Community Governance Review Working Group Thursday 24 June 2021
Present: Councillors Shelim (Chairman), Cannon (Vice Chairman), Davies, Knowles and Hilton
Officers: Karen Shepherd (Head of Governance), Mark Pattison (Project Management Officer), Suzanne Martin (Service Lead – Information Governance and Electoral Services), Emma Duncan (Deputy Director Law and Strategy), Julian Freeman (Service Lead – Corporate Projects)
Apologies for absence
Councillor Shelim welcomed all to the meeting.
Officer update on possible transfer of assets
Karen Shepherd referred Members to the draft document that had been circulated with the agenda in relation to asset transfer. She explained that the draft had been reviewed by the Officer Project Group the previous week. The document was proposed to be an appendix to the report to full Council in July with the Working Group’s draft recommendations. The idea of the document was to set out the parameters that the council would use when determining which assets and any associated services should be transferred to a new town council.
The introduction to the document set the scene in terms of identifying the benefits of transferring services to a town council, to reflect the aims and aspirations of the local residents. It also highlighted the balance that was needed as the council had to ensure its duty of care to all residents. Rather than ‘cherry picking’ things to transfer, the document set out that the council would look at what assets existed in the relevant area, and then remove those that it could not transfer or would not wish to transfer, based on a set of specific exceptions (such as because the asset was operational or strategic).
Emma Duncan commented that the rationale behind transferring assets was that some services were provided better by local councils, some by the borough. Some assets with strategic/operational or income generating potential for the council would be difficult to transfer.
The council had a duty to maintain services and protect its own position. There would then be a whole list of assets that could be looked at including public conveniences, allotments, public open space, sporting facilities etc.
The example of the Guildhall was referenced. The asset produced an income for the borough and was also a strategic and civic asset. However, it included a set of public conveniences. The building’s overarching civic importance would mean that it would not be transferred; as the toilets sat within the building, they would also not be transferred. The same situation would apply where toilets were part of a car park that was not being transferred for operational reasons.
The document would give a consistent basis for decision making. Officers were looking at details of assets that sat outside of the listed exceptions to determine what should be transferred.
It was confirmed that a town council could potentially dispose of any assets transferred to it.
However, some assets could be transferred with a restriction on use for example planning restrictions and statutory restrictions on how allotments public opens space could be used.
Assets with a potential development value would be retained or protected by way of overage so the benefit of any future development would be shared.
The borough did not always own the freehold to public open space, for example it could be held in a trust.
It was noted that if a closed burial ground was transferred, the liability to maintain it would also be transferred. If the burial ground was open, the benefit of income was also transferred.
If a piece of land was not transferred because it was considered as strategic, the maintenance responsibilities would be retained too.
Councillor Cannon requested that it be made clearer in the document that where the council retained ownership and income from a car park, the responsibility for maintenance was also retained. Only where assets were formally transferred would the town council also have responsibility for maintenance.
Councillor Cannon commented that when the process had started, it was noted that the decision on what to transfer would not necessarily be made until it was decided if a town council would be set up, therefore there was no need to be prescriptive. The situation could change between now and when a town council was elected.
Emma Duncan explained that the document was intended to guide thinking and give officers a clear steer about what assets needed to be protected in the council’s asset portfolio. A town council could choose to do a range of things once it had been elected and there was no limit on the precept they could set so they could choose to do things at a gold standard. There was potential for a town council to do things in a different way and find efficiencies at the local level.
The balance was ensuring the borough was financially stable but also allowing a town council to deliver services; this was when the benefits of localism come along.
Councillor Knowles commended the document as common sense. It reflected the bedrock of parish councils. It reflected what Old Windsor Parish Council did, although obviously they had been doing so for a longer period of time.
It was noted that a number of services were outsourced e.g. street cleaning. As these were in longstanding contracts, the services for the part of the contract relating to the town council area could potentially be novated.
Officers were gathering as much information as possible to identify the potential impacts and would then take this into account when deciding what to transfer. There would be no point in transferring something that resulted in a double taxation. As a minimum, there should be no increase in costs to the borough.
It was noted that sometimes at local level small contracts attracted smaller local companies and achieved a better deal. It was also noted that a suitable range of assets and services should be transferred via the devolution process to provide the parish council with sufficient activity to justify its existence as an additional layer of governance.
Councillor Davies commented it was a clear document, as long as it highlighted the exceptions. It was helpful in addressing concerns about what a town council could do rather than just allotments.
Members noted that the council had the facility to make loans to a town council, which could help with pump priming if needed. A town council would not have any reserves in the first year, particularly as it needed to ensure it could cover the running costs including clerk, meeting rooms, utilities etc.
The council would set the town council’s budget in year one so they could operate the transferred assets in year 1. It could run them more efficiently or decide to reduce services from the level currently provided by the borough. In future years it could consider borrowing or raising the precept. Councillors Cannon and Hilton agreed that there was a need to make this statement in the report to full Council: from day 1 the elected individuals would need to think about the cost of staff, equipment, utilities etc.
Emma Duncan agreed to check the references to highways land in relation to such services as litter picking, and would update if necessary.
Councillor Shelim commented that as Windsor was a tourist town, people from all over the world visited. They would not know which body was responsible for which service, therefore there was a need to ensure they were always maintained and cleaned.
Further discussion on views/themes from consultation responses
Members’ discussed the recommendations to full council, in particular focusing on whether they supported the formation of a town council taking into account the consultation feedback.
Members had received details of all consultation responses and in addition maps to show the spread of consultation responses within and immediately outside review area.
If the Working Group decided to support the creation of a town council, it would also need to recommend the electoral arrangements.
Julian Freeman commented that of those who gave a reason why they supported the creation of a town council, many would not be delivered by what was proposed. Respondents who wanted to split entirely with Maidenhead and have its own council would not have their expectations met by a town council. If the Working Group did recommend not to proceed, it would need to give clear cogent reasons so that, when discussed at full council, all Members would have a clear understanding. If the recommendation was to proceed, clarity would be needed on the powers of a parish or town council.
Karen Shepherd reminded Members that information had been provided on the role of town and parish councils including links to a government briefing note on the CGR Review web page and references in the council reports. The consultation leaflet delivered to all households in the review area was of a limited size but had included as much information as possible, and directed readers to other sources of information on the role of and powers held by parish and town councils. It was not possible to know if all respondents to the consultation had accessed or read those documents before responding.
Suzanne Martin commented that the review had followed the prescribed staged process correctly. However she highlighted that if the outcome of the review was a town council should not be formed, there would be nothing stopping the council doing a further review at a later point in time.
The Working Group also considered the appropriate electoral arrangements.
The Working Group agreed by majority vote to recommend the formation of a town council to full Council with the electoral arrangements as detailed in the draft recommendations.
Suzanne Martin confirmed that if it was found the ward boundaries did not work in the first year, they could be addressed in a mini community governance review. To be legally active, the town council needed to be quorate. If not enough people stood for election in those areas this could be addressed later on.
Cllr Cannon suggested that the Comms team should be engaged as there was a need to share accurate information such as the number of responses.
It was noted that the last meeting on Thursday 8 July, originally scheduled to be held in person, would now be held virtually based on the extension of social distancing requirements to Monday 19 July 2021 and government guidance that all should work from home wherever possible.
Members also noted that the draft report would have been circulated well in advance of this date to both Members and officers so it would be a final wrap-up meeting only – any substantive review comments would need to have been made by Members well in advance of Thursday 8 July. Councillor Shelim asked for the email containing the draft report to be sent highlighted as of high importance.
Members discussed information sharing and agreed that they should keep an embargo on sharing information about recommendations until the final Report was published on Monday 12 July.
The Working Group minutes were not currently on the website but would be published to coincide with the report publication. This was also the point when redacted consultation responses will be published.
It was noted that the next meeting of the Windsor Town Forum was scheduled for Tuesday 13 July.
The meeting, which began at 1pm, finished at 3.20pm.