Agenda item

General questions

The Leader, or his nominee, to answer questions from Councillors on matters affecting the Borough, in accordance with Standing Order 15.


The Mayor reported that four general questions had been received, in accordance with Standing Order 15, from Councillors M. Beecher, H. Harvey and O. Rybinski.


1.            Question from Councillor Malcolm Beecher


"Could the Leader or Chair of the Audit Committee, advise what is the current market value of Spelthorne's commercial property portfolio?"


Response from the Leader


“The Council’s investment assets are revalued every year in line with proper accounting practice. The assets are currently being revalued by independent valuers to confirm a valuation as at 31 March 2022 for the 2021-22 Accounts. This process has not yet been completed. So, the latest valuation is as per the Statement of Accounts for the Council published for 2020-21, which totals £939.75 million”


2.            Question from Councillor Helen Harvey


“Broken down by ward and out of ward/borough, please can you identify the amount of staff time, and cost of that time (appreciating this might be an estimate), which has been dedicated to answering questions from members of the public about the Council’s developments across the borough and is this impacting on service delivery in any areas?”


Response from the Leader


“Without having a time recording system in place it is difficult to arrive at a definitive figure, therefore officers have reviewed a number of options and using established standard costing methodology has arrived at an estimate cost of £600 per question submitted to Council. Shown below are the number of questions by ward multiplied by the standard costs per question.”


Taking into account the above caveat about estimation, and having reviewed all 83 questions from members of the public received at Council meetings in the current and the last municipal year, we have identified 13 questions directly relating to the Council’s developments. With a total cost of responding of £7,900. This is broken down as follows:


Sunbury Common

3 questions at a cost of £1.8k


6 questions at a cost of £3.7k

Non-ward specific

4 questions at a cost of £2.4k




In addition to the questions submitted to Council which have been estimated above, officers have undertaken an assessment of the time spent and costs of responding to general correspondence using a similar standard methodology.  Please note that only records relating to Staines Ward could be located. 



Number of pieces of correspondence/discussions





489.5 hours


Therefore the total for all questions is £66,640.


In accordance with Standing Order 14.3, Councillor H. Harvey asked the following supplementary question:


Considering the disappointing and challenged budget projected deficit gaps for the next few years, I find it shocking as I am sure many of our residents will be, to learn of the level of officers’ time estimated at £58,000, and over £66,000 in total, which has been spent in answering questions raised by persons or person residing outside our borough. Indeed in the first part of this meeting, which we held a couple of weeks ago, we dedicated 17 minutes in answering questions from a person not resident in this borough. In view of this can the Chair of the Corporate Policy and Resources Committee agree to add to the forward plan an action to review the comments, complaints and compliments policy to ensure it is fit for purpose and does not unduly take up officers time over and above that which is reasonable, balanced and fair and furthermore does not prevent officers from their other job responsibilities to the detriment of the smooth running and effective running of the Council.


Response from the Leader of the Council


“I will undertake to consult with the Monitoring Officer to establish what are the appropriate obligations of the Council in responding to questions and to take forward consideration of whether or not alternations are required to the processes we have got”


3.            Question from Councillor Olivia Rybinski


“As the Deputy Chair of O&S during the previous Boughtflower strong leader model administration, I have continued to take a particular interest in transparency and scrutiny of the business of the council and during the past months, have become increasingly concerned with the apparent failure of each committee to scrutinise their own decisions and also the leader and deputy leader seemingly acting outside their remit.


I recall that during the full council debate on the introduction of the committee system, Cllr Leighton, the then long-standing Chair of O&S, raised her concern over the risk to the authority of no longer having an O&S committee. Apparently, it was the decision of the committee system working group to no longer have an O&S committee!


In view of the clear ongoing need for an O&S committee function does the leader think it was a mistake to lose an O&S committee and will he be recommending in the upcoming review of the committee system, that such a committee be formed or added to the role of another committee such as Administration, as there is at our neighbour at Runnymede council?”


Response from the Leader


“Thank you, Councillor Rybinski, for your continued interest in ensuring that we have effective governance at Spelthorne.  The Committee System Working Group, which has representatives from all groups, and representation from independent members, is in the process of reviewing the current committee structure.  Please do pass any suggestions that you may have for the working group’s consideration to your group’s representative who is Councillor Ian Harvey.  The working group will then review suggestions, along with the results of the recent survey, before making its recommendations to Council, via the Standards Committee, in due course.


My personal opinion on this subject is that some form of scrutiny committee would be a good idea.  There are however some complex issues that would need to be addressed, for example who could serve on the committee and what outcomes would be available. I would not want to see the creation of a new committee that could simply overrule decisions of a Service Committee.  It is important that we encourage all committees to make decisions after a detailed and rigorous review of the options.”


4.            Question from Councillor Helen Harvey


“During the last full council meeting on 9th December 2021, I asked the leader a formal question regarding how was the £23m Capital funding gap for the new leisure centre going to be met? This was a concern that I had previously raised to the former cabinet portfolio holder Cllr Attewell during the council meeting (and additionally in part 2) on the new replacement leisure centre proposal 22 October 2020.


GetSurrey gave an incisive report on 10th December on the issue, highlighting the weak and vague answer provided by the leader and failure to provide a credible financial solution to meet such a significant estimated gap of £750k per year for the revenue budget, on an ongoing sustainable basis.


My follow-on question was: - ‘Are you confident that this chamber should proceed with this state-of-the-art leisure centre, when it appears to me that this answer does not project far enough into the future as to how the gap will be closed?’


In reply, Cllr Nichols informed me that I would be provided with a written answer. On 2nd January 2022, I wrote to remind him that members were yet to be furnished with that answer. On 12th January Cllr Nichols replied to me saying that he had a draft response but was just checking some things with Finance.


I have still not yet received this answer and it’s now over 2 months and today is the deadline for submitting questions for the next Full Council. Due to this failure, I am now compelled to ask the following additional question irrespective of whether Cllr Nichols retrospectively sends me the answer before next weeks’ full council meeting:-


One wonders if there is something been hidden. Why have I and members, not been provided with a clear and unambiguous financial plan for how this huge funding gap will be met on a long term and sustainable basis and since the tender for the build has not yet been agreed, will you give an undertaking to provide members with a detailed, transparent and sustainable financial plan covering the short term up to 5 years, 6-20 years and 20-50 as to how this gap is to be met before you proceed to enter into the build contract?”


Response from the Leader


Thank you for your question Councillor Harvey.


I wish to start by offering a sincere apology to Cllr Harvey for failing to answer her supplementary question.  I would assure her that this is the consequence of a mistake on my part, and that I never intended to avoid answering her question or to hide anything.  I did provide what I believed to be an answer, but which was in fact the answer to the original question at the Council meeting on 9th December.


The circumstances are best explained by providing a chronology of events.


9th Dec

Cllr Harvey asked a supplementary question at the Council meeting and a written reply was promised.

2nd Jan

Cllr Harvey sent an email chasing a reply to her supplementary question.
I wished to check exactly what the question was and the draft minutes of the Council meeting were not yet available on the website.

3rd Jan

I wrote to Committee Services asking for confirmation of the wording of the supplementary question. 

3rd Jan

The reply was ‘Does the Leader feel confident that this Chamber should proceed with this state of the art Leisure Centre when it appears to me that this answer does not project far enough into the future as to how the gap will be closed ongoing’.

3rd Jan

I further asked if a minute of the verbal reply I gave at the time existed.

4th Jan

A draft minute was provided. 

This was in fact the answer to original question and not the supplementary.

I did not have a copy of the answer I read out at the Council meeting and mistook the minute provide for an answer to the supplementary.  I thought that it did address the supplementary question, albeit in a roundabout way. 

I should have been more careful in my checking.

12th Jan

I confirmed with the officer who had written the answer that it was still correct.  I did not indicate that I thought this was the answer to the supplementary, and I assumed this was understood.

12th Jan

I wrote to Cllr Harvey saying I was having the response checked.

12th Jan

The response was confirmed by the officer.

16th Jan

I sent the response to Cllr Harvey.
I have received no subsequent communication on this matter.



There was no attempt to hide anything.  The failure to provide a proper answer was the result of a misunderstanding on my part.


Once again I sincerely apologise for failing to provide the written answer as promised.


I will now directly address the substance of your original supplementary question.


Appendix 1 to February’s Detailed Budget report projects indicative balanced Budget figures forwards to 2025/26 inclusive, with a budget surplus of £290k in 2024/25 rising to £362k in 2025/26. The last two years in the Outline Budget period, take into account an assumed £750k per annum impact on the element of the annual loan financing which will not be offset by additional income generated by the centre post completion. So, it can be seen that when we set the Budget on 24th February, given that we were showing a better than balanced budget for each of those years, we had currently closed the funding gap to cover the impact of the Leisure centre funding.


In Part II of the later Council meeting this evening, we will be discussing the impact of construction cost inflation on the scheme. Councillors will see in that debate that despite allowing for very significant cost inflation in the build cost and also allowing for an uplift in Public Works Loan Board long term rates of fifty basis points, we are still projecting, other assumptions remaining unchanged, an overall Council budget surplus of £20k in 2024-25 rising to £90k in 2025/26. Clearly over the next few years the Council, as indeed all organisations, will be facing pressures across a range of expenditure categories, however we have time to put in place measures to mitigate those pressures. Officers will be commencing in April consideration of strategies to offset those pressures.


In the context of rising energy costs the business case for investing in a low carbon leisure centre with Passivhaus design is becoming ever stronger. We also have feedback from across the country that it is newly built leisure facilities which are bouncing back the strongest in terms of their income streams post the COVID-19 lockdowns.


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