It's been a very strange calendar year for local government as a whole, thanks, obviously to Covid19.
Babergh (and Mid Suffolk) took a major support role during lockdown. There were a few teething problems with the emergency phone line, especially as staff were grappling with new systems needed for working from home. The Suffolk CC IT servers struggled to cope with new and enormous demands on capacity. Once things were sorted, I really believe the council functioned rather well. Virtually all staff were allocated to totally new roles, whilst a handful moved into specific roles to deal with the immediate crisis, or the potential recovery - as and when - or keeping the day job afloat. Bin collections were maintained except for a month without the brown wheelies being emptied. All council meetings were suspended initially.
We seem now to have moved into a business recovery phase as far as the Corona virus is concerned. After having the lowest and slowest infection rate in Suffolk, and being near the bottom of the table nationally, Babergh now has seen high rates of increase locally. However, whilst overall infection numbers remain low comparatively, there is no room for complacency. We were in the "medium" tier of Boris's current plan, but that has now changed.
We find ourselves in a further national lockdown during November, so local councils are again resuming their support roles. The Home but not Alone number is back up and operational - 0800 876 6926 - and the Suffolk Advice and Support Service is available to help residents suffering with financial hardship, or in need of support: 0800 068 3131, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. The service provides free advice on mortgages, credit cards, rent arrears or other debts, COVID related concerns and access to food.
Having sorted the IT issues, more or less, many of the council's meetings have been re-instated, albeit on a virtual platform. We've moved off Skype for Business and onto to MS Teams, which seems to work reasonably well now that people are getting used to the IT and the protocols. Endeavour House is empty apart from a few people - in Babergh's case this is mainly to collect, assess, scan or send on hard copy post. Things certainly take longer and there have been a few delegations to planning officers which have caused a rumpus among members. Dave has been very busy with all the meetings "out-of-meeting" for Cabinet; Bryn has been involved with Audit and Standards meetings, and I have had many meetings online for Licensing and Regulatory. All of us have taken part in several member briefings, non-public meetings and training sessions of many kinds - all virtual.
The councils have been able to award tens of thousands of pounds of government support grants to local businesses, and also to organisations which have lost income, such as allotment associations. Many services such as public toilets had to be closed, and then rigorously cleaned and tested for legionella and other nasties before they were allowed to re-open.
The virus led to the halt in building the replacement swimming pool in Hadleigh but this is now looking good and with restrictions, is (or was!) open. However, the reduction in numbers attending both leisure centres is going to cost Babergh a lot of money in supporting Abbeycroft.
Financially, despite government help, the outlook for Babergh is challenging financially to say the least, and indeed, would have been, even without the additional costs of dealing with the Corona virus.
Dave Busby may report to you more about CIFCO - the council's trading arm. There has been concern and criticism about the asset values because of Covid, but as long as there are tenants, there is income to the council and that has always been the primary motivator. I will also ask Dave to tell you more about the situation in Sudbury, where initial plans for a hotel and restaurant were dropped when the proposed partner withdrew.
Work on the on-going Joint Local Plan (with Mid Suffolk) is before Council in November 2020. If approved, it will have its final consultation running to 24th December, on legality and soundness before being sent to the Inspector for examination. It is not likely to be in place before 2021/2022. There is a long and arduous process to go through, mainly thanks to government regulations, but there have also been other delays. Whilst I understand the logic and the arguments behind much of the distribution strategy for new housing, I am very concerned about the lack of insight and vision into how the whole area south west of Ipswich will function. Big developments in the villages along the A12 in particular, will be a nightmare without significant improvements to the Copdock interchange, and there is no mention of improving the lethal exits and access junctions down to the Essex border.
There are some changes afoot with regard to CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) including a likely increase in the amount of developer contributions to help pay for the additional infrastructure that their new builds will require. I do have some concerns about the impact on house prices, given that Babergh's 11:1 affordability ratio is the highest in Suffolk. This could mean that our build-rate and land supply is challenged, and in turn this could allow developers to get permissions on land above and beyond allocated sites.
There have been several working groups set up during the year - including the local plan, member development and training, and an environmental strategy, the three I have been involved with. An environmental strategy has been developed with an aspiration to work towards being carbon neutral in the areas Babergh controls. Climate change is recognised as a key priority, but we see conflicts with other functions such as the local plan. Alongside that, is an emerging plan to increase and improve biodiversity in the district.
Virtual High Street for Sudbury
Over 50 high street shops, cafes, market traders and businesses have signed up to the Sudbury Virtual High Street, a single online location to access local shops and restaurants from home or on the move. Retailers can use the platform to offer services such as pre-order or click and collect. Each store page can include product listings, gallery and store opening times on their personalised store page. There is also an option to include online purchasing and delivery depending on the retailer's requirements. This was created as part of the Sudbury Vision partnership and supported by Babergh and Sudbury Town Council.
It is now possible to pay for parking in Babergh and Mid Suffolk car parks via a digital app - MiPermit. This will do away with the need for paper tickets. Cash can still be used for people who do not wish to use, or do not have, smartphones. Virtual tickets are available online, via the MiPermit app, by phone, and by text both in advance and on the day. Tickets and further information can be obtained via https://secure.mipermit.com/bmsdc/application/home.aspx . Further electric vehicle charging points across the districts, and upgraded car park machines to include a card payment/contactless option, are being explored, but the cost of introducing contactless payment machines is currently said to be too great.
The two former headquarters council sites are being re-developed, though are some way from work beginning. Babergh Growth - another area for Dave to talk about - has been set up to deliver 57 homes on the Hadleigh site.
Politically, there have been some changes since the 2019 election. The Conservatives lost some of their members to the Independent group - though one has since re-joined - which has removed their overall majority. Having said that, the Cabinet has anyhow included both Independent members and Dave as a Lib Dem. Whilst there is often party-based voting, this is far less evident than in the past. With our three members on the council, Lib Dems are very well represented and, I'd say, listened to and respected. Given the current situation, there was little appetite to change much at this year's AGM - a much delayed and virtual event - but there are expectations that there could be some moves to change thin