
14.34pm Cllr Jones has apologised for the statment being ‘a bit like War and Peace’. Cllr Easson is responding and asking that all members are kept in the loop more on this issue.
14.36 Leader, Cllr Peter Fox, is updating the room on a report to be presented to council in September asking council to sign a community covenant to build strong rlationships with our armed forces.
14.45 Cllr Phil Hobson is presenting the following recommendation from the cabinet, 18th July about Park Street School, Abergavenny. He says:
“This represents an equivalent investment of £400k into the community via a stand-alone non-profit charity/organisation of individuals in Abergavenny who gave identified a crying need for social and community meeting space which can be used for a multitude of local groups, services and events.
“This is in line with our agreement to invest in “community resilience” which makes communities more robust for the future by investing in infrastructure, groups, etc. where this represents the best value, not necessarily the best economic value.”
14.54 Cllr Roger Harris says it’s potentially brilliant for Abergavenny to have this sort of project goingon but it is at the expense of a sum of money going into the 21st century schools programme it’s up to the community to make it work. He says if it doesn’t work, we need to keep a very close eye on it …[and make sure it’s reviewed]. He says, “I hope it works but we’ve got to bite the bullet if it doesn’t”.
14.56 Cllr Peter Fox: “This is a good news storyshowing the empowering of Monmouthshire people to do things and an investment into the community. We want it to succeed and make progress. Let’s be real about the level of capital we’re talking about… this is a real opportunity to put our money where our mouth is and will benefit the whole of the community.
15.08 Council have voted all in favour of this item (6 on the agenda). Here’s a reaction I found on Twitter:
— Monmouthshire LibDem (@MonLibDems) July 26, 2012
15.09 Next up, it’s the item on Monmouthpedia – the world’s first Wikipedia town, which will will soon develop from being just in Monmouth to a county-wide project. We’ve entered into a trademark agreement with San Francisco’s Wikimedia Foundation and that gives us restricted right of access to the Wikipedia brand and logo for use in conjunction with the Monmouthpedia project.
Coverage has been worldwide and you can also read the local media stories here:
15.10 The Monmouthpedia item is carried!
15.15 Cllr Debbie Blakeborough and Cllr Fox are discussing the ways councillors will use technology to do their jobs and work in a more paperless way.
Cllr Easson is saying he has concerns about members who like to print things out and if they will have printing facilities.
Cllr Roger Harris has said the democratic services committee, where these issues were raised recently, is good for scrutiny.
Cllr Graham Down is saying there’s shouldn’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach as members don’t always use laptops in every meeting and the need to make sure that members aren’t disenfranchised.
Cllr Jessica Crook asked is all cabinet members have smart phones. Cllr Fox said he uses his own and some do have council owned phones. He says it can be an important pice of kit and the level of work they do means accesing email and working in a mobile way is useful. “Weve got to get smarter, wiser and work in a different ways”.
Cllr Armand Watts said he feels that if only Cabinet members are using smartphones that it sends out a message that they think they are better than other members. Cllr Peter Fox we’re trying to find the best way forward to work better and he’d like to see all members making use of tecnology if it enables them to work smarter.
Cllr Bob Greenland said that if members would like to put forward a case that would like to use smart phonesto improve their work then it’s something cabinet will need to consider.
15.28 Cllr Kevin Williams says the cost is a different matter to the value. He thinks a tablet could be useful when he’s out and about and ‘live’ when he’s doing his job.
15.36 Item 10 has been withdrawn by Cllr Easson.
15.49 Items 11, 12, 13 and 14 were all carried. Now we’re going on to questions. You can see the questions on the agenda.
15.52 Question from Cllr
Easson Higginson[edited after error was pointed out]:
Given the arrangement between both Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on the administration of the Council, can Cllr Hobson provide Members with his view on the budget, which he supported at the March meeting? Cllr Hobson will recall a statement he made that while he supported the “nil” precept increase, he did not agree with the budget overall. Therefore, can Cllr Hobson outline where he will target the budget for change and why?”
Cllr Hobson “recognised as far back as January that budget was heading for surplus for 2011-2012 which allowed for council tax freeze” and “work currently undergoing to save costs, not leaving any stone unturned”. He says “working on investment projects to provide new sources of income to the County, rather than 100 per cent reliance on council tax payers for funding”. “I stated at budget setting meeting ‘if you have the ability to freeze council tax, you have a duty to do so’ and I stand by those words today and will continue to do so”.
15.59 We’ve had two questions to Cllr Phil Murphy from Cllr Higginson
– the nature of liveblogging is that while I typed answers to the last question I missed the answers to theses. I will ask Cllr Murphy for his statements that responded to the questions and insert these here ASAP.
Some time ago I put a question on the late payment of invoices and why was payment taking too long. Council received a response subsequently recognising the unacceptable position. It seems that the message may not have reached some areas. I therefore submit the question again. It is clear that invoices are still not being attended to with appropriate speed, why therefore is the situation of delays in payment of invoices seemingly not as good as it is expected to be?
Answer from Cllr Murphy:
We have accepted that we need to improve our performance in this area and we have been working hard to achieve this. The last twelve months has seen on-going improvement in the prompt payment statistics. A summary of work undertaken to date includes:
- A thorough review of the data has been undertaken which has highlighted the need to harmonise our methodology in line with other Authorities and highlight the areas that have the most scope for improvement
- Corrective action has been taken where it can be made immediately with instructions given directly by the Chief Executive
- Numerous communications have been distributed to remind departments to deal with invoices promptly and date stamp them when received
- Some departments have changed the whole way they deal with invoicing through closer liaison with their suppliers to ensure disputes are resolved before the invoice is issued, to receive invoices electronically and to reduce the number of invoices received.
- A mini system review has been undertaken and is looking at streamlining the process further. Pilot areas to test the new processes have been agreed.
The rate of improvement is not as marked as anticipated given the focused effort that has taken place to date. Whilst it is recognised that some changes in process will not materialise immediately and stem from the outcomes from system reviews further additional resources are being mobilised to specifically target this area.
Over the last 12 month the percentage of invoices paid within 30 days has improved to 81% in the last quarter. This is now calculated using the date the invoices are received into the Authority rather than the date of the invoice which was previously being used. There is still more room for improvement and we are working with suppliers to reduce the number of invoices and ensure full details are given on invoices that are received.
It is envisaged that the programmed work will over the course of 2012 lead to a more marked imhttps://monmouthshirecc.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=563&action=editprovement in the late payment statistics.
The next question to Cllr Murphy from Cllr Higginson:
Properties subject to upgrading/renovation/restructuring that have been uninhabitable/empty are subject to Council Tax exemption for a time. In the case of substantial restructure, what actions are taken, and when, in relation to making assessments on expected completion of works to these properties for the purposes of reintroducing the properties to the rating list for Council Tax payment purposes?
Cllr Murphy’s answer:
Members are aware that any residential property that becomes empty and is unfurnished is entitled to 6 months statutory exemption from council tax charges – This is “Class C”.
In addition, the regulations provide for a maximum 12 months exemption under “Class A” so long as the property is vacant and
(a) it requires or is undergoing major repair work to render it habitable,
(b) it is undergoing structural alteration, or
(c) it has undergone major repair works to render it habitable or structural alteration, and less than 6 months have elapsed since the date on which the work was
substantially completed and the dwelling has remained vacant since that date.
It is possible ( and not uncommon) to benefit from both these exemptions often running consecutively. This occurs when the property becomes vacant and qualifies for class C exemption followed by class A exemption when renovation works begin. Using these two exemption classes allows up to 18 months full exemption
In the case of major repairs/structural alterations the owner often tells us themselves, particularly if they were living in the property and have to move out during the works. We have access to the Council’s Building Control records which are reviewed on a monthly basis. In addition we receive the “initial notices” from the Planning Department. Our visiting officer calls at the properties to see what work is going on and in the case of renovations etc he will determine whether the property qualifies for the exemption for a property which is empty and undergoing major structural work and will then visit periodically to check progress. The Council’s Building Inspector, if involved, will issue a Completion Notice when he is satisfied that the works are completed but the owner may also advise us. Generally the completion date is a matter of fact and not contentious. Council tax will become payable when the property is reoccupied or when the 12 month maximum exemption period expires.
The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) (which is part of the Inland Revenue) has complete responsibility for maintaining the list and assessing band values for council tax purposes. These are displayed in the Valuation List. The VOA does not take properties undergoing renovation etc out of the Valuation List so there is no issue about reintroducing them. Owners can only request the exemptions detailed above. The VOA will only remove demolished properties or those that are in a very derelict state. They may also consider this e.g. when flats are converted into a house when the individual flats can no longer be distinguished. Queries relating to these matters may be raised with us but are best dealt with by the VOA direct. The Council is legally obliged to levy council tax based on the band value in the valuation list.
16.05 The next item is a question to Bryan Jones from Cllr Easson:
“During the consultation into parking within Monmouthshire, it was reported by officers that there were more than 1000 blue badge holders in Monmouth Town which has a population of less than 10,000. It was suggested that this high proportion of badge holders was unusual and could be contributing to the lack of parking available to non disabled residents and also to the drop of revenue from the car parks as blue badge holders are exempt. Can the cabinet member please advise the current number of blue badge holders in Monmouth?
Can he also advise whether the Council is satisfied that the scheme is not being abused”?
As with the last question I will ask Bryan for his statement and insert it here later. I must keep up! In the meantime here’s a story I’ve pinched from our staff magazine in February which looked at new blue badge process, I thought it might be informative:
Old, New, Borrowed and Blue: New proposals will mean less abuse of blue badges
People in receipt of a blue badge know how important it is to find a car parking space close to the shops. There is little more annoying than somebody parked in a space reserved for people with disabilities, clearly misusing a blue badge just for convenience!
But things are changing with central government cutting back on fraudulent use. London for instance, where parking is difficult, experiences a great deal of misuse but even Monmouthshire, regarded by many as a leafy backwater, is not immune.
The Blue Badge process is run by our One Stop Shops who have been liaising with Welsh Government over changes in the process. The new system affects only people applying from 1st April, so do not fear if you are a current blue badge holder in Monmouthshire. If you still have time left on your blue badge it will not affect you immediately.
The good news is that the new badges are free. The only time payment is required is when a blue badge is lost or damaged and needs to be replaced. The other good news is that enforcement will be improved greatly. Currently a Monmouthshire Blue Badge can be used in other counties but records are kept on a local basis. So, if a car parking officer or a police officer has suspicions about misuse they often have to waste time contacting the correct authority. To counter this, all local authorities are encouraged to sign a framework agreement to provide details of their blue badge holders to a central database. Enforcement officers will be able to interrogate the database to check that the individual is an official blue badge holder. If not, appropriate action can be taken.
So why does our title say old, new, borrowed and blue? Old refers to the fact that an OLD badge still has a maximum of three years to run if it is awarded on the 31st March 2012. All others can be replaced with the NEW style badge when the old badge runs out.
Okay – what’s the difference with the new badge? The new badge will have a hologram and physical security features enhanced with the use of new technologies and printing techniques to counter forgery. If somebody has BORROWED the badge to park illegally, beware! You are being watched.
And BLUE…. Do we really need to explain?
16.11 Next question from Cllr Haywood to Cllr Greenland:
“At the special meeting of MCC on the 1st July 2011 you stated The Wonastow Road site fell within “Regeneration Investment Fund in Wales.” This was a one-off opportunity for investment and job creation.’ The site has now been sold by the Regeneration Investment Fund in Wales to South Wales Land Development Ltd which is a private development company with no ties to the Welsh Government or MCC. Is the Cabinet Member aware of any details of the sale and if he isn’t then should the site not be withdrawn from our Local Development Plan since we cannot be sure that any of the perceived benefits put forward at the LDP will take place?”
Cllr Greenland says WG did own the site through the Jessica fund to provide soft loans to businesses. He says it was always on the cards that the site might be sold. The important point, he says,was not that WG owned the site but that sites were linked by LDP process. Whoever takes on the site will be expected to put in the infrastrucure for the employment site when building out the housing site. The LDP has brought that site forward as a housing and employment site and Cllr Grerenland says ‘I hope that clarifies things’.
16.15 The next question is to Cllr Fox from Cllr Hayward.
I hope you’ll bear with me and I will insert the answer when the Leader sends it to me:
“At the Cabinet meeting of 7th December Cabinet received a report from the Economy and Development Select Committee on Integrating Transport. >Cabinet agreed to respond to the Economy and Select Committee within six months indicating clearly:
(i) Whether Cabinet agree or disagree with each scrutiny recommendation.
(ii) Where recommendations are agreed and Equality Impact Assessments have been undertaken, the timescale within which Cabinet will implement the recommendation and report back to the Select Committee for monitoring purposes.
(iii) If the recommendation is disagreed, clear rationale as to why Cabinet disagrees with the recommendation and the alternative course of action proposed by Cabinet. They also agreed that the relevant Cabinet Member works with officers to produce a Cabinet Response which is subsequently formally agreed by Cabinet. Recommendations agreed by Cabinet may require equality impact assessments to be undertaken prior to them becoming actions to be reported to scrutiny.Can the leader please explain why the above actions have not taken
Cllr Fox answered:
I am grateful to Cllr Hayward for highlighting the report from the Economy and Development Select committee and the need for a formal response from Cabinet. Other than the recent inaugural meeting of the committee under the new council I understand that the committee has only met twice in this year – February and March, so the opportunity to respond to the committee has not arisen as yet. Nevertheless I acknowledge that we are now outside the sixmonth period to respond and I have asked the Cabinet member, Cllr Jones, to liaise with the chairman to arrange for the Cabinet response to be put on an agenda for a future meeting of the select committee.
Despite the need for a formal response I understand that some of the select committee proposals are indeed being acted upon whilst changes in WG policy are impacting upon others.
There are ten recommendations from the select committee and I won’t be responding here to all of them but it might be worth highlighting that our members on SEWTA are using this opportunity to promote enhancements to the Abergavenny and Chepstow rail lines and that funding has been awarded for preliminary designs for extra car parking to serve the Abergavenny and Chepstow rail stations in 2012/13, both of which are recommendations coming from the Select committee.
On a less positive note WG is cutting the LTSG (local transport support grant) by 25% in 12/13 so some impact upon present bus services is likely. That being said I believe officers are looking at service permutations and design to minimise the impact upon users – and perhaps we can also offset this with greater use of the Grass Routes service – a service that has won several awards and that has proven to be very popular in the community.
16.22 The meeting is now over! I’ll be adding the unanswered questions in here by tonight and I’ll make it clear which bits were added after the meeting.
I’d love to hear if you found this liveblog useful, your feedback will inform if we should do it more often or not. It’s difficult to judge if it was popular by looking at how many times the page was viewed as the nature of a liveblog is that readers need to refresh the page to get the latest update – so page views doen’t equal number of people who have looked! You can tweet @Monmouthshirecc or leave a comment here if you’d like to tell us what you think.