Information from Trevor Scott, Chief Executive of Wealden Council
Further update from Trevor Scott, CEO of WDC, as of yesterday, 8th April
As it has been a few days since our last email, we wanted to send an update on key activities.
Shield / Hub – since going live with this service, we have received 492 calls / web contacts from residents asking for support or assistance. In line with our processes, we have been able to put in place arrangements for help and support for all those who need it. In recognition that there may be some vulnerable residents who are not aware of this service, a leaflet will be posted this week (copy attached) to all residents over the age of 70 on our electoral register data base.
Business grants – we have now received over 1900 applications from local businesses for the £10k or £25k grant payments. To remind you, we are processing these in line with the government guidance on paying grants. This means we have to capture certain information from the local businesses (which they provide via an online form), we are then having to check the eligibility of these claims (roughly 10% of applications are not valid / eligible) and then we have to process their payment through our systems. The first payments went out yesterday and we are making more payments today and tomorrow. We will also have staff working on processing these applications over the Easter weekend. So we are doing all we can to get this money out to businesses as fast as we can, whilst ensuring a balance with appropriate checks and controls.
Council Tax – we are continuing to see an upward trend on applications for benefits and council tax support. Along with processing the business grants applications, this is putting a heavy workload on our benefits team and, where possible, we are diverting staff to assist with these tasks.
Waste – the service collecting residual waste and recycling bins is performing well, with only 93 missed bins last week. We have already had almost 2000 people sign up for the garden waste collection service that starts again on 1 July.
Customer Services – due to the renewal of the garden waste service and the Shield / Hub activities, we are seeing an increase in calls. We have redeployed some staff to work in the contact centre and this is currently working well. We will also be opening the contact centre for reduced hours over the bank holiday weekend, with calls being taking between 10am & 4pm on every day except Easter Sunday.
Licence Fees – during the current ‘shutdown’ period, we are now deferring any requests for the payment of fees from licenced premises and the approach we will take is to change the anniversary of the annual fee to when it is paid, if it is paid before April 2021. For those premises who have already been issued an invoice, we will consider deferring payment on a case by case basis (remembering that some businesses are continuing to trade, so still need the licence) so please ask anyone who may contact you about this to get in touch directly with the licensing team.
Housing – we are continuing to see a small increase in people asking us for assistance with housing. We are also working with the police to try and support people as a result of an increase in domestic violence during the current lockdown period. Separately, we have also secured, on a countywide basis, suitable premises for those in temporary housing / emergency accommodation who then might need to be moved if they are presenting with symptoms of Covid-19.
Planning – we are continuing to see a reduction in the number of planning and building control applications. Whist there is still work for both teams as a result of ‘pipeline’ work, this is falling away.
We hope you are all well, staying safe and, where able, making the most of the sunny weather to get your daily exercise. Take care and enjoy the Easter weekend.
Update from Trevor Scott, CEO Wealden DC as of afternoon 27th March
Business rate grants – the form for businesses to claim the £10k or £25k grants is now live on our website. We have sent messages out on social media, but if you can let businesses in your area / networks know, that would be helpful. Government are due to pay us the money for distributing to businesses on the 1st April, so the sooner we have the relevant information back from businesses, the sooner we can pay out the grants.
Business rates freeze – we have been able to update our business rates systems for the over 2,200 businesses who will not now be charged business rates for the coming financial year to ensure payment is not taken for their rates (the first instalment was due to happen on Monday). New bills / invoices have to, by law, be issued to businesses even though they will be for nil / zero. We understand this may look strange but unfortunately it is a quirk of the law / system.
Council Tax. As mentioned yesterday, the hardship fund will credit relevant customers by up to £150. We have now applied that credit to the 3635 residents on Council Tax Support. There is also a concern that residents may not pay Council Tax for the coming months. Our message is to encourage customers to carry on paying as usual. Any deferral of payment has a significant impact on our cash flow (and that of the other precepting authorities).
Waste. Due to escalating staff shortages, Biffa have now confirmed that they will be suspending garden waste collections from Monday for up to 4 weeks. This accords with the Business Continuity programme we have agreed with them. Communications will be going out to residents but please can you share these messages with your networks. The message will contain advice about home composting as a temporary alternative. Whilst the timing is not fantastic, we will have to continue with the sign up for people who want to have / continue the garden waste collection service from the 1st July. That sign up goes live from 1 April so again please advise your communities to sign up as normal, although please emphasise the importance of doing this on line. Our phone lines are getting busy due to the Covid-19 response, so it will be helpful if the vast majority of our customers do this on line.
Shield / Hub. The website is up and running so again please let people know how they can either volunteer or ask for help if they need it. At a national level, Government have confirmed that the Emergency food supplies for the 1.4m nationally shielded people will start going out this weekend. For our local community shield, to try and ensure we try and contact those who might need help, we are looking at contacting all people on the electoral register who are aged 70 or over to check on them and make sure they are doing ok. That is over 20000 people so will take a significant effort (and a little time) to contact them all as we don’t have phone numbers or email addresses for all residents, so it will involve a mix of emails, calls and letters to alert people to the local shield offer. In tracing these people we will cross reference and try to avoid duplication with the national schemes where possible.
Homelessness. As an update to the concerns I highlighted yesterday, we have managed to secure access to a small amount of temporary accommodation to deal with those presenting as homeless. We are also participating in County wide discussions on this issue to ensure a co-ordinated response, including in dealing with those people who will return to our area following the Government’s move for the early release of prisoners.
We hope this update has been useful. At the moment, we aren’t anticipating sending any further updates over the weekend but if anything urgent changes that, we will let you know.
Update from Trevor Scott, CEO of Wealden DC as of 26th March. I wanted to provide an updated on key areas of activity.
Shield / Hub. Alex White sent Parish/Town Councils an email yesterday evening which we hope provided a detailed update. The information is now live on our website so please direct anyone in your area who either wants to volunteer or who needs help and support to the website.
Business rates. Early estimates show that there are approx. 3500 businesses in Wealden that will qualify for the £10k small business grants that the Government have announced. Government have advised that we can now expect to receive the money for this in ‘early April’. In order to access the grants, Government are requiring us to capture some very specific information from business owners before any money can be paid out. We will be contacting businesses this week to let them know how to provide this information to us (we are currently designing a web form to allow this to happen electronically which will be sent to businesses and made available on our website). Once that information is with us and we have been able to verify the information provided (there is national concern about potential scams so we need to take sensible checks on the information) we will then be in a position to pay the £10k grants. We will also be identifying the Retail, Leisure and Hospitality businesses that may also qualify for the higher £25k grant and contacting them directly.
Benefits. In the last week we have seen a considerable increase in the number of new benefit claimants, existing claimants submitting change of circumstances applications and new Council Tax support applications or enquiries. We have had to allocate additional resources to this team to respond to this increasing demand on the service but the team are working incredibly hard to deal with applications as quickly as they can.
Hardship Fund. We are receiving just over £600k of funding from Government to provide further financial assistance to those who receive support under the Council Tax reduction scheme. The government has indicated that the fund should be used to reduce the liability of those receiving working age council tax support by up to £150 in 2020/21 (it is up to £150 as some Council Tax bills would reach nil with a credit of less than £150). We are working through the scheme detail and we expect to be able to credit accounts by the end of next week.
Waste Service is continuing to operate however, due to increasing staff absences, Biffa have had to stop all new requests for bulky waste collections. The Salvation Army have also stopped collection of textiles at the bring sites. Biffa are sending daily updates and we are monitoring the situation closely.
Homelessness. We are seeing an increase in people contacting us to present as homeless. You may be aware that the closure of hotels nationally has driven some of this growth as people who were in temporary accommodation in hotels have been required to leave. This is getting national attention and the Government have been speaking directly to national hotel chains to get them to reverse their decisions. They have also clarified that there is an exemption for hotels to open to provide accommodation to either homeless people or to NHS staff / key workers. We are working hard locally to get hotels to re-open to take homeless people where we need that accommodation in order to manage this situation.
Committee meetings. The legislation has now been passed in the Covid-19 Act to allow remote meetings. Further regulations are awaited that will provide the details on holding remote meetings. In the meantime Democratic Services are trialling different software applications to enable this and will in due course contact members with more details.
Operationally, we have a few members of staff who are now in isolation having developed symptoms of the Covid-19 virus. As previously reported, staff have been working successfully from remote locations and we have very minimal numbers of staff in the office Monday-Thursday with the office fully closing on a Friday. Those staff apart, morale seems to be remaining high and staff are working well remotely. We are continuing to develop contingency plans should we need to redeploy staff to other activities due to workload peaks or other demands in responding to the Covid-19 situation.
Firstly, in relation to the Council’s operations, we have moved the majority of staff to working from home. Yesterday we had over 200 staff logged in working remotely and providing services to our residents. Reception is still open and we have a small number of staff in the office. Whilst visiting officers are still able to undertake visits to homes, this is on the basis that they make appointments first and are clear that the person is happy to have a visit and is symptom free. We are also making use of technology with things such as Facetime being used to conduct remote visits to premises e.g. by housing officers or building control officers for low risk assessments. These are working well and customers are pleased with this approach. We have also been able to double our broadband bandwidth which means our online presence should be more available and quicker for staff to use.
We are currently monitoring the impact of the proposed school closures on staff and will be relaxing ‘core hours’ so that staff can work more flexibly to ensure that services are provided whilst juggling / managing childcare arrangements. As a result, you may receive emails outside of ‘normal’ working hours. We are also monitoring announcements from Government about the definition of key workers which may assist staff with childcare. Once we hear any further we will update you.
Business rates. As you will have seen the Chancellor announced in last week’s Budget that the current 50% retail discount would be increased to 100% for 2020-21 and expanded to include all occupied retail, leisure and hospitality premises. Guidance is provided on the types of use that will be eligible for the discount. Broadly they are hereditaments that are being used for the following purposes:
- as shops, restaurants, cafes, drinking establishments, cinemas and live music venues,
- for assembly and leisure; or
- as hotels, guest & boarding premises and self-catering accommodation.
More detailed Government guidance on qualifying businesses and also on the other aspect of the Government announcement regarding grants and loans to businesses is still awaited. Again, once we are clear on how these will be administered we will let you know and will communicate this more widely to the business community. If you are in contact with businesses, it would be helpful if you could advise them to hold off contacting us at the moment.
We have been advised that Government will make an announcement today regarding what is being described as a Shield / Hub approach. The idea is to create support for vulnerable residents who may not have support. This is likely to focus on ensuring they have access to food, medicine and other essential supplies. The Government expectation is that the ‘shield / hub’ will be provided by local government. Whilst we are awaiting the detail of what this means, we have agreed to work collectively with the County Council and all the other District & Boroughs to ensure consistency and to support each other in providing an effective approach. I know many Town & Parish Councils are already doing similar things and we will make sure that their efforts dovetail in with whatever is expected of us under the emerging policy.
In terms of community messaging, please can you let your communities know that we are still fully operational but that if they would like our support, please use the website and/or email as the primary way of contacting us. Please strongly discourage posted communications as this presents a challenge (and an administrative task) which whilst we can manage at the moment, if there is a full lock down resulting in an office closure, then post will not be opened for that period of time.
It would also be helpful if you could continue to repeat the Public Health England guidance about good personal hygiene and when to self-isolate.
Should residents want more information about Covid-19 or our services during this time, our website has a dedicated page which is regularly updated. The link is: https://www.wealden.gov.uk/news-and-events/coronavirus-covid-19-latest/ but the link is also prominent on our homepage. Please also encourage residents to follow our twitter account (@wealdendistrict), ‘like’ our Facebook page or sign up to MyAlerts for regular updates
Could you also advise residents to be cyber secure. We understand that there is an increase in phishing attacks at this time often using Covid-19 as the cover (these are fake emails that will infect your computer with a virus if you click on them). Please urge people to be extra careful about the emails they open and the links they click on.