Questions from Mr. James Steel 26th October 2022

Prior to the meeting James Steel submitted a number of written questions [in bold type here below] to the Clerk. Her written commentary is given in plain type and Antony Evans’s responses and questions to that are in italic script.

Q1 Can you confirm if and why residents in Nailsea pay such a large amount more per resident in precept tax and staff costs in comparison to Clevedon, Backwell, Wraxall & Failand and Tickenham?

When comparing Councils there are factors which need to be borne in mind for example what facilities a council has and what are its costs to run those facilities. Also, what functions does the council carry out. When comparing staffing costs, a similar calculation must be applied, how many staff are there on a council? What are their working hours and their spinal column point? The salary banding level for staff is based on a defined national bench marking process which takes into account, the size, the functions and number of staff a council has. It also takes into account whether the staff have a formal Local Government qualification. Precepts are based on the number of electors, which can vary enormously from number of residents or population size, due to the varying number of non- council tax payers such as benefit claimants, students etc., within the parish.

The Town Council has been advised by Avon Local Councils Association that precept figure needs to be expressed as Band D (property) tax rate for comparison purposes, not pounds per resident. They go on to say that there are many variances in the services local councils provide in the community, with the money they precept for and looking at the percentage of precept to staff costs ratio is not helpful as in many smaller councils the staff cost is almost 100% of precept income. Also, in the larger council’s services cannot be provided without the staff to provide them.

“This commentary [from the Clerk] seems to be more of a response rather than an exact answer. Extrapolating from the response in relation to the precise question, can it therefore be assumed that Nailsea has more facilities, and more staff that are more expensive than our neighbours, and that our functions and services are more numerous and more effective? To what extent can this be effectively demonstrated to our electors? If so, this could have taken place through the promised spread for June in the North Somerset Times (as carried out by our neighbours in April.)

Even so it still leaves unanswered exactly why then does Nailsea have the 5th highest band D precept in the district only exceeded by Weston-super-Mare, Bleadon, Wrington and Hutton (see attached analysis, data taken from North Somerset Council’s website).  But if we want to link directly to James’s questions, accepting albeit that the councils he cites are different from Nailsea, Nailsea’s Band D Parish Precept is 34% higher than Backwell’s, 92% higher than Clevedon’s, 130% higher than Wraxall and Failand’s, and a whopping 351% higher than Tickenham’s.”

Q2  The website advises that an important aspect of considering value for money is to make comparisons with other councils. Have Nailsea Town Council done this recently and could you provide a copy of the last results?

We would be grateful if you could direct the council to the section on which advises about making comparisons with other councils, we are not aware of this. Nailsea Town Council does look at the Precept figures set by the other 3 Towns and the larger villages based in North Somerset.

We have compared the audited accounts for the last 5 years for Nailsea, Clevedon, Portishead and Weston Town Councils.

Council                                 Nailsea          Clevedon      Portishead   Weston

2017/2018     Precept          £457,606       £339,300       £259,556       £1,685,637

2017/2018     Staffing          £161,293       £79,443         £145,383       £737,981

2021/2022     Precept          £525,040       £372,761       £775,290       £2,587,982

2021/2022     Staffing          £225,584       £111,062       £350,837       £985,990

% Precept increase             14.7%             9.8%               198.7%          53%

% Staffing increase             39.8%             39.8%             141%              33%

We also look at the data provided by the National Association of Local Councils, which we can provide. Comparison work is carried out on a semi regular basis with regard to room hire fees and allotment rents.

““Best value for money is defined [by HMG Dept. of Finance] as the most advantageous combination of cost, quality and sustainability to meet customer requirements.” This is difficult to prove via statistical grids and we all know that statistics can be interpreted to demonstrate any theory you like depending on any number of factors from starting points to inclusions or exclusions etc etc. The grid the Clerk provides features Portishead’s apparent increase, but, in the interests of balance, I will mention that the back story to this is, as evident from that Council’s own papers, that they were recovering from a well publicised turbulent time which also impacted on its finances.

For a simpler soul like me, and in the interests of balance, I find this more straightforward and immediate Band D rate annual comparison more telling:-

Town              Population   2021 rate       2022 rate       % increase

Nailsea          15,500            85.00              91.43              7.5%                                      

Portishead     25,000            75.40              79.17              5%

Clevedon       21,000            47.67              47.67              0%

Q3. Why have the staff costs risen so dramatically over the past 4 years?

Without going into individual employees details the following points should be noted when looking at staffing costs. Comparing our Staffing costs to our neighbouring Town Councils they do not appear to have risen dramatically.

·  Three new posts have been created, one of which involved switching from the use of an external contractor to employing a full time member of staff. Social media is becoming an increasingly import aspect of Town Council work and this has led to the recruitment of a Comms and Media Officer. The Council also wishes to expand the bookings at the Tithe Barn and has created a Weddings and Events Officer to attract more bookings.

·  The number of hours which our facilities are now available to the public has increased greatly, particularly at No.65

·  A number of roles have gone from part time to full time

·  Several part-time posts have increased their hours to take account of an increased workload, including an expansion of the area covered by the Town Orderly.

·  Staff have received incremental spinal column rises in line with their contracts, although this aspect does not affect all staff

·  A number of staff have or will receive negotiated pay rises, agreed by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services and this aspect is meant to mitigate against cost of living rises

·  Finally, the Avon Pension fund actuaries spotted a shortfall in the Council’s pension fund pot which has now been corrected and there has been a 1.25% National Insurance rise.

“I am guessing that the savings made by not renewing an external contract, the reduction in costs of running 65 now Mr Morrell has left having previously already gone part-time could be set against staff costs increases to represent the difference more realistically. I am guessing that annual increments and pay rises for some of the staff is a matter common to all councils. Will the Council be doing a cost (increase) benefits analysis of additional staffing as part of its broader assessment of value for money? I guess this would sit generally speaking within the realm of due diligence and fiscal responsibility to the electors especially got the forthcoming elections in May.”

Q4 Will the current plans for investing the funds from Engine Lane mean an additional staff spend and if so, will residents be expected to pay for this via additional precept tax?

This will be a decision by the Council as a whole, however it is likely that any large scale projects will require additional resource and therefore project managers could be bought in on temporary consultancy basis to facilitate any projects, this additional resource will be funded through the Engine Lane receipts.

“In the absence in a way of a direct answer to this question, and in similar vein to my follow-up to Question 3 above and leaning in to Question 5, is it known how much time the Clerk, along with the deputy clerk and the office, have spent over the last four years dealing with all matters relating to the sale of the Engine Lane site to Barratts and how much has all this cost the town? If this is not shown as a cost against Engine Lane receipts, does it effectively come out of the precept? These costs should surely also include all professional fees, costs of labour and time for the Ask Nailsea process for example, costs of the suggested temporary consultant project managers etc., etc., and all included in a separate set of accounts hypothecated to Engine Lane. Otherwise it will never be known exactly what the true absolute net financial gain the Council has made from the sale of Engine Lane. Furthermore if the Council wanted to reduce the precept, even though this would reduce the net Engine Lane receipt, then all related Engine Lane costs should be charged to that account as should all other Engine Lane related costs. Indeed it could be that if the cost by the staff had been separated out initially, the costs of running the office on general day to day council business would have been lower, and the increase in the precept over the last four years could have been considerably less with an enhanced capability therefore of the Council to demonstrate what the people of Nailsea are getting for their money.”

There was no response from councillors.

James Steel made further points much in the same vein and asked questions similarly, but he was discouraged from doing so by the Chair who felt that he had had his say. James Steel was able to continue to elaborate and Cllr. Lees made a helpful intervention to which James Steel wished to respond more fully, but the Chair drew the discussion to a close. The Chair said that the Clerk would need time to give further consideration to the points he had made. James wondered why not now as the Clerk had been in possession of his questions for some time? The Chair assured James teel that he would receive a written response in due course. Cllr. Kushner cited No. 65 as an example of what NTC does that others do not; likewise community transport and the generosity of grants given.

There was no contribution from other councillors.