To receive any written or verbal questions from Members under Standing Order 12.
16/21 – ACCOUNTABILITY OF THE EXECUTIVE AND COMMITTEE CHAIRS: The Mayor advised that in accordance with Standing Order 12(9) three written questions had been received and which would, in accordance with the Standing Order, be dealt with as the first questions under this item. He would then invite verbal questions of the Executive Members and Committee Chairs from other Members of the Council.
As required under Standing Order 12, the Leader and Cabinet Members submitted details of their primary portfolio objectives for 2021/22 as referred to at Minute 21/21 and the Mayor also invited questions in respect of the objectives.
How many empty properties in the District are the officers within his department monitoring, and how many empty properties have been brought back into use as homes in the last 2 years.
The Empty Homes Officer post became full time, having previously been a part time role, in March 2019. At that time, there were 911 empty properties in the district in the total, 686 of which had been empty for six months plus. These comprised:
461 empty for six months - two years
130 empty for two years - five years
37 empty for five years - ten years
32 empty for ten years plus
The Empty Homes Officer monitors all homes empty for six months plus and prioritises these homes for action. The majority of empty homes will come and go with the ebb and flow of the housing market, certainly those empty for up to six months (transactional voids). Many of the homes empty for six months to two years too will be undergoing refurbishment or conversion.
Homes empty for two years or more are defined as the ‘problematic empties’, i.e. those that typically have more complex reasons for being empty. A council tax premium is applied at two years plus, to help encourage return to use. At the same time, the focus of the council’s Empty Homes Strategy is to target those homes that have been empty the longest, are in the greatest disrepair and/or generate the most complaint. They have the greatest impact on our communities and are often hotspots for anti-social behaviour. There is no quick fix to resolving these long term empties – but we work constantly to ensure that those that we can are brought back into use and for instance I know that we've bought two, one of which wasn't too badly dilapidated was brought up and sold off, and one of which we have bought and are taking on board in the HRA to be refurbished and let again as social rented housing.
As at 6 July 2021, the number of homes empty for 5 years or more had fallen by 27% from 95 in March 2019 to 69, including a fall of six in those empty for ten years or more, from 38 to 32. This achievement should not be underestimated and has followed direct and sustained intervention by the Empty Homes Officer. I think it emphasizes that our strategy is working and that people who are leaving homes in such a state or choose to leave homes in such a state are getting the message that we do monitor and that we are prepared to take enforcement action where necessary. I'm also aware that these figures will have changed particularly over the last few months and I will ask the Empty Homes Officer to give you an update and provide you with the updated figures.
As Council has not met since April, would the Cabinet Member take this Opportunity to fully brief Councillors on the decision making process surrounding the installation - and subsequent removal - in May, of Plastic Grass in various locations across Harrogate Town Centre, which attracted both negative Media attention for the Town & Council, as well as substantial public protest and petitions? In his opinion, what are the lessons to be learned from this sorry saga?
The raised planters in the centre of Harrogate had been the subject of numerous complaints over the years and the surfacing was a way of making them look tidy and controlling weeds whist ensuring the trees planted in them continued to thrive. As the press release issued at the time stated, we got things wrong and quickly removed the artificial grass when we realised the public didn’t support this approach.
The situation showed the passion local people have for the Harrogate town centre as well as concerns for the environment and biodiversity. Moving forward we will ensure we consider this in changes to these areas and also look for new and innovative ways to include more environmental measures and biodiversity support within our town centres.
As a supplementary question Councillor Aldred asked the Cabinet Member to comment on the Council’s understanding of horticulture, consultation or partnership. The Cabinet Member responded that the surface was designed to keep weeds under control, but was moved quickly in response to the public reaction. They were keen to try new ideas and move forward.
Could you please provide the Council with an update on the position of Starbeck Baths and give a firm date for its re-opening to the public.
In asking the question Councillor Broadbank noted that a response had largely been provided earlier in the meeting under public questions, but he was particularly interested in the condition of the building.
Thank you for the question Councillor Broadbank. It repeats a previous question but there is a slight difference. You will have received a press release today outlining our position and I’m pleased to announce Knaresborough swimming pool will be open from next Monday the 12th of July and that Starbeck baths will open from the 19th of July, the following Monday if social distancing restrictions are lifted. I've explained in my previous response to Mr Watts about recruitment and I would like to reassure you that we're doing everything we can to fill those roles. We also plan on creating a balanced timetable between all our facilities so that we can operate safely and offer everyone across the Harrogate district the opportunity to go and swim. These temporary timetables will be publicized and updated as the situation changes and resources allow to give our customers the best opportunity to plan their visits. With regard to the building, yes the building has been maintained and looked after during this closed period. It is ready to open as soon as government restrictions allow.
In response to a supplementary question from Councillor Broadbank, the Cabinet Member advised that Councillors were informed of the reopening dates by way of the press release that afternoon.
In response to a question from Councillor Tom Watson on replacement of lighting columns in Summerbridge the Cabinet Member for Housing and Property agreed to take the matter up and ensure action was taken.
In response to questions from Councillor Pat Marsh, the Leader confirmed that press releases are sent to Councillors at the same time as they are sent to the press. The Leader agreed to follow up on provision to Councillors of information on senior managers who had recently left the Council and contact details for their replacements.
The Leader asked the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Commission if he knew how an account of an item at the informal Commission meeting to consider the work programme had been made available on Twitter. The Chair of the Commission advised that the Vice-Chair had confirmed that the source was not one of the Conservative Commission members and he agreed to speak to the Liberal Democrat members of the Commission on this matter.
In response to a question from Councillor Pauline McHardy, the Cabinet Member for the Environment, Waste Reduction and Recycling confirmed that he would be happy meet the Councillor at Ripon Cemetery for an on-site discussion about maintenance at the cemetery.