At the Council meeting of 7 March 2018 there was, as always, many topics raised by the Questions and Answers section. We have selected a few of them to highlight though please refer to the Agenda and the documents for all such questions and answers.
Section 6 – Questions to the Leader of the Council
(10) Fire Inspections: Question raised by Councillor White to the Leader of the Council:
Inside Housing online magazine has exposed that Wandsworth Council has not made any fire inspections of its estate blocks since the Grenfell disaster. Can the council leader be confident that not re-evaluating its commitment to fire safety by making additional checks to WBC’s estate after such a tragedy was prudent?
I think the Councillor has this issue confused and is actually referring to the required Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) that each landlord is required to have in place rather than the many thousands of fire safety inspections which are undertaken on all Wandsworth Council managed blocks at regular intervals. I can confirm that Estate Services staff undertake a range of inspections on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual frequency checking the communal areas of each block picking up on any issue that could compromise fire safety. This would include checks of fire doors, dry risers, signage, lighting and also ensuring all means of escape were free from obstruction and flammable materials. A general repairs check ensures that the compartmentation of the block is maintained at all times
Having already sought clarification on this matter, Councillor White is fully aware that Inside Housing recently published an article around FRAs, which fell a long way below their usual high standard of reporting. The article is simply wrong and rather than exposing the Council to criticism it has simply drawn attention to its own shoddy and alarmist journalism. In essence, the journalist had not paid close attention to the guidance issued by the Local Government Association which recommends that landlords review their FRAs regularly and as circumstances change. There is absolutely no need or requirement to conduct new assessments as stated in the article. I can, however, confirm that fresh assessments will be commissioned once revised fire safety guidance is issued following the ongoing enquiries into the Grenfell Tower fire. I am pleased to confirm that the Council has made strong representations on this matter and that hopefully Inside Housing have accepted their error.
I am also pleased to confirm that the Council has a fit for purpose FRA in place for each and every purpose-built block across its stock which was procured and undertaken in 2016 by an independent fire risk specialist consultant, these are valid and fit for purpose documents which are subject to review when and if there are any material changes to the block which may for example impact on compartmentation, such as the installation of a new heating system. A more perceptive journalist may perhaps have wondered why some authorities have had to undertake so many FRAs so quickly following the Grenfell disaster leading them perhaps to speculate that could be because many authorities didn’t have the necessary fit for purpose assessments in place, but that is for others to worry about.
Fire safety remains a vital important priority for the Council and I would strongly urge members not to try and play politics with the issue and to check their facts carefully before rushing to publicise such sensitive matters. Cllr White did at least demonstrate the good sense to check the facts of the case with relevant officers who were quickly able to clarify the position, indeed it would be unfortunate and highly irresponsible for any elected member to attempt to widely publicise such an emotive and potentially upsetting issue for our residents for their own ends without seeking the advice of officers or double checking the facts in the first place.
(12) School Funding 2018/19 covered in Paper No. 18-37: Question raised by Councillor Ambache to the Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services:
(a) I would like to thank the Cabinet Member for agreeing to the Labour suggestion to write to the Secretary of State for Education about the funding of special needs education in Wandsworth. She agreed to request that he reviews the funding arrangements for children needing Special Needs Education so as to ensure that funding keeps up with the increasing need for this type of education. Can you share a copy of the letter and his response?
(b) Officers report that: ‘there are several schools where the net reductions in their funding levels may result in them having to set deficit budgets unless robust action is taken to reduce their costs.’ Also, paper 18-37 indicates that 17 schools will suffer a 1.5% reduction in their levels of per pupil funding.
(i) Why didn’t the Cabinet Member agree to make further representations to the Secretary of State about these mainstream school budget cuts for 2018/19?
(ii) What will be the effects of these real terms budget reductions in 2018/19 have on Wandsworth children’s education?
I will of course share my letter about the funding for special educational needs with the councillor and the response from the Secretary of State when received.
At the time of the last OSC, when I agreed to write, the funding for special educational needs was not known. I am pleased to report that the Council has recently been notified that the High Needs Block grant to Wandsworth for the 2018-19 financial Year is £43.039 million, an increase of £0.543 million or 1.28% compared to 2017-18. This is largely due to the DfE changing its funding mechanism to recognise authorities such as Wandsworth which are net importers of children with SEN due to the quality of our special schools (of which 5 of the 7 are judged outstanding by Ofsted). As Members may be aware, this was a key issue which both I and my predecessor discussed with the then Secretary of State so I am pleased that we have been listened to.
I am also pleased to report that, as a result of the actions previously agreed with the Schools Forum, together with funding increases by the DfE, the Council has been able to set a balanced budget for High Needs for 2018-19.
In relation to mainstream schools, the main driver of schools’ funding is the number of pupils on roll and the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals which attract the ‘Pupil Premium’. The schools which have suffered significant overall budget reductions have had falling rolls – sometimes by as many as 30 or more children as the primary ‘bulge’ moves through.
In relation to the 17 schools that will have a per pupil budget reduction (though their overall budget in some cases will increase), Cllr Ambache’s selective quote is misleading. These reductions are not due to any action by the Secretary of State, who has increased the per pupil funding for all local authorities including Wandsworth by 0.9%. Rather, the reduction in per pupil funding is due to the decision of Wandsworth’s Schools Forum to retain the Wandsworth Funding Formula, which includes a ‘Minimum Funding Guarantee’ of minus 1.5% (ie no school can lose more than 1.5% per pupil. The Forum was keen to retain stability and to review the formula next year when the impact of any national formula will become clearer.
Schools receive a substantial level of support from the Council’s Schools Financial Advice Service, which is highly valued. Officers are working particularly closely with the schools which are in a challenging financial position to help them identify efficiencies and forward plan effectively. At present, the proportion of schools judged good or better (98%) and those judged outstanding (45%) is increasing and we would expect this to continue as it reflects outstanding school leadership which manages change, however challenging, effectively.
(14) Funding for Children’s Services: Question raised by Councillor Carpenter to the Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services:
Education and Children’s Services is forecast this year to use £11.3m of the Reserve set up to support the recovery of Children’s Services following the Inadequate rating by Ofsted in December 2015. This leaves only £4.2m in the reserve. Does the Cabinet Member consider that this is adequate to fund the expenditures required in 2018/19 to support the continued recovery of Children’s Services, and if not, how does she propose to fund these costs?
As this question is pretty much a repeat of one asked by Cllr Ambache at the last Council meeting, I’ll repeat the answer given then As in previous years, any need for additional budget for Children’s Services will be considered as part of the outturn report presented to the June cycle of meetings. In that same cycle we’ll look at the Council’s Medium Term Financial Strategy and consider how to fund any such future expenditure alongside the level of available reserves and how to close any remaining budget gap.
(20) Re-opening of the Alton Activity Centre: Question raised by Councillor Ambache to the Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services:
I have asked the Cabinet Member about the delay in re-opening the Alton Activity Centre on 3 previous occasions (March, October and November 2017) but I have not received a clear answer as to when this facility will be fully re-opened. The Alton Activity Centre has remained greatly underused since it was closed by the Council in March 2016. Play Rangers have opened the building and play area twice a week in term time and three times a week during holidays, just for a few hours each day.
- Does the Cabinet Member agree that this has been a waste of a useful community building and play facility?
- What are the ‘opportunity costs’ lost by not fully using this Centre over the last 2 years?
- Does she yet have a firm date for leasing – and reopening – this facility to Roehampton Rocks?
Let me stress that the Council remains committed to ensuring that the Ellisfield Drive site is used for the local community and we had hoped that by now we would have issued a lease to our prospective provider. However, the Council’s Legal Contractor, whose duty is to protect both the Council and the provider from undue risk is seeking to clarify the status of the site, which in the 1990s operated as the off-site nursery for the now demolished Danebury Primary School.
The site transferred, as part of a much larger estate portfolio, from the Inner London Education Authority to the Council in 1990 on set up of the Local Education Authority. The status of these premises is that they were transferred for the purposes of education. This status means they must be kept for education or formally and legally appropriated by the Council for other purposes. This is important as the status of the land and premises decides under which act the premises can legally be disposed of by a lease. Unfortunately determining whether or not the Ellisfield Drive site was appropriated has been problematic which has resulted in a delay in issuing the lease. The Council’s legal team is working hard to rectify and expedite the lease.
However, in the face of this delay we have taken a pragmatic approach, ensuring that the prospective tenant has controlled access to the site and the building to offer community activity. Whilst this is necessarily limited it has included Christmas lunches for residents who found themselves isolated at Christmas will all food donated and frequent adult art classes. The Council also continues to directly provide Play Rangers.
(25) Residents’ safety: Question raised by Councillor Jane Cooper to the Cabinet Member for Housing:
With 34,000 properties under council management, the council takes its Landlord role very seriously; can the Cabinet Member for Housing explain what the Council has done to try and ensure that safety of all those who live in properties under its management remains its paramount concern.
The safety of its residents is the paramount concern of the Council as landlord and this is reflected in the tight monitoring arrangements that are in place to ensure that our blocks and estates remain safe and secure places to live. Members will already be aware of the steps being taken to improve fire safety with the replacement cladding on the two affected tower blocks and the proposed retro-fitting of sprinklers to all blocks of ten storeys or more.
In addition, the Council supplies and fits smoke alarms to every Council managed property at no charge. Prior to the Grenfell Tower fire, the Council had already commissioned 1,300 Fire Risk Assessments to its purpose built blocks using an independent specialist consultant and which were all completed and in place by the end of 2016.
Through its publications Homelife and Homesafe the Council provides comprehensive home safety advice to all residents, covering subjects such as asbestos, water quality, electrical risks and window safety. A series of maintenance and inspection contracts are in place to ensure that the risks to residents both inside and outside the home are minimised. This would include boiler checks and servicing, lift maintenance, dry riser checks, water sampling and the management and removal of asbestos. These contracts are all backed up by a series of inspections and checks undertaken by the Council’s own staff at regular intervals and covering all communal areas, inside and outside the block.
Health and safety is obviously subject to change and I am very aware of the importance of keeping the matter under continuous review; the need for vigilance to ensure high standards are maintained across all areas of housing management; and, that sufficient resources are available to ensure all necessary works to keep our residents safe and secure in their homes can be undertaken. The estimated resources necessary to undertake fire safety works following Grenfell tower are in the region of £40 million. The residents of our estates chose to remain with this council as their landlord and we will never compromise or skimp on matters regarding their safety.
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