10 March 2023

Committee round-up: Communities Committee 16.2.23

Updates on finance and performance across various services, a £1million fund for community resilience, and an updated charging policy for Live Life Aberdeenshire were among items discussed at February’s meeting of Aberdeenshire Council’s Communities Committee.

Councillors discuss housing finance and performance update

Head of Housing and Building Standards Rob Simpson provided an overview of the housing service’s financial position and performance between October and December last year to the committee.

He said that although tenant arrears had risen, the service continues to take a ‘person-centred’ approach to support those facing difficulties. In terms of homelessness, the service had seen a reduction in the time taken to resolve homelessness cases. There had also been some improvements in bringing properties previously unsuitable for let back into use.

The committee asked for further detail about the support provided to tenants facing arrears, arrangements about the letting of garage space, and about challenges around properties not currently suitable for let. There was also discussion about the council’s strategic housing investment plan and the aim to build 235 new properties by March 2025.

It was agreed that information on properties not currently suitable for let be provided to area committees, along with briefing notes on the council’s processes around debt collection, and homelessness. Further reports will be brought back to the committee on a regular basis.

£1million to be made to Aberdeenshire communities to support resilience

Aberdeenshire Council is to oversee the distribution of £1million of ring-fenced funding provided by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) to support community resilience.

The energy company has allocated the money to help households, families and communities to become more resilient when a major incident or emergency occurs, with a particular emphasis on those that are vulnerable.

The committee heard that a list of indicative projects had been discussed with SSEN and supported by the company, and that community resilience workshops are to take place, involving councillors, community groups and partner organisations.

There was also reference to the development of the council’s community resilience strategy, which will focus on access to information, enhancing skills and knowledge for community groups and individuals, and access to facilities and equipment, particularly for those who are vulnerable.

The aim is to help communities become more resilient in the first 24-72 hours of an emergency while relief efforts are being co-ordinated. Part of this will involve the development of emergency packs that could be distributed when an emergency occurs.

Welcoming the funding, councillors called for the development of ‘offline solutions’ that can support communities when issues like severe whether lead to a loss of power, internet and/or mobile signal.

Committee chair Cllr Anne Stirling stressed the importance of involving community planning teams in community resilience efforts and was told how work is already underway to incorporate the council’s place strategy aims.

Discussions are under way with community learning and development colleagues to identify hard to reach vulnerable people in communities, and a project officer role has been created to support resilience efforts.

It was agreed that Aberdeenshire Council’s six area committees will receive six-monthly reports with updates on projects that have received funding from the scheme in their areas.

Police Scotland performance update considered

An update on Police Scotland performance between April and September last year was brought before the committee.

The update was provided by Chief Superintendent Graeme Mackie, who spoke of key activities over the period, including support provided following the death of Her Majesty the Queen.

Ch Supt Mackie told the committee that staff levels have remained relatively consistent, with a large number of probationers and junior staff.

The force saw a decrease in complaints over the period, with an overall 67% satisfaction rate from those who have used police services. Detection rates also remained relatively stable.

Assault figures were below average, as were the number of housebreakings, and there was also a downturn in vehicle crime. With eight road fatalities over the period, the force has been looking at influencing driver behaviour, including an event for young drivers. There is also a focus on the increasing number of older drivers.

Councillors expressed concern about a rise in sexual crime, with reference being made to the work to tackle violence against women and girls. A workshop for councillors to explore the issue is being organised, involving Rape Crisis Grampian.

It was agreed that a report should be brought to a future meeting of the committee on the theme of mental health and wellbeing issued faced by police when dealing with the public. Police Scotland is also to arrange a visit for committee members to its call centre in Dundee.

Further Police Scotland updates will be brought before the committee on a quarterly basis.

Live Life Aberdeenshire finance and performance discussed

The committee heard about customer activity and service delivery within Live Life Aberdeenshire (LLA) from April to December last year.

The committee was told that the use of the online platform PressReader by customers to access newspapers and magazines had seen a large increase and illustrated the changing way customers are accessing library services. The ‘click and collect’ service for borrowing books is also proving popular.

Paid memberships for LLA were increasing over the period, although still below pre-Covid-19 levels. Pressure on budgets due to pay awards, overtime costs and a rise in energy fees were highlighted.

There was praise for the ‘Seafit’ initiative, a UK-wide joint initiative run by the Fishermen’s Mission and Seafarer’s Hospital Society. The programme is due to continue for the next three years.

Cllr Alison Evison called for more information to support scrutiny, particularly around under-represented groups and geographic trends. In reply, Head of Communities, Wellbeing & Partnership Avril Nicol said the service was looking to develop a good balance of financial and non-information for councillors to consider.

Questions were also asked around music services and the work of the Youth Music Initiative, and of the public exhibition of the historic Book of Deer in Aberdeen. It was agreed that a briefing note on the Book of Deer should be prepared for the committee.

In a separate report, the committee was told of the work being undertaken to further develop LLA’s climate action plan, including a number of approaches being taking to help reduce carbon emissions within the service.

Live Life Aberdeenshire charging policy supported

A revised charging policy for services provided by Live Life Aberdeenshire was approved.

The committee was told the policy covered inflationary increases for 2023/24 and would also bring all charges up to date and in line with Education & Children’s Services.

The work of a member officer working group to look at membership schemes and some aspects of pricing was mentioned, with new membership schemes anticipated later this year.

A related report was previously considered by the council’s Education & Children’s Services Committee.

Recognising the potential impact of rising fees, the increases will be offset with a range of targeted promotions, councillors were told.

Other incentives include the complimentary use of facilities for Live Life Essentials members, plus a study leave deal at the end of March to allow those aged 14-18 to access LLA activities while preparing for exams to support their mental and physical health at a reduced cost.

Promotions will also include an Easter holiday deal for 8–17-year-olds, while a Valentine’s Day deal overing 12 session for £12 was used by just under 1,500 people.

The committee noted the position regarding ongoing joint pricing and the lettings review across Education & Children’s Services and agreed to revise the majority of LLA charges by 5.9% from April 1 this year.

It was also agreed to harmonise all room bookings and lettings charges within Education services where they currently differ, which in some cases will lead to increases of up to 9.3%.

In a separate report, councillors agreed to adopt LLA’s business plan for 2023-28, along with actions in the plan for the coming year. Quarterly performance reports will be brought before the committee for consideration.

Other matters

Service audits: The outcome of an audit of the Aberdeenshire Health & Social Care Partnership on the theme of ‘following the public pound’ was brought before the committee. Members were told of the work undertaken to ensure robust procedures in a number of areas. It was agreed that the update provided the committee with sufficient assurances and that a report should be brought back in 12 months for consideration. A decision on the outcome of a separate audit of the Aberdeenshire Alcohol and Drug Partnership’s governance arrangements has been deferred until the committee’s meeting on March 30.
Local Police Plans: It was noted that a response to a consultation about Police Scotland’s Local Police Plans for 2023-2026 had been submitted.

To view the full public recording of the committee and the associated public committee reports can be found on the Aberdeenshire Council website.