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Questions from Members of the Council to the Chairmen of Committees
Questions to the Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee
Councillor Perry asked the following question of the Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee:
Does the Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee agree that the projected underspend of £185,000 should in the first instance be put to reserves. And this would help to ensure the Council’s key services are protected and at the same time avoid unnecessary increases in Council Tax?
The Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee replied that:
The Council was successful in staying within budget last year. In fact, as reported to Service Committees last month, it underspent the budget by £185,000. This is a net underspend, within which there were individual budget variances, both favourable and unfavourable. The underspend includes the benefit of not having to draw down the contingency budget of £200,000 that is included within the overall revenue budget each year.
No assumption was made about last year’s underspend when setting this year’s budget. A balanced budget was set for this year and the Council has adequate reserves. So the £185,000 is not essential to the Council’s financial security. It is a one-off windfall.
If there are projects that are genuinely required to meet the Council’s strategic objectives, that would not otherwise be funded, it would be legitimate to use the underspend to support these. Equally, if there are no such projects, then it is better for the money to be transferred to reserves, as Councillor Perry suggests, rather than for it to be spent simply because it is available.
Service Committees have been invited to comment on use of the £185,000. Heritage, Culture and Leisure Committee has asked that £75,000 be spent on specific projects, but Strategic Planning Sustainability and Transportation Committee would prefer the money to be transferred to reserves. Communities, Housing and Environment Committee decided at its meeting last night to recommend that £30,000 be spent on a feasibility study for a Clean Air Zone. Policy and Resources Committee will consider how to allocate the underspend at its meeting on 24 July 2018.
Transferring this money straight away to reserves will actually now cause a problem because we have asked the Policy and Resources Committee to look at the business cases for each Committee coming forward.
I do not think that it is a good way to just pass it over and put it in for the Council Tax. I remember in the Council Chamber only in March this year we were talking about increasing or not increasing the Council Tax. If we say the money put into reserves could be used to hold the Council Tax down, then that will cause us more problems looking into the future. I am sure that you understand that because it was made very clear to us.
I am therefore content for the Policy and Resources Committee to consider how to allocate the underspend at its meeting on 24 July 2018, and I will not prejudge its decision by recommending how the money should be used.
Councillor Perry asked the following supplementary question of the Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee:
Do you agree that there is already contingency in the budget, and therefore further contingency is not needed, so the underspend should go to reserves and then a decision can be made?
The Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee replied that:
In last year’s budget where this underspend has come from, a contingency amount of money was allocated within the budget, and we only achieved an even budget because we asked the various departments to look at how they could save money, and in doing that they may well have cut things or looked to save on things where they would have wished to use the money. This is the opportunity for those departments and, therefore, those Committees to come back to Policy and Resources Committee and justify why they need to spend that money.
Question to the Chairman of the Strategic Planning, Sustainability and Transportation Committee
Councillor T Sams asked the following question of the Chairman of the Strategic Planning, Sustainability and Transportation Committee:
In light of Highways England's consideration for a lorry park at land on around 100 acres near to Chilston Park affecting residents from Lenham, Platts Heath, Sandway and Lenham Heath, how is this Council planning to work with our community to stop this from happening? How will this Council, through Helen Whately our MP, urgently coordinate a response that tells Highways England that we don't want their customs holding area in this location destroying our green fields, polluting the air with diesel fumes, covering yet more of our precious countryside in tarmac and bringing about yet more light pollution into an area which currently enjoys dark skies.
The Chairman of the Strategic Planning, Sustainability and Transportation Committee replied that:
We are already on the case. A report on the Council’s formal response to the Highways England public information exercise on Operation Stack was taken to the Strategic Planning, Sustainability and Transportation Committee on Tuesday 10th July. The information exercise asks for views on proposed approaches to developing one or more unidentified lorry holding areas to reduce thecongestion operation stack causes in Kent. The information exercise is an early engagement exercise and does not give any details on proposed locations for holding area solutions.
In light of this situation, as part of the Council’s formal response to the Highways England information exercise, it was agreed by the Strategic Planning, Sustainability and Transportation Committee that the Council is unable to answer some of these questions as there isn’t enough information at this stage. That, I think, is significant because some of the questions had we answered directly perhaps would have implied that we were giving a view on those solutions which maybe in time we would completely reject. So, I think it is critical to note that we declined to answer some of the “catch you out” questions. What we did instead was to put significant comment in the comment box so that we weren’t pigeon-holed into those, and it was made clear that there are
grave concerns about an off-road parking solution, especially if it is located in Kent.
As details of the proposed holding areas solutions become available, the Council will look to engage with Highways England on all issues pertinent to Maidstone, including landscape and environmental issues, and indeed we will work with the communities that would be most affected and with our MPs as well.
Interested parties have until 11.59 p.m. on Sunday 22 July to respond to the Highways England information exercise, and I would urge Members to make individual consultation responses as well as the Council’s formal response that will be submitted by the deadline.
Councillor Sams did not ask a supplementary question of the Chairman of the Strategic Planning, Sustainability and Transportation Committee.