Committee round-up: Communities Committee 4.6.20

The early financial impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on housing rents and other services overseen by Communities Committee has been considered by councillors.

The meeting, held virtually, was held on Thu, Jun 4, and can be viewed online.

Committee chair Cllr Anne Stirling opened the meeting with a tribute to staff across all services for their response to the challenges posed by coronavirus.

“I think the staff have been fantastic in their resilience, in their ability to be flexible and their willingness to do things differently,” she said, “and I think without our staff, the leadership from our directorate teams and the council as a whole I think our communities would be in a very different place.”

The message was welcomed and echoed by the committee.

Impact of coronavirus on service finances considered

An early indication of the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the work being undertaken to address the challenges and the preparations for ‘recovery and renewal’ was presented to the committee.

Councillors heard the pandemic has had a financial impact in terms of the cost of responding to the outbreak, the loss of income due to the closure of facilities and lower than anticipated collection rates, offset slightly by a reduction in running costs for suspended services and closed facilities.

The ability to achieve previously agreed savings or implement new fee structures will also be affected, the committee was told.

Budgets pressures of £8.5million have been identified for the period between mid-March and June, with a loss of income of approximately £7.5million and additional costs of £3.2million being slightly offset by a reduction in costs of £2.2million in other areas.

It was added that a report on the impact of coronavirus on the council’s key budgets would be considered at a meeting of the full council on Wed, Jun 9.

Reference was also made to Scottish Government funding available to assist individuals, households, businesses and the self-employed.

Discussing some of the areas of pressure, further information was sought regarding eligibility criteria for business support grants and how they are being applied, particularly regarding refusals. Concern was also raised about the longer-term impact on budgets.

The committee agreed to receive regular updates on the financial impact of the pandemic, and supported Cllr Stirling’s suggestion that a virtual workshop be arranged to consider the detail of the financial impact on the areas within the committee’s remit.

Support for tenants welcomed by committee

The support and assistance provided to housing tenants during the coronavirus pandemic was welcomed by the committee as they heard of the initial impact of the situation on housing rents.

The committee was told that housing arrears have risen from £1.4million in April to £1.85million as of June 2 and that while the position is currently manageable the impact on the service’s business plan cannot be underestimated.

The service recently restarted issuing rent arrears letters, which have been revised to encourage tenants to contact housing officers to get specialist support and assistance, with the focus being on tenants who have not yet engaged with the service so far.

The committee welcomed the service’s decision to suspend eviction action and repossessions for the time being, ensuring tenants are secure in the knowledge there was no risk to their tenancy.

The report before the committee outlined that housing officers have maintained contact with individuals experiencing difficulty in paying their rent, with referrals made to the Grampian Coronavirus Assistance Hub and other agencies to ensure that welfare rights, money and other professional advice is made available at an early opportunity.

The approach taken to supporting tenants was described as ‘reassuring’ by several members of the committee, with the ‘proactive response’ being highlighted.

Contact by telephone has been key, councillors were told, with advice on payment arrangements being among the topics being discussed with tenants.

The committee sought more detail on the level of non-payments, and comment was made on the impact of the crisis on the oil and gas industry.

There was support for a proposal by Cllr Stirling that a member officer working group be established to look at Aberdeenshire Council’s housing service rental strategy, with the findings to be considered by the committee in December. 

It was also agreed that updates should be provided to the council’s six area
Committees.

Local Police Plan supported

Police Scotland’s Local Police Plan 2020-2023 for Aberdeenshire was approved by the committee.

The plan, focused on the Aberdeenshire element of the North East Division, had previously been submitted to the committee for comment in March.

References to mental health and vulnerable people were welcomed, and it was agreed that a ‘light touch’ review of the plan on an annual basis would be helpful for the committee over the lifetime of the plan.

There was a call for more assurance regarding road safety, particularly in terms of the behaviour of motorists during the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee approved the plan and requested that the Divisional Commander continue to reporter to the committee on a quarterly basis to provide performance updates.

The committee also gave thanks to the Police Scotland for the work of its staff across the area.

Other matters

Culture and Sport Sub-Committee: Cllr Dianne Beagrie was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Culture and Sport Sub-Committee, following the departure of Cllr Colin Pike.