Infrastructure Services Committee May round-up

Aberdeenshire Council’s Infrastructure Services Committee hosted its first ever Skype meeting on Thursday, May 14 in light of the coronavirus restrictions.
Among the items for discussion were a revision of the LDP2021 Development Plan Scheme, a Strategic Transport Update, use of Emergency Powers and an Economic Development service response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Development Plan Scheme 2020

Members heard that the Planning Service was preparing to focus on an online means of public engagement as part of an eight-week consultation from May 25 to July 17 on the Proposed Local Development Plan 2020 (LDP).
In light of current physical distancing measures, changes introduced though the Covid-19 emergency legislation and guidance from the Chief Planner, the local authority has considered it appropriate to publish a revised Development Plan Scheme for 2020 with a new participation statement outlining the engagement to be undertaken associated with the Proposed LDP 2020.
Head of Planning Paul Macari said that in place of nine drop-in events, the council is now proposing to engage with stakeholders, including community councils, by way of electronic means such as virtual drop-ins, Q&A sessions and a 24-hour virtual ‘live chat’ platform.
He said the council’s Area Managers and Community Planning teams would play a key role in ensuring community councils were involved at every stage of the consultation.
Additional e-newsletter updates will be published in the lead-up to and during the consultation period, with social media platforms being used to widely publicise the Proposed LDP and promote the production of three short films on the plan-making process. There is also the ability for the Local Development Plan to be read aloud when opened online to make it as accessible as possible.
The online platforms and resources have also been shared with Education and Children’s Services to encourage greater engagement and dialogue around the Proposed Local Development Plan with younger generations.
In keeping with the initial Development Plan Scheme, Aberdeenshire Council will notify all neighbouring properties to proposed development sites and views will be sought on the proposals. Similarly, all those who made comments on the Main Issues Report will be contacted and invited to examine the outcomes of the council’s deliberations on the issues identified during the Main Issues Report stage.
Members asked if there was any feasible way of displaying hard copies of the Plan in the likes of leisure centre windows, but were advised that since all Live Life Aberdeenshire facilities remain closed and because of ongoing physical-distancing it would not be feasible to do so at this time. However, if the lockdown is lifted before the end of the consultation, then hard copies will be made available in planning offices, libraries and so on.
While it is recognised that the lack of engagement through the provision of physical documents and face to face communication throughout the consultation period will not suit everyone, it is hoped that this pragmatic approach will reach as wide an audience as possible in the circumstances.
Those who do not use or have limited access to online facilities can still fully participate in the consultation process. The Planning Service will continue to provide full contact details for engagement by telephone or via written correspondence with their planning officers and this alternative means of communication will be similarly welcomed where necessary. 
ISC Chair Peter Argyle said that given normal circumstances, the council wouldn’t consider doing a solely electronic consultation on a matter of such importance as this.
However, he said it was time-critical and the consultation needed to be completed so all the information can be issued to the Reporter’s Unit and through to the examination in public.
Councillors commended the Planning Service for the thought and work that has gone into the paper and the consultation process and unanimously approved the revised Development Plan Scheme 2020.

Strategic Transport Update

Space for People funding initiative
Head of Transportation Ewan Wallace introduced the Strategic Transport Update and advised councillors of a new £10 million funding stream which was announced at the end of April.
The Spaces for People initiative will enable local authorities, regional transport partnerships and other statutory bodies to introduce temporary projects to create safe walking and cycling routes as a result of Covid-19.
Key criteria within the project include protecting public health, essential journeys, getting viable schemes up and running as soon as possible and, above all, ensuring physical distancing is maintained across the transport network.
Mr Wallace said the scheme follows existing legislation, enables multiple bids to be submitted and the council has all legal powers to introduce such additional works across Aberdeenshire. He said the council was working closely with Sustrans to oversee the scheme which will be available throughout the Covid-19 restrictions.
The initial focus for potential projects will be on main town centres in line with the council’s policies and will focus on where there will be pinch points and where there will be heavier footfall and larger gatherings for essential purposes as we emerge out of the lockdown.
Councillors congratulated the Transportation service’s quick response to the fund and will receive a full briefing on potential bids in due course.
There was also discussion around a particular need for cross-border links and better connectivity in both the north and south of the Shire with the City, with Mr Wallace stressing that the Shire, City, Moray Council and Nestrans were already aligning potential projects.
He added that discussions were continuing with Sustrans, Transport Scotland, regional transport partnership and Public Health to identify what capacity there is for the introduction of measures to cope with the renewed appetite for activities particularly for cycling in the future.

Transport Update
Councillors were also provided with an update on strategic transport projects and briefly discussed some elements including the new Kintore Rail Station, Staff Pool E-Bike scheme, Cycle Parking at Schools and the Walk Once a Week scheme for schools.
The committee acknowledged the progress made with projects, activities and developments taken forward by Nestrans, external agencies and stakeholders and agreed to receive further updates on the progress of both the implementation and delivery of the Aberdeenshire Local Transport Strategy.

Use of delegated powers by the Director of Infrastructure Services by reason of special urgency in respect of Burial Service Fees and Charges

Head of Roads, Landscape and Waste Services, Philip McKay, introduced the report which informed the committee of the changes which the director had authorised following discussion with the chair, vice-chair and Opposition group, under delegated powers in relation to the normal service the council provides as part of the burial service to ensure it is able to deal with the potential impact from the Covid pandemic.
He said he fully appreciated this was an emotive subject and something which impacted on families at a very difficult time, saying the proposal put forward to the director came about after considerable thought and analysis of the modelling which was available to the service at the time.
Mr McKay said the staged approach looked at things the council may need to put in place to ensure the entire death management process could be maintained throughout the worst case scenario.
Five different stages which could be brought in as the situation dictates were identified, however Mr McKay confirmed that, as of this point, the one element the council has brought in was to suspend the fees for graveside assistance.
ISC chair Peter Argyle said this was an incredibly sensitive issue and reflected that funerals at the best of times are bad enough but when attendance at funerals is limited and social distancing requirements are also in place it makes it doubly so.
He added that the modelling which was done had indicated the potential for much increased demand which everyone hoped doesn’t transpire.
Cllr Argyle said it was absolutely right that the service plan for that and he and the committee commended Mr McKay and his team for the work which has been done to plan for that increased demand.
Vice-chair John Cox felt limiting the numbers at a funeral was somewhat draconian, with Mr McKay replying that in terms of social distancing, the Scottish Government has been very clear that it is only immediate family who should attend.
He stressed that the council is not itself setting a limit on the number of attendees at a funeral, but is setting a limit above which staff will not be permitted to participate. If there are more than 15 people at the graveside, the service will not be able to assist in the funeral as staff cannot achieve appropriate social distancing to stay safe.
Councillors were told that, in a very small number of cases, the service had seen the limit exceeded, with one funeral two weeks ago having around 60 people in attendance which Mr McKay described as unacceptable.
The committee was united in praise for both the efforts of the Service and the funeral directors who have been working together to ensure the interments process continues in a safe and dignified manner.
Cllr Argyle thanked all staff who have responded extremely well to these challenging circumstances and who are continuing got provide support in an exemplary manner.

Economic Development Service response to Covid-19 and economic renewal proposals

Economic Development Service Manager Matt Lockley presented a detailed report on the council’s response to the pandemic.
He advised committee that in terms of the UK economy, there had been a 2% economic contraction in the first quarter of 2020 which only took into account the first week of full lockdown.
He said the Bank of England was forecasting economic contraction of 14% for the whole year with a sharp rebound of +15% in 2021.
Furlough numbers were very high - 7.5 million workers or 25% of the UK workforce – with nearly 75% of employers reporting that some or all of their employees are furloughed.
In Scotland, 53% of Scottish small firms have had to close since the lockdown began – Grampian faring slightly better at 45%. The Federation of Small Business said around a third of those businesses were unsure whether they will ever be able to reopen.
Councillors also heard that the Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund had doubled from £45 million to £90 million, but rural Scotland had been less resilient during the pandemic owing to the impact on the seasonality and high rates of self-employment.
In terms of the North-east’s fishing, agriculture and food and drink sector, Mr Lockley said that the shellfish market at Fraserburgh had all but collapsed, some of it due to export going into France and Europe, with around 80% of whitefish processors suspending activities immediately after the lockdown was announced, but that was beginning to improve.
There was some positive news for the large whitefish processors with a 30% increase in demand from UK retailers, but while there had been a welcome 200% increase in trade for local delivery services and fishmongers, this did little to offset the economic losses experienced by the larger producers.
There had been a major impact for local dairy producers who are facing the withdrawal of supply contracts to Muller in November, with the added problem of a surplus of milk products across the UK.
In terms of the Economic Development response itself, Mr Lockley said the council’s Business Rates Team, which has been managing the coronavirus business support grant and rates relief fund, had done an exceptional job in approving 2,700 grants worth a total of £31 million.
He said 60 of 160 applications made to the Self-Employed Hardship Scheme had been approved to-date worth a total of £120,000.
Included within a round-up of the council’s immediate response to the pandemic was the creation of the £175,000 Town Centre Phoenix Fund which is designed to provide financial support for collaborative business-led projects in up to 26 larger and smaller towns across Aberdeenshire to re-launch their town centre economies.
Mr Lockley also highlighted that the council’s £157,500 Business Resilience and Sustainability Support Fund was being repurposed and being used to build on existing crisis support funds to help businesses most affected by the pandemic such as those in hospitality, retail, tourism and leisure with a firm focus on climate change, net zero and digital resilience.
He stressed that the council would continue to maximise all potential funding opportunities to continue supporting Aberdeenshire businesses during and beyond the pandemic.
ISC chair Cllr Peter Argyle said the volumes of funds issued through the Business Support Grants was very impressive and praised the brilliant work undertaken by all the teams involved.
Belinda Miller, Head of Economic Development, also assured councillors and businesses that the council was continuing to work closely with partners on a new regional strategy which will focus on rebuilding the North-east economy as soon as lockdown measures are eased.

You can see all the reports to the committee on the Aberdeenshire Council website at:
https://committees.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/committees.aspx?commid=495&meetid=19527

The full meeting was webcast and you can view a recording of proceedings online here:
https://aberdeenshire.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/486491