This report sets out the Members’ questions received for this meeting.
Question A – Councillor Sands asked the Leader of the Council, Councillor Jarrett, the following:
“Since the creation of the unitary authority in 1998, Medway Council has spent considerable time, investment, and effort on aspirations for the urban area of the district - being awarded city status and the creation of a city centre in Chatham.
Little attention has been paid to the aspirations for the rural areas of the district, particularly the Hoo Peninsula. This area is a unique part of the scenic Kent landscape, covered with designations protecting its national and international wildness - critical for wildlife and important species such as the Nightingale with its strong cultural symbolism. This natural heritage is distinctive, worthy, and more then qualifies for wider designation in the form of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - as per Natural England’s requirements for consideration.
The Hoo Peninsula would join the Kent Downs AONB - bridged by Higham, Shorne and Thong into Cobham. We share the topography of the Downs, with a number of distinctive ridges and vales extending out onto the Peninsula - the ancient Saxon word "Hoo" means the 'distinct heel-shape of the ridge of hills'.
I believe it is now the perfect time for the Hoo Peninsula to become an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - especially at a time with a more environmentally conscious public, the serious threat of climate change, habitat and biodiversity deterioration and a government that is looking at expanding or creating new designated areas. With its rich diversity of wildlife, the Peninsula has very significant potential for the expansion and creation of new habitats, including large scale rewilding.
Reputable environmental organisations such as Natural England, the RSPB and the Kent Wildlife Trust recognise the importance and significance of the Hoo Peninsula and its further environmental potential.
Will this Council and this administration support the designation of the Hoo Peninsula as an AONB and join other organisations and residents in making this ambition a reality?”
Councillor Jarrett thanked Councillor Sands for the question. He said that much of the area was already designated as being of national and international importance for biodiversity and that this was protected under policy.
Medway Council had a strong track record of partnership working on environmental programmes on the Hoo Peninsula, including current work on the Housing Infrastructure Fund’s Strategic Environmental Management Scheme, BirdWise, which Councillor Jarrett chaired and Whose Hoo.
It was unlikely that the characteristics and geography of the Hoo Peninsula would meet the criteria for an extension to the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This had been discussed with the Director of the Kent Downs AONB in June 2022 at a meeting of the Council’s Rural Liaison Committee and he had not encouraged such a proposal.
The AONB’s Joint Advisory Committee had previously considered and rejected proposals for boundary changes to include immediately adjacent land. These decisions had been made on the grounds of feasibility and resources, including advice from Natural England that the process could take up to 10 years. The process for establishing a new AONB was lengthy, required significant resources and would be subject to an independent review.
Councillor Jarrett considered that many of the ambitions stated in the question were not reliant on AONB status and that there may be other ways to achieve the environmental objectives more quickly than undertaking a review of the Kent Downs AONB boundary or requesting the establishment of a new AONB. The proposal was therefore not considered to be an appropriate approach.
Question B - Councillor Johnson asked the Portfolio Holder for Education and Schools, Councillor Potter, the following:
“Following Kent Police’s decision to remove the Police Schools’ Team from Medway schools, which has resulted in the loss of the valuable work that the team undertook, what action has the Portfolio Holder taken to ensure the return of the team at the earliest opportunity?”
Councillor Potter thanked Councillor Johnson for the question. He said that whilst no school leaders had raised the issue with him directly, engagement between schools and the Police was an important matter. Councillor Potter was reassured by the partnership approach being taken by Kent Police to engage and consult with schools and academies on proposals under the neighbourhood policing model.
Whilst a local authority was not responsible for the decisions taken by Kent Police in how they structured their resources and delivered outreach support to Medway’s schools, Medway Council continued to work closely with Kent Police, led by the work of the Portfolio Holder for Resources, which included Community Safety.
Question C – Councillor Maple asked the Portfolio Holder for Business Management, Councillor Hackwell, the following:
“James Jamieson, the Conservative Local Government Association Chair, has called for the introduction of compulsory identification to be delayed until after May 2023. With the planned introduction of the compulsory requirement to produce identification to be able to play their part in Medway democratic processes, could you confirm the number of Medway residents who have been prosecuted for voting fraud in the last 10 years?”
Councillor Hackwell thanked Councillor Maple for the question. He said that the Electoral Commission reported on the number and types of cases of electoral fraud investigated and their statistics went back to 2010, although they only showed results by police area from 2018 onwards. Since 2018, there had been 17 cases of allegations reported in Kent, with only 1 in Medway itself. The Medway case related to local elections and resulted in no further action due to a lack of evidence. The specific nature of allegations would not be reported and there would be no guarantee that the Returning Officer would be informed of the case.
The introduction of Voter ID was designed to prevent ‘personation’, the crime of pretending to be someone else when voting. The Government, whilst acknowledging that levels of fraud were low, argued that every ballot mattered and that voter ID would protect voters from having their vote stolen.
Question D – Councillor Murray asked the Portfolio Holder for Front Line Services, Councillor Filmer, the following:
“The recent wet and cold weather has had a severe impact on the already poorly maintained Medway roads. City Way, which currently spans three Council wards, is in a very poor state where inadequate repairs to potholes are now large craters making driving and cycling hazardous for road users. Instead of wasting Council taxpayers’ money on short-term repairs, can the Portfolio Holder tell me why he has not developed a more proactive road improvement policy instead of simply waiting for dangerous potholes to appear?”
Councillor Filmer thanked Councillor Murray for the question. He said that Medway’s highway network was extensive, making it one of the largest assets owned by the Council. The Council had a statutory duty to maintain the public highway but fulfilling that duty with such an extensive network could be challenging.
The recent cold and wet weather had impacted Medway’s roads, but this was a national problem rather than being Medway specific. Based on National Indicators, Medway’s Classified Network was in a better state than the national average. In the last year only 2% of A roads required maintenance compared to 4% nationally and of Medway’s B and C classed roads, 5% required maintenance compared to 6% nationally.
Councillor Filmer gave assurance that taxpayers’ money was not being wasted on short-term repairs. For the safety of residents and road users, critical repairs were undertaken in the form of pothole patching. The Council also had a robust annual resurfacing programme which ensured that funding was spent responsibly by concentrating on the most deteriorated areas of the highways Network.
Question E – Councillor Hubbard asked the Portfolio Holder for Planning, Economic Growth and Regulation, Councillor Chitty, the following:
“The Strood Town Centre Forum, a body set up by Medway Council, has not met for more than seven years (not since the passing of the last independent Chairman) due to the political interference and lack of leadership from the Council’s Portfolio Holder. The Forum is a partnership of Strood businesses and stakeholders working with Kent Police and Medway Council, officers and councillors. It is a platform to share information and explore opportunities to increase footfall, keeping Strood town centre relevant. During the Covid pandemic and again now in the cost-of-living crises, businesses are focused on their survival. Some long-term businesses and services have gone from the town centre. We need to reverse this trend.
When can we expect the Strood Town Centre Forum to reconvene?”
Councillor Chitty said that the Strood Town Centre Forum had not met for several years. The Forum was a partnership of Strood businesses and stakeholders working with Kent Police.
Council officers had tried to bring businesses together to resume the Forum but there had not been any positive response. This had been attempted again more recently, also without a positive response and could have been due to developments in Strood. There had been much regeneration work with many businesses coming into the town centre and surrounding areas. This had brought value and employment and names, such as Marks & Spencer were now present. The town centre had seen many changes, such as Strood Library relocating there and other services that had come into Strood.
Councillor Chitty said that this was fantastic for people wishing to make direct contact with the Council and that the changes had been popular. She concluded that it would be nice to see the Strood Town Centre Forum meeting again, but that she was not able to try to force people to do something that they did not want to.
Question F – Councillor Paterson asked the Portfolio Holder for Planning, Economic Growth and Regulation, Councillor Chitty, the following:
“It is reported that the Post Office in Rochester is planned to leave its current site. Will the Portfolio Holder commit to working with the Post Office and with all members in Rochester (West and East) whose constituents rely on it, to find a suitable alternative on Rochester High Street?”
Councillor Chitty said that whenever there had been a proposal to close a Post Office previously, Medway Council and its Members had made strong representations in relation to these post offices.
The Post Office was important for the centre of Rochester and to lose it would be a tragedy for the people who depended on it. Councillor Chitty said there was agreement on this. She concluded that there was a need to work together to prevent the closure and to look at an alternative site.
Question G – Councillor Prenter asked the Portfolio Holder for Adults’ Services, Councillor Brake, the following:
“The recent GP Task Group heard from health professionals that 85% of patients’ issues brought to GP appointments are socially, derived showing that poverty, poor housing, low pay and the resulting impact on mental wellbeing are having a serious impact on Medway residents. The Task Group also heard that where other services, such as those provided by the Council or commissioned from the voluntary sector are able to work in partnership with GP practices to focus support on identified patients, those impacted can start to turn their lives around. Can the Portfolio Holder assure me of his support for this innovative type of work and will he work to make the necessary resources available?”
Councillor Brake thanked Councillor Prenter for the question. He thanked Members of the GP Access Task Group for their work on the review. Sympathies were with GPs and NHS colleagues in view of the immense pressure they were under but there was also a need to do everything possible to ensure appropriate access to primary care and the provision of effective support. Additional work needed to be undertaken on the Task Group’s interim report and Councillor Brake looked forward to seeing this once the work had been completed.
It was pleasing to note in the interim report references regarding social prescribing. This work played a key role to support people who had multifaceted issues that went beyond a GPs normal scope. Social prescribing contributed to relieving pressure on GPs, and the wider NHS and social care system.
The newly established NHS Kent and Medway Integrated Care Board brought the opportunity of a more joined up approach between the NHS, Council and other stakeholders. The creation of an Integrated Care Strategy for Kent and Medway, that was informed by local priorities, would also help to further stimulate innovation within Medway.
Councillor Brake said that he fully supported a joined-up approach across the health and social care landscape to support Medway residents in the best way possible. In the previous week, the Council’s Cabinet had agreed to expand Medway’s Benefits Team to offer a broader and more centralised Benefits and Financial Service. This would entail, initially, incorporating the Macmillan Welfare Benefits Service. Council officers had been asked to explore further opportunities to develop the service provided to some of Medway’s most vulnerable residents.
Question H - Councillor Curry asked the Portfolio Holder for Planning, Economic Growth and Regulation, Councillor Chitty, the following:
“Medway’s planning service team work tirelessly in areas such as development control, planning enforcement, and on the emerging local plan. Can the Portfolio Holder tell us what is being done to address the serious under resourcing and recruitment issues that this team faces at the moment?”
Councillor Chitty thanked Councillor Curry for the question. She agreed that Medway’s planning team worked tirelessly and that resources were at a premium. There were currently a number of vacancies, some as a result of the recent resignations of key staff. Councillor Chitty was working with senior managers to agree what steps could be taken in the short and longer term to address this resourcing issue, minimise the impact on remaining staff and to continue to provide an outstanding planning service.
It was important to understand the reasons for Council officers leaving their jobs and although exit interviews were undertaken these were confidential and so did not provide feedback. Councillor Chitty was confident that the main factor was not remuneration and considered that behaviour towards officers was likely to be a factor, both relating to some Councillors and members of the public.
Councillor Chitty said that officers needed to be treated with respect and that it should be remembered that respect was earnt rather than just being given and that there was a need to look deeper to find out why some officers were leaving the Council. She said that it was often not clear precisely why officers had chosen to move on and that while she recognised that for some, this would be due to financial reasons or being promoted, there was a need to look at the reasons and she hoped that all Members would give it consideration.
Question I – Councillor Howcroft-Scott asked the Leader of the Council, Councillor Jarrett, the following:
“Can the Leader of the Council give an annual breakdown of the level of Revenue Support Grant received by Medway Council since 2010?”
Councillor Jarrett thanked Councillor Howcroft-Scott for the question. He said that in 2010 Medway Council had received £85.130million in Formula Grant from the Government, which was the funding stream that had been replaced by the Revenue Support Grant in 2014/15. The funding had reduced over time to the £7.308million expected to be received through the Revenue Support Grant in 2023/24. This was according to the Provisional Local Government Finance Settlement.
The table below, showing the amount of Formula Grant / Revenue Support Grant received each year since 2010, was circulated to all Council Members present at the meeting.
The funding shown in the table did not take into account the many specific grants awarded had been rolled into the Revenue Support Grant over time. The loss of Government Grant was, therefore, more than that set out in table. Councillor Jarrett said that the reason for this situation was overspending by the previous Labour Government.
Medway Council allocation £000s
2010/11 – Formula Grant
2011/12 – Formula Grant
2012/13 – Formula Grant
2013/14 – Formula Grant
2014/15 – Revenue Support Grant
2015/16 – Revenue Support Grant
2016/17 – Revenue Support Grant
2017/18 – Revenue Support Grant
2018/19 – Revenue Support Grant
2019/20 – Revenue Support Grant
2020/21 – Revenue Support Grant
2021/22 – Revenue Support Grant
2022/23 – Revenue Support Grant
2023/24 (TBC) – Revenue Support Grant
Question J – Councillor Khan asked the Portfolio Holder for Business Management, Councillor Hackwell, the following:
“Can the Portfolio Holder confirm that every polling station will have at least one female member of staff available from 7am to 10pm on May 4th for checking voter identification, recognising sensitivities that may require a female member of staff to carry out the check?”
Councillor Hackwell thanked Councillor Khan for the question. He said that the Electoral Services team were currently contacting existing election staff about their availability for the Local and Parish elections on 4 May 2023 and calculating the number of staff required at each polling station, taking into account the new voter ID requirements, historic and expected turnout, amongst other factors. As far as possible, a female member of staff would be available at each polling station to assist voters who requested to have their voter ID checked by a female member of staff, if for example they had to remove head coverings. Should it not be possible to put this into place, it was intended that female polling station inspectors would be given delegated authority by the Returning Officer to carry out these checks. This was in line with Electoral Commission guidance, which was not mandatory.
Question K - Councillor Mahil submitted the following to the Portfolio Holder for Resources, Councillor Gulvin:
“In the proposal for the redevelopment of the open space at The Paddock in Chatham, does the Portfolio Holder have any idea what the annual maintenance costs will be, especially for the proposed water feature?”
Question L – Councillor Cooper submitted the following to the Portfolio Holder for Front Line Services, Councillor Filmer:
“When does the Council expect to have a fully operational, affordable Ultra Low Emission / electric bus service operating in Medway?”
Question M – Councillor Van Dyke submitted the following to the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Housing and Community Services, Councillor Doe:
“In its response to the Hoo development Framework consultation, the Medway Labour and Cooperative Group proposed that priority should be given to the establishment of an electric bus service from the new developments at Hoo into Strood Station. Does the Portfolio Holder agree with this new sustainable approach for the developments in Hoo, in the interests of Medway’s businesses, community and environment?”
Question N – Councillor Price submitted the following to the Portfolio Holder for Planning, Economic Growth and Regulation, Councillor Chitty:
“It is important that properties on our High Street are kept in good condition in order not to damage the appearance of our shared town centre space.
Could the Council please write to the owners of properties on Gillingham High Street who are failing to maintain their properties to a sufficient standard (such as 122-124 High Street, Gillingham) to remind them of the importance of a clean town centre?”
Question O – Councillor McDonald submitted the following to the Portfolio Holder for Adults’ Services, Councillor Brake:
Will Chatham Town Centre ever get a healthy living centre?
Note: The Mayor stated that since the time allocation for Member questions had been exhausted, written responses would be provided to questions 10K to 10O.