Four Questions on Notice were considered in accordance with Council Procedure Rule 9.
Town Deal Bid
Councillor Sharon Harvey asked the Leader the following question:
“Can the Leader provide an update on the progress of the business case which will support the Town Deal Bid, and explain how delays at County Council might affect this?”
The Leader responded by explaining that Council officers and a team of external consultants were finalising a summary of the business cases for the Innovation Centre and Public Realm Scheme. It was anticipated, in line with Government deadlines, that these would be submitted to Government, on 29th June 2022. The matter had been considered at the Town’s Deal Board the previous week and was due to be considered by the Executive Committee at a meeting scheduled to take place on 28th June 2022. The Section 151 Officer would be required to sign off the business cases prior to submission. The summary related to the library site would not be submitted on 29th June and instead an extension had been agreed with the Government until 30th September 2022. This later agreed submission date would not impact on the evaluation of the submission by the Government.
Councillor Harvey subsequently commented that in her view the review of the library was the most contentious part of the process. The Leader was asked in a supplementary question about what plans were in place for public consultation in respect of the content of this business case.
The Leader responded by advising that there was a plan for public consultation in respect of this business case. The extension to the submission date for the business case for the library would provide more time to obtain feedback from the public about the proposals.
Councillor Bill Hartnett asked the Leader the following question:
“Can the Leader advise, since becoming Leader in 2018, the locations of all new council dwellings, how many have been started, and how many have been completed with keys handed over to tenants?”
The Leader responded by explaining that despite the issues caused by the pandemic, 74 new dwellings had been added to the Council’s housing stock since 2018. This included 19 properties purchased from developers in Webheath and Enfield and 55 properties purchased off the open market spread across the Borough. The Leader also confirmed that 19 units were under construction in Church Hill and had an expected handover date of January 2023. The authority would continue to work to add homes to the Council’s housing stock through all options available, including bringing forward construction of properties on the Council’s identified land.
Councillor Hartnett subsequently asked how many new houses were planned to be built in the following 12 month period.
The Leader responded by commenting that 19 units were under construction, although had not yet been completed. There were other parcels of land owned by the Council that were in the process of being reviewed and which had been identified as potentially suitable locations for future housing development.
Queen’s Platinum Jubilee
Councillor Peter Fleming asked the Leader the following question:
“Does the Leader agree with me that all Members of Redditch Borough Council should support a vote of thanks to HM Queen Elizabeth II on her Platinum Jubilee earlier this month? For seventy years, Her Majesty has served with dignity, reverence and decorum over our United Kingdom and Commonwealth. As Councillors who are elected to serve our Borough, we can understand the sacrifices and lengths Her Majesty has made over the past 70 years. Over the Jubilee weekend, the very best of Redditch was on show. The beacon lighting event at the Arrow Valley Lake was well-attended and after the Deputy Lord Lieutenant had lit the beacon, an impromptu chorus of God Save the Queen gave a glorious ending to the evening’s proceedings. It really was a ‘proud to be British moment’. As the following days went on, every corner of our Borough was brought together, all ages and backgrounds united by their respect, admiration and gratitude for the Queen. It is in the vein that tonight, as the Borough’s representatives, Members should join tonight to support a vote of thanks to HM Queen Elizabeth II.”
The Leader responded by agreeing that the whole of the Borough had enjoyed celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Members were advised that a letter would be sent to the Queen thanking her for the occasion and this would be sent on behalf of all elected Members. Members could sign this letter or have their name added to the correspondence on their behalf.
Council Tax Rebate
Mr A. Fieldsend-Roxborough asked the Leader the following question:
“Having received reports from several residents about delays to the payment of the £150 Council Tax Rebate and separate reports about a significant loss of experienced staff in the Council's Revenues Team, I would like to ask the Leader what measures are being taken to both ensure that all residents receive the payment they are eligible for and to ensure that the root cause of any delays is remedied?”
The Leader provided a very detailed response to this question in which he advised that the Council Tax Energy Rebate (CTER) was available to eligible households occupying dwellings in Council Tax valuation Bands A to D, or valuation Band E if the property was eligible for disabled band reduction.
The CTER scheme required Councils to make a payment of £150.00 to each eligible household and the process for making payments was dependant on the method by which the customer paid their Council Tax. This process was:
a) For customers that made payments by Direct Debit: Where an eligible household made payments by Direct Debit, the Council was required to verify that the name of the bank account holder matched the name of the person liable for Council Tax and that the bank account had been used to collect at least one payment of Council Tax. Where the account passed this validation, the payment would be made automatically. Customers could fail this initial validation if they had changed their name either through marriage, reversion to an earlier name, or by deed poll. For example, if a customer created a Direct Debit for payment of their Council Tax and then changed their name, only the core Council Tax account record would be updated, the bank account name remained as it was in the initial Direct Debit instruction unless an amendment notice was provided by the bank.
b) For customers that paid by means other than Direct Debit: The customer would be required to apply for the rebate and provide bank details for the account into which the payment should be made. The Government guidance required that every application was verified using the Government’s spotlight tool – which compared the application to information provided by the banks - to ensure that the bank details provided in the application were correct and matched the name, address, and date of birth of the bank account holder.
c) For customers that made payment by Direct Debit but failed verification at point a): The customer would be required to apply for the rebate and the bank details would be subject to the Government’s verification requirements detailed in point b).
The payment of CTER to Direct Debit customers commenced on 26th April 2022. The Council was required to advise every customer of their payment, and these notifications were issued to customers shortly after their payment had been processed.
The application portal for customers that failed Direct Debit verification and those who paid by means other than Direct Debit was opened on 16th May 2022. The Council had contacted every eligible household by letter, email, or SMS message to advise that the portal was open, however, due to the risk of phishing emails, this communication did not include links to the application portal but instead advised customers to go to the relevant pages on the Council’s website. These pages could be found by accessing any internet search engine and searching for Council Tax Energy Rebate Redditch.
The Council had identified 31,143 households that were eligible for the grant. To date payments had been made to 79.53% of eligible households – this was 24,769 households.
From 30th June 2022 the Council would issue further reminder letters to households that had not applied for the rebate, and this reminder process would be supported with messaging on social media channels. If rebate payments were still outstanding after 31st July 2022, then the Council would send a final communication to the customer advising that they had 21 days to claim, after which time the payment would be credited to their Council Tax account and applied as payment towards their Council Tax liability.
A technical issue - resulting from actions the Council had taken on advice from the authority’s software suppliers to inhibit recovery action on Council Tax accounts which held an available energy rebate payment - resulted in applications submitted over a three-day period in May 2022 failing to process. It was not possible to contact these customers and therefore some applications had had to be resubmitted. Any impacted customers who had not re-applied would be written to from 30th June 2022 and asked to apply again.
The external verification of bank details, which was a Government requirement of the scheme, had required some development and review and therefore the initial applicants were advised that verification could take up to 21 days. The Council had subsequently reduced this to seven days and the authority’s communications would be updated to reflect this improvement.
The external verification confirmed that the bank details submitted were for an open bank account, that the address held on the bank account matched the Council Tax account and that the account holder’s name and date of birth were correct. Where an account failed verification, the Council was required to take further steps to evidence that the payment was correct. The Government’s advice was to:
a) Ask the applicant to provide a bank statement evidencing that the account address and name matched the Council Tax records.
b) Ask the applicant to make a new application using a bank account that would pass verification (one where their details were correct, and the address was for the eligible property).
c) To make a payment using a cash out voucher scheme which required the applicant to attend a post office with photographic ID and proof of their address.
The Council had contacted applicants who had failed verification and asked for bank statements to be provided so that the authority could manually process their payments.