To select appropriate items from the Cabinet Board agenda for pre-decision scrutiny (reports enclosed for Scrutiny Members)
The Committee chose to scrutinise the following Cabinet Board items:
Environment Update Report
Members were presented with the extensive work programme which was delivered during the pandemic by the Environment and Regeneration Directorate.
The Director of Environment and Regeneration explained that the report identified the work streams that continued to operate, which was noted to be most of the business as usual activity; as well as a significant increased workload in response to the pandemic, and the other work undertaken in response to the climate change crisis.
It was stated that the report was produced in the summer of 2021, and was updated before the end of 2021. Officers expressed that the report was a snapshot of some of the work undertaken during 2020 and 2021; work continued to place demands on the identified services, and there had been a significant amount of work undertaken since the report was initially prepared.
The Committee was informed of the Directorates original response to the pandemic; staff were instrumental in setting up the field hospitals, organising the transport hub and food distribution hub. It was added that Officers also undertook a lot of cross cutting work such as the Councils response to the energy agenda, decarbonisation agenda and the City Deal Project.
The Director made reference to the following two projects which the Council was currently leading on:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Homes as Power Stations (HAPS) Project – this was a regional project which was requiring funding of £15m from the Government; it will bring in £490m as a consequence. Officers hoped that this will enable housing stock across the region to become more energy efficient in terms of retrofit work, as well as new build.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Supporting Innovation Low Carbon Growth Project – this project had already brought in £47.5m and will bring in a further £51m.
It was stated that staff were active in terms of other business as usual activity. The following work streams were highlighted:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Council was currently reviewing the Local Development Plan (LDP), and was currently in the candidate site stage process; Officers were working with colleagues across the region to secure evidence to inform the Strategic Development Plan, which the Council had a statutory duty to provide for the South West region of Wales.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Council had undertaken a successful consultation in terms of the Active Travel Network maps; Officers had been renewing and reviewing those during the pandemic.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>There had been a number of successful ecological projects that had been implemented.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Neath Port Talbot (NPT) Council was leading on major regeneration and planning projects including the Wildfox Resort (formally known as the Afan Valley project); this was a very exciting project and could be transformational for the Afan Valley. It was noted that the outline planning permission had been granted, the Section 106 had been signed and the decision notice had been released; staff within the Directorate were now working with the developers to progress through to the next stage (detailed reserved matter stage). Officers were also working with business colleagues within the area to ensure that opportunities were maximised in terms of employment, as well as ensuring that local people had access to those jobs at either the construction or operational stage; there could be over 900 operational jobs associated with the development, which would provide benefits for the Afan Valley, wider NPT and the regional area.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Officers were working on the Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) scheme; planning permission had been granted, and a group of Officers were working with the developers on the next stage of development to ensure that it becomes a successful project.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Council recently launched its destination branding for NPT. It was mentioned that this will help to increase the attractiveness of NPT to visitors, whether they were day visitors or overnight visitors; the latter was what the service wanted to encourage more of, so that people stay in the area and see what assets NPT had to offer.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Directorate had been working on the Regional Economic Development Strategy; this had now been agreed by all four Authorities within the region. It was noted that an Economic Development Plan had been developed to help obtain funding and secure further economic development projects, within NPT, going forward.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Decarbonisation and Renewable Energy Strategy (DARE) had been produced; Officers were currently undertaking a gap analysis, to establish what additional work was required to enable a net zero transition plan.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Plaza project had been ongoing during the pandemic; there was approximately one month until the project was completed.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Cefn Saeson School was also delivered during the pandemic, with the official opening taking place next week; this was another success story in terms of the 21st Century Schools Programme.
Following on from the points raised above, it was noted that there were many other projects and work streams that had not been included in the report, that Officers had been dedicated to progressing; one example being the Energy Park and the issues associated with it.
It was explained the Energy Park work was not included in the report as the significant developments didn’t occur until January 2022; the Council had been dealing with this since the start of 2021, when it was first drawn to attention, and the threat of losing electricity was first raised. Officers stated that they were trying to keep a low profile on the subject at the time, as they didn’t want the situation to adversely affect the businesses in the park; if customers of those businesses were made aware of the problem, it could have undermined the orders and viability of those businesses going forward. Members were informed that the electricity had been successfully kept on to date; however, it was not guaranteed that the private wire network would continue to provide electricity to assets on the park. Officers confirmed that the Council, Welsh Government and Western Power Distribution (WPD) had been working behind the scenes to install a new public wire network; this meant that the assets and businesses could be transferred over to the new network once it had been completed.
Officers also made reference to the flooding emergency that occurred Skewen; Officers within the Planning and Regeneration Teams were involved in this work, by providing health advice to residents and dealing with the new drainage system that was being put in place.
Members asked Officers to provide an update on the resilience and staffing levels within various teams.
Despite the years of austerity, and the cuts that the Directorate had taken over the years, Officers announced that additional funding had been allocated from the budget to increase the workforce going forward; the service should be fully recruited within the next 6 months.
It was noted that the Head of Planning and Public Protection had been allocated funding to increase recourses within the Environmental Health Department; there were also new members of staff starting in the Planning Department shortly. It was explained that the Council had lost key members of staff in the Planning Department, however the recruitment process had been successful in terms of replacing some staff; two seniors would be starting in the department within 6-8 weeks, and Officers hoped to be back in a situation in which the service will be able to respond to the numerous planning applications that were being received.
The Committee was informed that the Head of Property and Regeneration would also be receiving additional resources. It was highlighted that the Strategic Funding Section would be in receipt of additional funding, which will provide more suitable resources to put funding bids together to UK, Welsh Government, and any other funding provider; this will help to ensure that NPT had very detailed, robust businesses cases. It was added that those businesses cases were fundamental in the ability to obtain funds within very short periods of time, to enable the Team to deliver projects across NPT.
Officers mentioned that investment was also being made into the Economic Development Section, in order for the Council to better support businesses going forward; the Estates Department and Architects were also going to be provided with additional support.
The Director confirmed that filling the resource gaps in services was important; there was acknowledgement that various Teams within the Directorate have had insufficient levels of staff in more recent years.
It was stated that although having the funds available for more staff was positive, there was a challenge ahead in terms of being able to recruit the skilled and experienced individuals to be able to fill the vacancies. Officers highlighted that the market was very competitive in terms of employment, as the Council was competing against the private sector and other Local Authorities within the region. It was mentioned that remote, hybrid working had assisted staff in accessing employers further away from their local area; the Council will also benefit from this, however it would be important to retain skilled and valued staff going forward.
A further discussion took place regarding retention and job creation, and the difficulty of matching and competing with competitors. Members were informed that historically, Local Authorities including NPT, had relied on their good pension schemes for staff and the flexible working arrangements; Councils had provided a certain type of experience for staff, in terms of work-life balance, which often wouldn’t compare with the private sector. It was highlighted this had been slightly diluted during and since the pandemic; the private sector had now mobilised themselves into the hybrid working environment, so they were also able to provide a more flexible working environment for their staff.
Officers acknowledged that there were lessons to be learned going forward, particularly in trying to make NPT Council a more attractive employer in terms of that work life balance. It was understood that in the private sector salary was an issue, and that some of the Authorities within the region pay higher salaries for similar roles; Officers were working with colleagues in Human Resources (HR) to try and address the issues.
It was highlighted that there were so many exciting opportunities and challenges ahead in NPT. As referred to earlier on, the Councils decarbonisation agenda was a positive challenge; there were so many companies wanting to locate in NPT to do business and improve the skills and opportunities for the communities. Officers mentioned that some members of staff want those challenges, and want to work in Authorities where there were exciting opportunities ahead of them. It was stated that it would be important to compare NPT with neighbouring Authorities, in order for NPT to be able to provide a significantly improved level of competition; undoubtedly, the challenge will continue in terms of retaining the staff that the Council currently had.
The Committee was informed that HR colleagues had set up an Organisational Development Team, who were assisting with the recruitment of those very difficult to recruit posts. It was mentioned that some jobs had been advertised four times, without success in recruiting; there were some jobs which didn’t attract candidates, and others in which the candidates weren’t appointable. In conclusion, Officers expressed the need to look into other ways of recruiting staff and marketing NPT Council as a good employer.
Following scrutiny, the report was noted.
Neath Port Talbot Led Swansea Bay City Deal Projects Funding Agreements
An update report was provided to the Committee on the two Swansea Bay City Deal projects that Neath Port Talbot (NPT) was leading on:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Homes as Power Stations (HAPS) – a regional project to encourage energy efficiency in homes across the region which was currently in delivery phase; Officers were working to get the funds launched.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Supporting Innovation and Low Carbon Growth (SILCG) – an exciting programme which was made up of seven individual projects. Officers provided examples of some of the projects within the programme, and noted that they were each at various stages of development.
It was explained that the business cases for both projects were approved during summer 2021, and the funding agreements had been signed and agreed.
Members asked for an
update on the progress of one of the individual projects of the SILCG, the
Electrical Vehicle (EV) Charging Infrastructure. Officers confirmed that they
had appointed a specialist in the field of electrical vehicles, from Swansea
University, to help progress this work forward; and they would be starting in a
few weeks’ time. It was noted that an increasing number of funding streams had
started to emerge, and in order for the Council to take advantage of these, a
comprehensive strategy needed to be in place; the progress would be evident in
the upcoming months, and Elected Members will be updated on the work going
A discussion took place in relation to the Property Development Fund and how it would be utilised in the County Borough. Officers explained that the funding was geographically located to Harbourside, Baglan Energy Park and the Baglan industrial estate area; there was a small amount of funding available, therefore it was important to focus on linking areas, as this funding stream was a place based approach. It was stated that there were a number of developers interested in submitting applications for the Property Development Fund.
Following on from the discussion, Officers added that in the future, Members may want to look into developing the scheme further across the County Borough, which could also attract more funding; this could be looked at for the next round of the Levelling UP Fund. It was noted that currently, sites and premises were not one of the priorities of the Levelling Up Fund; however, Officers had made representations to UK Government regarding this.
It was mentioned that Officers had arranged a site visit for UK Government, and showed them the priority areas across the County Borough; this helped the UK Government to familiarise themselves with Neath Port Talbot, in terms of the Levelling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund.
The Head of Property and Regeneration explained the current difficulties with sites and premises; there were issues due to the availability of remediated land and the sites that were ready to go, as well as the viability gap between the cost of construction and the value of the premises thereafter. It was highlighted that other Local Authorities across South West Wales were in a similar position; and Officers were continually discussing this with Welsh Government.
Members queried how the HAPS project was going to interface with the private sector in terms of new builds. It was explained that the project was in the early stages, however the aim was to test the concept in the public sector and with the Registered Social Landlords (RSLs); once the optimum mix of renewables and technologies had been obtained, to reduce the cost due to more demand, then the project would be rolled out to the private sector.
Following on from the above, Officers explained that the learning from this project would be shared with others, including the private sector, in order to share best practice and lessons learned. It was added that there will be a financial centres fund which will provide the gap funding for the private sector, as well as RSLs, Local Authorities and the public sector; this will fund the gap between what would be a standard build, and what would be an additional build to increase the efficiency of the home. Members were informed that comprehensive monitoring would be carried out, looking at the social science as well as the building performance; this will also be shared on a public platform for all sectors to help educate on the new technologies. Officers mentioned that they will be setting up a skills group to ensure there were sufficient skills across the region to keep up with the changing technology.
The Head of Property and Regeneration added that at some point in the future, there could be changes to building regulations; therefore, there will be enforcement as well as the encouragement. It was noted that Officers were progressing with the encouragement early to try and normalise the behaviour and to develop a supply chain, which were both very important.
In regards to the HAPS project, it was asked if home owners across the Region will be eligible for the refit or was it going to be provided in designated areas. Members also asked for information regarding the criteria of the homes that will benefit from the refit. It was noted that Officers were currently working with a number of colleagues across the Region, in relation to the criteria for the project; however, the criteria would be centred towards developers rather than individual home owners. Officers highlighted that the funding will allow for the various sectors to track the leverage, which will go towards the match funding.
Members were informed that there wasn’t enough money in this funding stream for individual homeowners, however there were other funding streams available direct to home owners; Officers will be establishing a user friendly signposting system for the public, in order for them to be aware of how to find further information relating to funding, retrofits and technology. Officers confirmed that they would be able to share the criteria with Members, once it had been developed; as well as updates on the other elements such as the sig signposting system for individual home owners.
Further to the discussion in relation to the retrofit, it was raised that there were a lot of private home owners who didn’t fit into any of the main categories e.g. they weren’t involved with a RSL; therefore, there was a large element of risk for these home owners. It was stated that a lot of the technologies were relatively embryonic, and home owners were quite concerned about risking their own money for a project they weren’t sure would work in the way in which they hoped. However, it was noted that this scheme will provide more information for these home owners; the work around skills and training will also help to make sure that suitably qualified and experienced individuals were involved to assess the various properties, including what kit would be required. It was added that it would also be important to employ individuals who were suitably trained to install the kit and maintain thereafter.
A discussion took place in relation to the Air Quality Monitoring Project, following Members requests for further information on this project. Officers explained that the aim for the air quality monitoring sensors, was to trial new technologies; there were currently stationary official monitoring stations, and Vortex had developed around 70 very sensitive, low cost, mobile air quality sensors which could be deployed across different locations. It was added that the Vortex project was at early stages and was a pilot project; it will provide more improved, localised, granular information about sources of pollution.
Further to the above, it was highlighted that Environmental Health Officers were working on a localised, 12 month study project; this will be in conjunction with the Vortex project, and will look specifically at particular facilities. Members were informed that Officers were in the process of setting up this project.
The Committee asked if they will be receiving any updates on other city deals that Neath Port Talbot were not leading on; e.g. the digital infrastructure that was being led by Carmarthenshire Council. Officers confirmed that they could provide updates on other city deal projects; all projects were starting on the delivery phase, therefore a lot more activity will be seen. It was mentioned that there was a Regional Board set up for the digital project, and Neath Port Talbot will be receiving additional resource aligned to that digital project.
Following scrutiny, the report was noted.
Substance Misuse Action Fund: Grant Agreements
Members received a report relating to grant agreements for the Substance Misuse Action Fund.
The Committee discussed the sustainability of the fund, in particular long term funding in order to deliver on actions. It was stated that previously, Welsh Government had provided a yearly substance misuse action fund grant. However, it was explained that more recently there had been discussions regarding Welsh Government providing more financial certainty, over a three year period; if this were to happen, Officers would welcome this. Officers explained that the circulated report outlined the funding arrangements utilising monies from this financial year, and the next financial year; in looking at the Area Planning Board (APB) priorities going forward, it was likely that such schemes will continue to be supported.
In addition, Officers confirmed that a strategic review of prescription services was going to be undertaken by the APB support team; this could change the way in which the services operate. It was noted that prescription services were an integral part of the work of the APB; whether they were continued in the current format or another, the work around prescription services will continue. Members were informed that the review will look at factors such as what was worked, what didn’t work and what the future of the model should look like in order to fill the gaps. It was explained that the APB was embarking on a change journey to try to work towards an integrated public health model; this type of model wouldn’t work without prescription services.
Reference was made to the buildings that were used for needle exchanges and collection of Methadone in order to support the service users. Members mentioned that some of the locations of these buildings weren’t always fit for purpose, and sometimes anti-social behaviour occurred in these localities. It was queried whether there was funding available to secure more suitable locations for these services. Officers stated that there were many difficulties associated with finding the right location, and it was vital that the buildings were situated where there was a need and so that they were easily accessible for the service users; location was a key factor that Officers looked at, and would continue to look at. It was highlighted that the previously mentioned wider public health model, would include arrangements that were fit for purpose; this would not be immediate, however Members will be updated as the model progresses.
Following scrutiny, the Committee were supportive of the recommendation to go to Cabinet Board.
Quarter 3 Performance Indicators 2021/22
The Quarter 3 Performance Management Data for the period 1 April 2021 to 31 December 2021, was presented to Members.
A discussion took place in relation to the number of PM10 breaches in the Air Quality Management Area (Port Talbot/Taibach); the circulated report detailed that this performance indicator had a red rating and listed 32 breeches in 2021/22 compared to 4 in 2019/20. Members asked for further detail about this. Officers highlighted that the exceedances experienced this year were a lot higher than the last, and that was recognised; the annual target was noted to be 35 exceedances, therefore the Council was almost at the threshold to surpass the annual target. It was confirmed that the Head of Planning and Public Protection had spoken with Officers to try and understand the detail behind the issues; the reports of the beeches revealed that TATA Steelworks was likely to be the source.
In addition to the discussion, Officers explained that Natural Resources Wales (NRW) were the regulator of the TATA site, and were continuing to investigate going forward; NRW provided Officers with a suggestion as to one of the reasons why the breeches could be occurring. It was stated that there was a reduced production as a consequence of the pandemic, which had led to some difficulties on site in terms of managing the stockpiles; this was leading to potential more instances where fugitive dust was emitted from the site. Members were informed that NRW had requested that TATA provide additional dust suppression methods and more vigilance, as a consequence of these exceedances; Environmental Health Officers were continuing to work closely with Welsh Government officials and NRW officials to pinpoint the issues and investigate them accordingly. Officers stated that the breeches were a concern; however, monitoring was continuing, and the Vortex project would hopefully provide more information about localised pollution.
Members asked what would happen if the exceedance levels were surpassed; and queried if an impact assessment on the health of the community that live in close proximity of the industry, was going to be undertaken. It was explained that the performance indicators were linked to the air quality objectives, and these needed to be reported on an annual basis to Welsh Government; the annual target had been surpassed previously, in which Welsh Government was then informed through the air quality objectives. It was mentioned that the air quality management area in Margam, Taibach were linked to this work; as well as the previously mentioned Vortex project. It was stated that all of this was governed and pointing to a better understanding of what issues were happening locally; Environmental Health Officers, Welsh Government and NRW were working closely together in relation to this site. Officers added that discussions will take place regarding potential health assessments in the future, specifically as a consequence of this site.
Following scrutiny, the report was noted.
Audit Wales National Study – Regenerating Town Centres in Wales
The Committee was provided with an action plan setting out the Councils response to the recommendations identified by Audit Wales following their national study (Regenerating Town Centres in Wales).
Reference was made to the mention of transport, access and parking within the circulated report. Members asked if Welsh Government would be formally responding to the actions in the report that they were required to complete; particularly around the parking element. Officers explained that parking was an ongoing issue; when analysing the bid questionnaires, a lot of businesses had raised that free parking in town centres would be very beneficial to them. However, it was noted that this needed to be balanced out against sustainable transport and various other factors; offering free parking may not reflect the policy that Welsh Government pursues in terms of reducing the number of vehicle movements.
A discussion took place in regards to the multi-story car parks that the Council owns; it was asked if an audit of the car parks could take place in order to determine how they could be made more welcoming for visitors. The Head of Property and Regeneration confirmed that this was being looked into; with all Council owned buildings, there was an ongoing maintenance regime. It was mentioned that the budget was a large factor in how this work would be progressed.
The Committee raised the importance of digital infrastructure; having the correct set up was pivotal in staying connected. Officers mentioned that some people would take advantage of free Wi-Fi, if it was to be wider available across the town centres; however, some may not be as interested as people tend to be more stationary when they want to take advantage of that e.g. in restaurants. It was noted that Officers were looking at digital connectivity and how it could work for town centres across the County Borough; these studies will hopefully provide information on what was thriving and where more attention was needed.
In regards to business rates, it was highlighted that a lot had changed, particularly during the pandemic; individuals were using online shopping more than ever. Officers stated that this needed to be balanced out, as in many cases, online retailers were flourishing a lot more than those who provided a physical presence in town centres; there needed to be more encouragement to visit town centres. Members were informed that Welsh Government acknowledged this and were looking into how this could be dealt with going forward. Officers added that the report should have recognised that the whole business rates system itself needed to be looked into.
Members expressed the need for town centres to have improved facilities for arts, heritage and culture. Officers confirmed that they had been looking to diversify the town centres for a while; pre pandemic, they had put plans in place to deliver the leisure facility in the heart of Neath Town Centre. It was noted that this how these facilities could be delivered was being looked across the County Borough; the Plaza development will be an important part of this work for Port Talbot. Officers highlighted that this was a great way of getting people back into town centres and making them more viable; retail will not be the only reason that people use town centres going forward, and it was important for the Council to consider ways of making town centres interesting in a different way.
Officers mentioned that consultants were being employed currently to look at developing a strategy for the secondary and tertiary town centres; this includes areas such as Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen and Ystalyfera.
Attention was drawn to the list of Welsh Government funding to Local Authorities in 2020-21 for town centre regeneration, which was contained within the circulated report; it showed that Neath Port Talbot were third on the list, behind Swansea and Newport, which was a positive for the County Borough.
A further discussion took place in regards to developing the heritage and cultural aspects of town centres, in particular sports such as football and rugby museums. Members were informed that the Council was looking to develop its cultural heritage strategy; a lot of elements will be picked up in the strategy, including an understanding of the sporting heritage.
Reference was made to issues surrounding free Wi-Fi in town centres; it had been raised that being well connected was causing Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) in certain areas in Neath. Members expressed that if the Council was going to be further connecting communities and towns in the digital aspect, it would be important to ensure that large groups didn’t intimidate shoppers and cause ASB.
Officers explained that there were partnerships set up for both Neath and Port Talbot town centres; these meetings look at various issues relating to the town centres, including identifying ongoing problems and coming up with ideas to reduce incidents occurring. It was noted that Officers would need to manage this issue as the connectivity work progressed, and manage it in conjunction with the various Teams. It was added that the Police were represented in the town centre partnerships, and had improved links with the Council.
In addition to the discussion, it was noted that the Community Safety Team, on behalf of the Community Safety Partnership, had called together various partnership meetings to take a partnership and solution focused approach in order to address the issues; some of which included elements such as the substance misuse outreach workers, and improved work to promote the use of the radios. It was added that these meetings also highlighted the positives of the town centres, and encouraged close work with South Wales Police who lead in terms of enforcement activity.
The circulated report highlighted that there were eight town centres within the County Borough; Members asked for the full list of these town centres. Officers referenced the following to be the eight town centres, however would send the confirmed list to Members outside of the meeting:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Neath
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Port Talbot
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Pontardawe
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Briton Ferry
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Glynneath
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Skewen
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Taibach
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Ystalyfera
Following scrutiny, the report was noted.