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SCRUTINY COMMITTEE (ECONOMY AND ENVIRONMENT)

 

Minutes of an Extraordinary meeting held on 9th April, 2013.

 

Present:  Councillor R.L. Traherne (Chairman); Councillor Mrs. A.J. Moore (Vice-Chairman), Councillors P.J. Clarke, G.A. Cox, Mrs. C.L. Curtis, Mrs. P. Drake, P.G. King, A.G. Powell and C.J. Williams.

 

 

1029   APOLOGY FOR ABSENCE -

 

This was received from Councillor E. Hacker.

 

 

1030   DECLARATIONS OF INTEREST -

 

No declarations were received.

 

 

1031   CHANGING ECONOMIC CIRCUMSTANCES: SUPPORTING BUSINESSES IN THE LOCAL ECONOMY (CALL FOR EVIDENCE) (DDS) -

 

The purpose of the report was to seek evidence from various bodies in order to assist the Council in considering ways to mitigate the effects of the economic downturn on local business.  Similar exercises had been held over previous years and since the local government elections in 2012 the Scrutiny Committee had recommended that the exercises be continued in order to explore ways to aid local businesses.  Cabinet, in 2012, had also considered and agreed a report regarding a number of business liaison activities which outlined the types of activities that would take place as well as acknowledging that on an annual basis a meeting would be held by the Scrutiny Committee to consider the economic situation and business issues.  As a result, invitations had been extended to a number of organisations and representatives who were present at the meeting.  The Chairman stated that he would call the representatives in accordance with the list of attendees at Appendix 1 to the report.

 

John Moisan, representative from Llantwit Major Chamber of Trade referred to the retail market in the area being buoyant but that with regard to the sales market lending had eased.  The service areas in the area were doing really well, for example fast food outlets, and he sought news of progress in relation to the St. Athan development where he requested if possible if the development could assist with the development of the town.  With regard to small business rates, he urged the Council to maintain the rates beyond 2014 as this would support local businesses. He had also had discussions with the local town council regarding opportunities to increase footfall.  He asked that town centre managers be reinstated to assist in these endeavours and referred to regular meetings that had been held in the past although they no longer take place he requested that they be reinstated. 

 

Antony Slaughter, Penarth Greening advised that Penarth Greening was a community organisation which focused on building resilience and referred to a recent survey in the Penarth Times regarding the current recession and how it was affecting local shops.  Within Penarth shopkeepers had recognised that there are other ways of doing things and he urged the Vale of Glamorgan Council to consider and recognise what aspects made a place important.  He also urged the Authority to listen to the grassroots in the area and to the ideas that they often provided.  Following a survey at the recent food festival, 90% of the public were in favour of a market with over 80% of retailers saying they could see a benefit.  He stressed that the nature of such a market should be considered similarly as the one held at Riverside in Cardiff.  He also referred to sustainable transport and to ensuring that there were better links, in particular in making a circular bus route more viable.  Other issues were to ensure and encourage other transport links to enable people to visit Penarth via the Barrage.  In referring to recent suggestions that car parking charges should be agreed local businesses had felt that this would be a disaster for the area and could 'kill local businesses'.  He stressed that these were the main issues facing the retailers and he was speaking on behalf of a number of them in the area.

 

Maria Gentile, Paul Gentile Jewellers stated that the business had faced its most difficult time in 35 years and presently she could see no end to it.  The firm was also in the process of cutting staffing hours, something that had never happened in all the years the shop had been open. From her point of view it was to make Barry a more vibrant place in order to attract more people.  She suggested taking away the one way system and providing short term parking on either side, to advertise events on the Square, provide areas with benches for people to be able to relax when needed and to allow people to place tables and chairs outside their dining areas to attract clients.  She also urged the Council to 'cap' the number of charity shops that were allowed to be opened and offer incentives to new businesses to set up.  There were a number of premises that were empty and she suggested the Council meet with the owners to ascertain ideas of ways of filling the properties.  Clever advertising was also a good way to hide some of the unoccupied shops.  The establishment of an indoor market with stalls was also suggested.  In conclusion she stated that Barry had a lot to offer there was a busy market, a good bus service, and a large catchment of people living within the town and the Authority which businesses needed to capitalise upon. 

 

Ian Hunt, Filco Foods stated that they had also had a particularly difficult trading year and turnover had flat lined.  At the end of 2011 the company had reinvested in the business and it was envisaged that the investment would assist the company in returning to the days when turnover was pretty good, i.e. in 2008.  He was also a landlord with commercial properties and very recently had identified a 100% let.  This was good news and very encouraging, but he also suggested that some 'pop up shops' be encouraged to be established which would assist the vitality of the town and that new businesses be given  the opportunity to set up with no charges for approximately 3 to 6 months in order for interest to be gained.  In referring to the expansion of the airport, he urged the Vale to continue to work in promoting the importance of the airport and its links to all areas. 

 

Graham Morgan, South Wales Chamber of Trade referred in general to his business and that the product was doing well outside Wales, on a regional basis it was doing moderately well but on a local basis there was considerable pressure.   In his view strong leadership was essential and also the use of social networking should be considered.  He saw the Local Authority as a key collaborator between the private sector and the academia, the airport as crucial to the area with the need to attract inward tourism.  He also considered that In order to encourage businesses to set up in the Vale greater transport links were required. 

 

Iestyn Davies, The Federation of Small Businesses advised that the retail sector was a constant feature and always on the agenda of the organisation.  A number of surveys had been undertaken which had identified that businesses were slightly more confident than previously although there remained a considerable number of global challenges. In referring to the question what could the Vale do to assist, he stated that Members needed to be clear about the challenges before them, to embrace them and to ensure that every aspect of the Local Authority’s work was suited to the sustainable growth agenda.  A vision for economic growth was required and education and skills needed to ensure that they best fit the product.  He suggested that secondary and primary schools could also participate in the agenda for the area and that the Vale was an attractive place to live, although aware that the business rate was not in the domain of the Local Authority to give, he considered that the Authority needed to work with the Federation of Small Businesses in order to provide a pressure group campaign on such rates.  He also suggested that Local Authorities could also be involved in micro finance, for example they could offer 'soft loans' and investment funds in order to try to assist and support the capacity of business.  He considered that previous town centre managers understood the issues that were raised and they had been an important part of economic growth. 

 

Stephen Leeke, Vale and Hensol Castle Resort. advised that he was the Vice-Chair of the Cardiff Hoteliers Sector and also advised the Welsh Government on its tourism strategy.  He stated that the hospitality industry was struggling, particularly in the mid week as demand was low.  He referred to the positive investments that had been made at the Vale Resort to date which had currently seen considerable growth and that the company was doing well following the recent visits of the football and rugby teams.  He referred to the airport as being a 'big driver' and stated that in his opinion Local Authorities needed to consider this as a priority and ensure that they took an important role in negotiations and discussions.  He however informed Members that a number of people continued to view the Vale as part of the Cardiff area and therefore advised that there needed to be cross Council communication and co-operation.  In referring to the planning process he stated that it was fairly arduous and he urged the Council to consider making the process quicker if possible for businesses as when considering investment opportunities they required urgent turnaround. 

 

Peter Cole, Capital Regional Tourism.  Mr. Cole also served on the Airport and St. Athan Board and referred to a number of snapshot surveys that had been undertaken with local businesses with one key issue being identified as to the uncertainty by owners of bookings.  He referred to the considerable loss of accommodation stock over the Vale i.e. 11% and was fully aware that the region was more dependent on day visits. This he stated could also be exacerbated by a couple of bad summers which could see a further decrease.  He acknowledged the financial situation the Council was in but considered that to assist tourism more promotional work was required and referred in particular to the need to promote the Enterprise Zone, the Docks and the Airport.  He referred to the good partnership work that was taking place in the rural Vale on regeneration projects and that the Council was embracing tourism in a very proactive manner when it came to planning policy and planning decisions and that the planning and tourism functions of the Council were now aligned for the benefit of visitor facilities. He stressed the need to work together for the future under the collaboration agenda and the need to  work in partnership in particular with its neighbour Cardiff and with Swansea Bay Port Authority.

 

Brian Austin, Dow Corning Ltd., advised that recently the Dow Corning organisation had had a workforce reduction and in his opinion the next 12 months would be challenging.  Although the Barry site was 'running well' there was a huge impact on profits and they would have to reduce costs.  In response to the question of 'What could the Vale do' he advised that his job was to continue investment on the Dow Corning plant.  He referred to the planning process and requested that the obstacles that were in place be reconsidered in order to assist firms during the planning process.  He referred to the need for the firm and the Council to work closely with schools and colleges to ensure that young people were provided with advice and opportunities as it was apparent that young people were not going into his particular field. 

 

Richard Keogh, Persimmon Homes, stated that the firm aimed to produce around 200,000 homes and due to the current economic climate their organisation was looking at the number of incentives, which included part exchange.  In referring to the LDP he stated that the process took far too long and the Council needed to provide businesses with flexibility and needed to adapt to change.

 

Paul Haley, Pride in Barry, referred to the number of opportunities that were being provided in the Vale, in particular he referred to the new hotel at the Waterfront, the Marina and how the Marina could be developed to increase footfall.   Many present also thought that the Council should capitalise on Cardiff City reaching the Premiership and how this could be achieved.  In his view activities on the waterfront could also increase footfall and he requested the food sector be also kept in the loop.  He concluded by stating that there still remained optimism and through regeneration funding things were 'getting better'.  He referred to the £30m. grant funding that the Council could apply to and considered that all organisations should make applications for convincing bids and suggested that procedures be established to assist businesses in how they can access funding. 

 

Robin Williams, Asbri Planning Ltd.  Mr. Williams, Planning Consultant, advised that his business had been steady over the previous years and although the planning system was not getting any easier with the number of regulations in place he considered that planning as a sector was 'doing rather well.' However with regard to the planning process he was also of the view that this took a considerable amount of time and if the Council could speed up the process this would be welcomed. He referred to another Local Authority that in his view had speeded up their process.

 

Katy Chamberlain from Business in Focus informed Committee that the organisation had advised over 500 businesses that had started up over the last 9 months and had assisted more than 227 businesses in South Wales. In referring to the current financial situation being one of the toughest times ahead of her, she referred to the differences between the financial incentives provided to Cardiff and the Vale which differed considerably to other local authorities in South Wales.  In response to the question of what the Vale could do, she stated that the organisation worked well with a number of councils, which included the Vale.  She alluded to the excellent level of partnership working with the Council and c-operation with the Economic Development Team.  In her opinion further cross-Council collaboration could also be important for businesses.

 

Roger Thomas, Cooke and Arkwright, stated that turnover for his company was down by 25%.  They were a multi disciplinary business and had taken the view not to make redundancies other than those through natural wastage.  He referred to the fact that every sector of the business was kept under review, but the future looked bleak.  With regard to how the Vale could help, he referred to the planning system and the need to fast track planning applications.  He stated that, in his view Council officers deliberately took a long time to determine applications in order to protect their own jobs and suggested that a quick release of land would aid the economy.

 

In referring to business rates he stated that the firm had lobbied the Welsh Government on the matter and that exemptions would stimulate development.  The recent re-evaluation was due to commence in 2015 but this had been delayed by Welsh Government until 2017 therefore, in his view, meaning that the burden would last two years longer. 

 

Simon Coop, Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, advised that market conditions remained difficult which had been exacerbated by changing legislative requirements.  Welsh Government policy and democratic indicators however did point to new houses that were required and, in his view, the Vale could respond by ensuring that the LDP contained a realistic housing requirement with a need to align housing with employment growth.  The Council needed to continue to work to enhance the main town centres, emphasise their strengths and to improve access to all. 

 

David Harris, NFU Mutual, advised that trading had been difficult due to weather related issues over the last 12 months, with the last year’s harvest being one of the worst recorded over a number of years.  He referred to the invaluable work by Creative Rural Communities which should not been underestimated and thanked the Vale for their support for the Farmers Market.  He referred to the decrease in the number of dairy farms and that during the last six months the Vale’s only horticultural grower had ceased trading.  With regard to the question of what the Vale could do, he too referred to the onerous planning processes and considered that greater use of the prior application system would benefit the process.  He asked the Council to consider granting applications for second homes for farmers’ children to live on to ensure the viability of the business and he urged a strategic review of the Cattle Market in Cowbridge and that the Council consider the relevant permission for a slaughter house to be established.  He also asked the Council to consider its regulatory service and for farmers to be informed in more detail of the issues surrounding inspection and what was required. 

 

Neil Crane, Crane's Solicitors, advised that his firm was currently coping with the current situation but that it had seen a reduction as a result of the recession.  He urged the Council to promote the Vale of Glamorgan to encourage people to move to the area and to capitalise on the services that the Council provides well. 

 

Peter Hughes, Principality Building Society, referred to the fact that the company wished to have a committed presence on the high street and to keep the confidence of its stakeholders and shareholders.  They wished to remain active in communities and to the housing agenda.  He however stated that access to funding was improving and that letting activity had increased, aswell as second charge lending.  In his view people were more positive than had been previously and in referring to the Council and how it could assist business, he again referred to the onerous regulations with regard to the planning process.

 

Wayne Harvey, Deloittes, referred to the company relocating to Cardiff but that in his opinion, a number of people who had moved to live in the Vale had done so out of choice.  He referred to ensuring that young people were afforded appropriate education and skill opportunities and that the Council should assist with maximising the use of the airport by promoting its benefits together with reaffirming the positive image of the Vale being a positive place to live. 

 

Mike James, Cardiff and Vale College, advised that the College employed over 1,350 people and that the College was trying to maintain a positive view for the future. In referring to the aspirations of students he stated that they e were looking for more high quality jobs and urged the Council to support the College in developing a world class centre for education.  He also suggested that a state of the art modern centre could be built in the Waterfront and if all were committed to create inward investment then collaboration behind a major project was essential.  He asked only for the Council’s influence, support and commitment at this stage.

 

Following the representations and evidence provided Members asked what opportunities could there be for the Council to work with voluntary organisations to improve town centres with the response being that tourism promotion and rebranding were essential to assist in this process. 

 

In conclusion following the discussions further comments were also made by a number of representatives who stated that house builders may go elsewhere if they did not get an efficient service from the Council, saying no to new developments should no longer be a sustainable option, Legal Agreements were also taking too long in their opinion and the Council should be more flexible when completing Section 106 agreements.  Others commented that confidence in general across the Country in the current financial climate was having a negative impact on businesses.  However, encouraging local people to take part in their communities whether by volunteering for activities or by making a contribution to the community in some other way was considered a good way forward. 

 

The Chairman took opportunity to thank all present for their time and attendance and for the evidence provided.

 

However, in view of the lateness of the hour he advised that responses to the issues raised would be provided in a comprehensive report that would include the detailed evidence and be reported to the Scrutiny Committee and Cabinet in due course. It was subsequently

 

RECOMMENDED - T H A T the evidence gathered at the meeting and responses to issues identified be provided in a report to be submitted to the Scrutiny Committee and Cabinet in due course.

 

Reason for decision

 

To provide Members with a full report of the meeting and provide responses to the issues identified.