02 October 2022

Committee round-up: Communities Committee 8.9.22

Recovery from the pandemic and support around ‘cost of living’ challenges underpinned discussions on a series of themes at Aberdeenshire Council’s Communities Committee on September 8, 2022.

Cost of living challenges discussed as part of financial update

A report outlining forecasts for the revenue and capital budgets of services that fall under the remit of the committee, as of July 31 this year, was considered.

Councillors were informed of an anticipated overspend within the revenue budget of £1.1million by the end of March 2023. This was said to be largely due to a reduction in income within the Live Life Aberdeenshire (LLA) service because of lower visitor numbers following the pandemic, coupled with ‘cost of living’ pressures.

The capital budget, meanwhile, is forecast to be under budget by £1.022million over the same period, although it was highlighted that the outcome of negotiations around the national pay award will need to be accounted for.

Councillors asked a series of questions around the work of LLA to address budget challenges and the support being provided to customers.

Head of Communities, Wellbeing & Partnership Avril Nicol spoke of efforts to recruit and train staff, and the work to support customers facing financial challenges while maintaining the service’s focus on promoting health and wellbeing.

She said the service is exploring its pricing and membership packages, including the introduction of  Live Life Essentials to provide access to a range of free services, including showers, Wi-Fi, computers, library services and free activities at Aberdeenshire leisure venues.

Efforts are also being made to mitigate increasing energy and material costs for facilities.

It was agreed that a briefing note be prepared for the committee to outline the efforts being made to support customers.

Housing revenue account budget discussed

The committee went on to discuss budgets for the housing service, with the revenue budget showing a surplus of just over £19million as of July 31 this year.

Any net surplus from the budget is used to fund the service’s capital programme each year, although the outcome of pay award discussions will need to be taken into account.

The service’s capital budget for the same period highlighted an underspend of around £8.8million.

Responding to a question from Cllr Glen Reynolds about cost of living challenges and evictions, Head of Housing Rob Simpson said the service took a compassionate approach to the management of rent.

He said evictions are traditionally low, with a focus on working with customers to address payment challenges directly, and mentioned discussions around an ‘eviction ban’ over the winter period. Mr Simpson said the service also worked closely with private sector landlords.

Following questions about the potential for higher debts and rent arrears from Cllr Neil Baillie, Mr Simpson went on to highlight the work of the rent strategy member officer working group and said updates would be brought back to committee as appropriate.

Further outlining the support available to tenants, he told Cllr Fatima Joji that the council works closely with charities, as well as through the service’s own support teams, to provide advice and support.

In a separate report around housing performance and finance, the committee heard that tenant arrears in Aberdeenshire are below the Scottish average, and that the council is ‘sector leading’ in terms of resolving homelessness.

Rent loss locally is also low but, as highlighted in other reports, the challenges around cost of living could have an impact over the coming months, as could potential pressures around resettlement.

Committee welcomes progress of Rapid Rehousing Transition Plan

Efforts to prevent homeless and support those who are homeless were welcomed by the committee as members were updated on progress of the council’s Rapid Rehousing Transition Plan.

The plan, which began in 2019 and runs until 2024, was developed to meet the needs of homeless households and those at risk of homelessness, and is supported by a working group involving councillors and council staff.

Committee chair Cllr Anne Stirling described the plan as ‘a very successful programme to date in terms of preventing and dealing with homelessness.’

Housing Manager Allan Jones said the plan shows extremely strong performance, despite the challenges faced during the pandemic. He said teams had been able to move projects forward and reduce backlogs in a number of areas.

Mr Jones said a key focus has been on working with young people to provide information and support to help find alternatives to homelessness.

The plan is to be updated to take account of emerging pressures such as cost of living challenges and resettlement programmes, with a series of workshops to take place in November. In addition, an updated housing allocation policy is to be considered by the committee in November.

Cllr Glen Reynolds described the working group as a ‘first class example of best practice,’ while Cllr Alison Evison asked for further detail around youth homelessness figures.

A briefing note will be shared with the committee about the impact and progress of the Nightstop initiative, which supports young people at risk of homelessness in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and a further report on the plan will be brought before the committee in a year’s time.

Housing assurance statement agreed

The committee approved an ‘annual assurance statement’ for submission to the Scottish Housing Regulator, highlighting the housing service’s performance in a variety of areas.

Head of Housing Rob Simpson said the service had taken a ‘critical look’ at its performance to ensure it was meeting the required national standards.

Mr Simpson spoke about the progress of work to meet energy efficiency standards, highlighting that the current housing improvement programme is drawing to an end and would set the council up well for meeting future energy targets.

Updates were also provide around rent loss, gas servicing, electrical testing, legionella, and fire detection.

Concern was raised over challenges around the installation of electricity meters by providers, with reference to higher charges around pre-payment meters. There was also discussion around access to properties, with Mr Simpson providing assurance that the service works with tenants to avoid the need for forced entry to properties to carry out repair or improvement works.

The council’s use of ‘virtual inspections’ during the pandemic to allow property inspection to take place was mentioned, and efforts to identify alternative materials for property works to tackle supply issues was also discussed.

Aberdeenshire Community Planning Partnership annual report welcomed

The achievements of the Aberdeenshire Community Planning Partnership during 2020/21 were outlined to the committee as part of an annual report previously considered by the Partnership’s board.

Councillors were told that good progress had been made in meeting the local outcomes improvement plan priorities, despite challenges posed by the pandemic.

Work to change Aberdeenshire’s relationship with alcohol and drugs will continue to be progressed via the Aberdeenshire Alcohol & Drugs Partnership, although it is no longer a formal priority within the Community Planning Partnership’s work.

The Partnership’s priorities are currently:

  • Reducing poverty: Work to establish affordable credit has continued, with funding for projects to alleviate poverty, and ongoing work to ensure that those with experience of poverty are able to have their voices heard. Work has also been undertaken to help young people become aware of and involved in tackling poverty and inequalities.
  • Connected & Cohesive Communities: There has been a particular focus on the communities of Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Banff and Macduff, with ‘co-ordination hubs’ being set up to support the themes of health and wellbeing, and poverty. Each hub has identified priorities and is involved in a range of local projects
  • Health & Wellbeing: Work has focused on the themes of healthy eating and mental wellbeing, with the ‘Mind Yer Mind’ campaign highlighted as a positive example of mental health support.

Cllr Alison Evison welcomed the community hubs model and stressed the importance of continually reviewing the sources of community input to ensure as broad a range of community voices as possible. Cllr Evison also asked about scrutiny arrangements around online lenders.

Cllr Fatima Joji, meanwhile, asked for a clear definition of the term ‘poverty’ to aid future discussions.

It was agreed that further information on these points would be provided.

Update on Police Scotland performance considered

A report highlighting how Police Scotland is performing against key performance measures and targets during 2021/22, as set out in the Aberdeenshire Local Policing Plan, was considered.

The committee heard from Supt Neil McDonald, who gave an overview of performance in a range of key areas.

Supt McDonald said that demand on Police Scotland, and some of the statistics in the report, has broadly returned to pre-pandemic levels, although an increase in those suffering poor mental health had been noted.

Maintaining staffing levels has been a challenge due to absences during the pandemic, a pause on recruitment and increased retirals, although the force is confident figures will stabilise.

Antisocial behaviour, violence and disorder was impacted as restrictions eased, with figures returning to pre-pandemic levels. A particular increase has been noted in terms of online threats and extortion, with many crimes originating overseas.

Figures show a decrease in assault and robbery, along with a slight reduction in crimes such as housebreaking, theft and vehicle crime.

There is a focus on driver behaviour to improve statistics around road safety and road crime, and to reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries. Some educational initiatives around road safety have begun to return, councillors were told.

Protecting people at the risk of harm is also a priority, particularly in terms of hidden harm during the pandemic. Bespoke training has also taken place to create hate crime advisors.

Detection rates remain in line with the five-year average, and overall public satisfaction with the force remains positive.

Cllr Alison Evison welcomed the work of community policing teams and the impact locally and sought more information around public satisfaction levels and any key themes that are highlighted in complaints.

Further updates on police performance will be brought before the committee on a quarterly basis.

Chief Social Work Officer Annual Report 2021/22 welcomed

A transformation approach will be required to drive forward improvements within social work and social care, Aberdeenshire’s chief social work officer has said.

Chief Social Work Officer Leigh Jolly spoke as she presented her annual report for 2021/22, covering all aspects of social work and social care and highlighting the challenges and achievements for all partners, including social workers and social care providers.

The report covered a range of priorities, with staff resilience, recruitment and retention explored in some detail, as was managing capacity, demand, and pressures across services.

Service priorities included reducing alcohol and drug-relating deaths, suicide prevention, and engaging with communities and ensuring first hand experiences help drive forward service improvements.

Raising awareness and promotion of support available to unpaid carers and young carers was also discussed.

Leigh said that while progress has been made across all of the priorities, the service must continue to drive forward improvement, and thanked staff for their continuing efforts.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that social work and social care is delivered by a substantial number of staff from statutory, third sector and independent sector organisations, and to thank all of those staff for their tremendous resilience and commitment throughout this period,” said Leigh.

“It’s vital that whilst driving high quality services we remain committed to supporting and valuing our workforce. And finally I would wish to acknowledge and thank our unpaid carers who so often go unrecognised and yet undertake a crucial role in supporting vulnerable people within our communities.”

Committee chair Cllr Anne Stirling welcomed the ‘excellent report’ before the committee explored some of the report’s themes in more details.

Responding to a question from Cllr Sarah Brown about referrals in child protection, Leigh said a variety of factors contributed to referrals and that several of these had been exacerbated during the pandemic and in light of ‘cost of living’ pressures.

Cllr Glen Reynolds asked if national calls for a maximum workload for social workers should lead to a review of benchmark figures. Leigh said that while the ambition of maximum caseload numbers was to be welcomed, the need to be fully staffed was a key factor and it was important to consider more than just the total number of families being supported, given the complexity of cases can vary significantly.

Welcoming the focus on trauma-informed practice, Cllr Alison Evison asked about the transition clients face when moving from children’s services to adult services.

Leigh explained that while there was positive feedback in the majority of situations, more complex cases can be challenging. She said it was important to work collaboratively between child and adult services, to listen to those making a transition, and to think earlier about the types of support being provided.

Responding to a question from Cllr Hannah Powell about budgetary pressures, Leigh said that in some areas the challenge was more about staffing, although there are financial pressures around supporting people in other authority areas when provision isn’t available locally.

Expanding on challenges around recruitment in respond to a question from Cllr Neil Baillie, Leigh mentioned the establishment of a sustainability board to look at a number of related themes and said a ‘transformational change’ was needed. She spoke of community-based activities such as attending summer fairs to speak to people about careers in social work.

Cllr Iain Taylor added that foundation apprenticeships and the ‘developing the young workforce’ approach could help bring young people into the industry.

Thanking Leigh and others within the service for their work, Cllr Stirling also praised the wider workforce.

“They go above and beyond on a daily basis in some very testing times and I do think the professionalism of social work is long overdue to be elevated and recognised … on a national basis,” she said.

The committee went on to acknowledge the level of investment in children and adult social work services for the residents of Aberdeenshire, and the commitment of social work staff in the consistent delivery of high-performing services. Councillors also commended the Chief Social Work officer and staff.

Committee hears of efforts to improve the mental health of Aberdeenshire residents

The work of the Aberdeenshire Health and Social Care Partnership, Aberdeenshire Council and other key partners to support mental health and wellbeing in Aberdeenshire was outlined to the committee.

Jeff Shaw, Interim Partnership Manager within the Aberdeenshire Health and Social Care Partnership, highlighted some of activities that are currently under way.

He talked of the ‘golden thread’ throughout committee discussions around tackling the impacts of trauma, stress, anxiety, and reaction to life events, adding that mental health services work hard to ensure that ‘trauma awareness’ is embedded in all activities.

Jeff said that in trying to meet a broad range of needs across all ages, mental health services try to be as accommodating as possible for what is a complex subject matter whereby individuals can require support on multiple occasions.

It is important for individuals to feel empowered to find a solution that suits them best, and that services strive to ensure the experiences of patients, services users, carers, family members and staff are used to develop supportive services.

Responding to a query from Cllr Joji about the impact of waiting times on individuals, Mental Health and Learning Disability Service Manager Vicky Henderson spoke of the establishment of primary care mental health hubs and their ‘one door’ ethos.

Vicky said the hubs will provide access to a wide range of support for people of all ages, including primary care practitioners, secondary care colleagues, primary care psychology teams, substance misuse colleagues, and partner organisations. This means that anybody requiring support will be able to access it in one location, hopefully leading to a reduction in waiting times.

The committee went on to congratulate the mental health teams for the work being done, and called for update reports to come back before the committee at appropriate intervals.

Other matters

  • Cllrs Baillie, Evison, Power, Reynolds, and Stirling have been appointed to the council’s Rent Strategy Member Officer Working Group. Three further administration members will also join the group in due course.
  • The committee noted a response provide by Aberdeenshire Council regarding a review of Police Scotland’s Joint Strategic Police Plan for 2020-23 that was carried out by Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority.
  • Aberdeenshire Council’s response to a Scottish Government call for views on the National Care (Scotland) Bill was noted, having already been submitted.

The full public reports considered by the committee can be found on the Aberdeenshire Council website.

Video recordings of the session can be found via the following links:

Morning session:
Afternoon session: