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Central directorates quarterly service report - where we are now

Director’s overview

Chief Executives Office

The Chief Executive’s Office was formally created on 1 September.

Its functions include:

  • transformation support
  • corporate policy and performance
  • community engagement and equalities
  • communications and marketing

This QSR covers the first quarter of the new section’s activities.

Staff have continued to work effectively almost exclusively from home, with minimal impact on service levels. A small number of staff are occasionally visiting Time Square, however almost all activities are now being undertaken electronically.

Supporting the organisation’s COVID response continued to be the major focus in quarter 3. The communications and marketing team’s priority has been proactive messaging around COVID, as well as supporting communication around outbreaks, including schools, and changes in government guidance. During this quarter, the team issued more than 70 news releases and statements, dealt with more than 130 media enquiries and created more than 950 social media posts.

The team continued to lead the council’s community response for clinically extremely vulnerable people (CEV) and those shielding in partnership with The Ark and other council teams, notably customer services. Over 1500 shopping tasks and 800 prescription collections were completed by The Ark’s volunteers. The council made over 1300 phone calls and volunteers 200 doorstep welfare checks for CEV people.

The transformation team also supported CMT to review and reshape the council’s change programme. The new change programme brings together COVID recovery priorities and service transformation. Programmes include the assets, ways of working, and community hub, which are all council wide programmes, with significant transformation of adults and childrens social care and joint working with health.

Corporate policy priorities have included working with departments on updating the service plans for 2021 to 2022, particularly in light of new COVID priorities. Business continuity preparations with services for the end of the Brexit transition period, developing and implementing the policy for distributing the COVID Winter Grant Scheme, and investigating LGO and stage 3 complaints.

The engagement and equalities team have supported the community centres to safely operate, providing ongoing COVID advice and guidance to meet the government COVID-19 legislation and access eligible financial support packages.

Work has continued to support the development of new community hubs at Blue Mountain, TRL Crowthorne and Warfield. A contractor was secured for the RIBA stage 3 design and build work on the Blue Mountain hub.

Equalities priorities have included the development of the council’s new Equality Scheme (2021 to 2026), finalising equality monitoring service reports for 2019 to 2021 (to be published in January 2021) and supporting the dissemination of the staff Pulse Survey discrimination research and action in response to the findings.

Place, Planning and Regeneration

During this quarter a £4.5 million income has been secured from Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) (an increase of £1.2 million from the last quarter).

However, income from S106 agreements reduced from £3.8 million to £3.1 million.

Planning performance on minor and other applications exceeded the 90% target and over 700 individuals and groups responded to the consultation carried out on the Revised Growth Strategy for the Local Plan.

The Bracknell BID has secured a 'Yes' vote and will officially launch in April 2020 investing over £3 million over the next 5 years in the Southern and Western business areas.

Within Parks and Countryside during 2019 our volunteers have donated a total of 5,894 hours, with an additional 1,244 hours from the probation team.

Within Highways and Transport the A322 Downshire Way dual carriageway scheme continues to make good progress with a vast majority of the widening works complete. The greening works are also well underway. The Highways and Transport service areas were merged on 1 April to form the new ‘Highways and Transport’ division. Work has been undertaken to identify further structural changes and working practices needed to take the service forward in the medium to long term. A formal staff consultation on detailed proposals is now underway.

In terms of the town centre the council has been supporting the refurbishment of Princess Square, has successfully enabled the second year of the Christmas Market and has continued to work collaboratively with The Lexicon on town centre management issues.

Resources

Staff have continued to work effectively almost exclusively from home during the period, with minimal impact on service levels. A small number of staff are periodically visiting Time Square to deal with post that continues to be received, although most activities are now being undertaken mainly electronically.

Attention turned in the third quarter of the year as normal to the next year’s budget preparations. Uncertainty around the on-going impact of COVID-related financial pressures and government funding in 2021 to 2022 made the budget process even more complicated than normal. The draft budget proposals were approved by the Executive for consultation in December, before the details of the local government finance settlement were published. The continuation of the New Homes Bonus grant for a further year in 2021 to 2022 together with some COVID funding continuing into next year has provided additional one-off flexibility for the final budget proposals which will be discussed at the Executive and council meetings in February.

Financial monitoring arrangements remain focused on tracking against predicted best and worst case scenarios in the current year. Going into quarter 4 it appears that while the council is facing unexpected cost pressures and lost income as a consequence of the pandemic, these will be covered by additional government grant provided to recognise them. The council is therefore well on track to deliver costs within budget yet again in 2020 to 2021.

Administration of the government’s various business grant schemes has continued to be a key focus for the Revenues team, with help from the Finance and Business Support team. As at the end of January 2021, 1,600 claims had been paid to eligible businesses, amounting to £13 million. Good progress has been made on most of the schemes, with the exception being the discretionary Additional Restrictions Grant, where applications have been much lower than expected. In January we made the application process simpler to help attract more applicants, with some success.

A key milestone was reached in the Joint Venture process just before Christmas when the legal agreements with our partner Countryside were signed and the Bracknell Forest Cambium Partnership was formally constituted. The outline site development plan for Coopers Hill also received council approval and plans are being finalised with a planning submission shortly to follow.

With construction of the new Heathlands care facility now well underway, the planned tendering for a service provider for the care during quarter 3 was paused, recognising that providers were focused on managing the current difficult situation in existing care homes. It is planned, subject to the situation around COVID levels, that this will re-commence in quarter 4.

The planned restructuring of the Finance and Business Support team has been completed. This included transferring some functions and staff to the Accountancy Support team, to improve overall resilience. All but one of the new posts created in the restructure has now been filled through a mix of internal and external recruitment. A new appointment has also successfully been made to the Corporate Procurement team, in preparation for the higher volume of activity expected over the coming 12 months due to some procurements planned for 2020 to 2021 needing to be deferred. It has not, however, been possible to fill the newly created Senior Auditor post and therefore the temporary contractor’s engagement has been extended for the rest of the financial year while a new advertising approach is developed.

Good performance

Chief Executive’s Office

Transformation

Good progress was made in October and November in enabling departments to deliver their change programmes including the recruitment of consultants to support the adult social care conversations model and children’s case escalation and practice programmes.

Communications and Marketing

The team have produced extensive comms content on traditional and social media under unrelenting pressure as new restrictions have been introduced and government policy has changed.

The team has been using innovative approaches to make sure that messages reach all communities including the use of influencers on social media.

A non-COVID success for this quarter was the creation and agreement of the Cambium Partnership branding, which forms part of the next stage of the town’s overall regeneration.

Engagement and equalities

A Frimley ICS bid to the NHS charities fund that the team contributed to has been successful.

The team will work with public health to lead a 12-month project to improve communication and engagement with BAME communities on health and wellbeing, particularly focussing on COVID related needs and learning.

Policy and Performance

A comprehensive COVID Impact Assessment report has been shared with partners.

A very clear COVID Winter Grant policy and eligibility framework was developed with significant engagement under very tight time pressure to make sure that this government grant is distributed quickly and effectively.

Resources

Finance

Government requirements to provide monthly updates on the current year’s financial situation continue to place additional burdens on the Finance Business Partners, alongside the normal pressures of the budget cycle.

The council has managed to meet the deadline for all of the monitoring returns as well as the sales, fees and charges compensation scheme claim.

The return submitted to government in December 2020 projected that additional costs and lost income related to COVID -19 will total £15.4 million by the end of 2020 to 2021, before taking account of costs to be reimbursed by the CCG and to be met from general and specific COVID -19 grants from government.

At the end of quarter 3 the overall worst and best case scenarios (excluding the remaining corporate contingency) ranged from a deficit of £1.0 million to a surplus of £1.8 million compared with expected levels of available funding. As the year goes on the range between the different scenarios will reduce and the most likely end position will become clearer.

Collection rates for both business rates and council tax are, as expected, around 1% lower than in previous years, though are holding up well compared to the position in many areas.

Revenue Services has assisted almost 400 households to reschedule their council tax payments for the current year, to help their financial situation.

HR

The HR team has been providing a higher than usual level of support to schools to help with workforce challenges with the impact of coronavirus absences due to positive cases and required self-isolation.

Since plans started to be made for the wider opening of schools in June regular liaison has taken place with trade unions.

The schools HR and Finance teams are also working closely with a number of schools who are considering restructuring staff to address budget pressures.

The recruitment process has been concluded for the vacant Executive Director: People post. Following interviews held virtually in November, a successful appointment was made.

Place, Planning and Regeneration

Planning

Work included:

  • significant progress made on submission draft local plan with nearly all policies completed in draft
  • performance targets exceeded for all types of planning application
  • pre-application performance target exceeded
  • additional temporary resource secured to help reduce high number of planning applications on hand
  • appeals performance exceeded performance target
  • planning enforcement live cases maintained at below 100
  • CIL income increased from previous quarter and projected to meet annual target
  • outline planning permission granted for up to 305 new homes as part of the Warfield strategic allocation
  • first virtual site visits and member site briefing held
  • Newell Hall virtual public inquiry completed – the decision is awaited

Highways and Transport

The A3095 (south) highway improvement scheme is well underway and works are progressing to programme with completion due in the summer.

The LED lighting ‘revisit’ project has regained the momentum lost earlier in the pandemic and remaining work will continue through 2021 to completion.

The London Road (Binfield) footway and cycleway scheme is now complete.

The junction visibility improvement scheme at Maidens Green Crossroads is virtually complete.

The Highway Inspection function has now returned to near-normal following earlier impacts from the pandemic, with the inspection of residential roads and footways now up to date with schedules.

Cyclical maintenance programmes are running to near-normal, with the exception being some tasks where specific location or work methodologies continue to be affected by COVID-19.

The Winter Maintenance Programme has been effectively engaged with approximately 1600 tonnes of salt stock available.

A flood alleviation scheme is being finalised for Brock Hill, in partnership with the Environment Agency, to address highway and residential flooding. The scheme will be implemented through spring and summer 2021.

The latest batches of borough-wide parking restrictions and the provision of disabled parking bays have been advertised and the statutory consultation is almost complete.

Work is progressing with service providers looking at options for electric vehicle chargers at council-owned sites around the borough.

Three bids submitted to the Thames Valley LEP in the first round of call for schemes for future Local Growth Funding or similar initiatives announced by government. Total of 16 schemes submitted by Berkshire Authorities with Bracknell having 2 prioritised in the top 5.

Partnership work has begun in relation to the North Hants and Thames Valley Connectivity Study working with Wokingham, Reading, West Berks, Hampshire CC, TVLEP, M3ELEP and Basingstoke.

Officers continue to work with Highways England to manage changing traffic flows on the borough network during the on-going M4 Smart Motorway project implementation.

The borough’s road safety record continues its improving trend.

Forward planning continues with Cityfibre prior to their fibre network installation in the borough from January 2021.

The Highway and Transport capital programme for 2021 to 2022 will be presented to the Executive on 16 March for approval.

Parks and Countryside

Capital project at Savernake Park - the contractor (Flowline Ltd) removed over 200 tonnes of silt from the 2 silt traps on site. This should increase the water quality and have a positive impact on biodiversity in the water.

The rangers and volunteers have also been working on some landscaping projects around the pond including some hedge-laying, new planting and revetments using locally sourced (Jennett’s Park) timber. The works have been well received with rangers, volunteers and contractors alike all reporting positive comments and many expressions of gratitude from residents and park users.

Visitor use of all sites continues to be high, particularly the heritage parks and other key destination sites. Increasing pandemic restrictions keep that pattern rising.

Staff have made significant adaptions to make sure that their essential operations continue and safe access to open space can continue to be provided.

The commemorative trees and benches scheme continue to be popular with several new additions to the Heritage Parks this quarter.

Invasive vegetation removal and woodland understorey work at South Hill Park has been completed contributing to key biodiversity targets.

Path resurfacing work at South Hill Park now complete.

A3095 Wild Way project now underway, invasive removal and tree planting has started.

Green Flag awards maintained for all 6 sites in the 2020 judging round.

The Look Out

Car park infrastructure work has been completed to help with the increased amount of visitors to site.

The Look Out Discovery staff have been able to adapt to the current climate and changes to their current role, whilst continuing to provide excellent customer service.

The Look Out Discovery Centre managed to reopen its front doors to pre-booked members of the public during December, with staff having to completely rethink the way the discovery centre will operate.

The coffee shop team has continued to adapt and has now re-introduced hot food back into their service, which continues to operate as a take away only service.

Continued work on our site recovery project is going well. We have continued to work closely with other members within the council, this helps ensure a large range of knowledge is available for each new decision being made.

The management team has been working alongside Activist over quarter 3 – We are hoping to see improvements to our coffee shop area and our car park as a result of these consultations.

Unfortunately, The Look Out Discovery Centre still remains closed, due to the on-going pandemic.

The Look Out Discovery Staff continue to complete re-assignments in support of the COVID response, where their shifts, skills and technology allow.

Regeneration and Economic Development

Thames Valley Berkshire LEP Local Growth Funding secured to support the next phase of the Princess Square and the Deck development

ESDP Autumn event successfully staged with keynote speakers.

Preparation of draft ESDP 2-year Action Plan.

Programme of COVID measures deployed in Bracknell Town Centre, Crowthorne and neighbourhood districts.

Deployment of COVID marshals to support the safe reopening of retail centres.

Completion of Town Centre Development Agreement review and variation to support key sites.

Smart City projects trial period completed.

Areas for improvement

Chief Executive’s Office

Transformation

In December COVID-19 slowed transformation programme delivery and has led to some programmes of work being paused.

Communications and Marketing

Team capacity and resilience was tested in quarter 3 due to 2 vacancies and one member of the team on sick leave. Two new communications and marketing officers were recruited, and an additional interim communication officer dedicated to focussing on COVID communications.

Engagement and Equalities

The development of the council’s new equality scheme and objectives has been delayed by COVID response activity.

Resources

HR

Due to relatively high levels of sickness absence in the HR team, there have been some delays in supporting recruitment processes across the organisation.

This also led to delays in progressing the planned restructure of the HR and OD team.

The first stage of this was completed just before Christmas with appointments being made to 2 of the 3 senior posts reporting into the Assistant Director. An interim appointment was progressed early in the New Year and all 3 posts are now filled, which will help bring added resilience and capacity to the team.

Finance

Workload pressures within Revenue Services from administering the government’s business grants, coupled with the unsuccessful attempt to recruit to a vacant post has meant that communications from the team to external customers have been less effective than normal, leading to an increase in complaints.

Additional support around customer communications has now been identified.

Audits and risks

During quarter 3 no internal audit reports were issued with a partial or inadequate opinion. However a follow up memo on the Agresso IT system included 2 major recommendations.

A risk register was developed during quarter 3 for the newly formed Chief Executive’s Office. The risk register for the Resources and Place, Planning and Regeneration directorates were both reviewed in October 2020. No major changes were made.