Agenda item

Progress of Scrutiny of Executive Decisions

To receive an oral report by the Chief Executive.

Minutes:

Members were advised that the Cabinet’s decision dated 16 February 2016 in respect of the future provision of Tourist Information / Customer First Services had been called in for scrutiny and was considered at a meeting of the Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee on 8 March.  In the absence of the Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, Councillor Jeffels, who unfortunately could not be present at this meeting, the Director, Mrs Dixon read the following statement on his behalf:

‘I would like to thank all of the persons who attended the scrutiny committee and contributed to the debate about the provision of tourist information in the Borough.

I would particularly like to thank those members of the public who took the time to attend the meeting and put forward their views with such clarity and conviction.

Cabinet will be aware that the resolution of the committee was that the Cabinet:

(i)            Reconsiders its decision in relation to the Tourist Information Centres in the Borough by marketing the Whitby and Scarborough TIC sites on the basis that part of the current Whitby site should be reserved for use by a manned TIC/Customer First facility, and a manned TIC should be retained in Scarborough;

(ii)          Carries out more widespread consultation throughout the Borough including villages in the North York Moors National Park;

(iii)         Carries out a reassessment of the statistics used in the report to enable a rigorous cost/benefit analysis of the options proposed; and

(iv)         Explores a wider range of creative options which should include encouraging local groups to develop a Community Right to Bid under the Localism Act 2011, with the necessary six month moratorium period to allow such bids to come forward.

 

This resolution was informed by a variety of views put forward both by members of this Council and members of the public who had registered to speak at that meeting. Key concerns raised were as follows:

 

1. Other options should have been considered that could be equally cost effective, but would offer a better local, face to face service as in Harrogate and Thirsk.

 

2. There was a lack of consultation with members and local communities before the officers’ report and recommendations were submitted to Cabinet for decision.

 

3. The decision was based on incomplete information and estimated statistics.  The costings did not include all the financial facts that should have been considered  

 

4. No risk assessment was carried out on the possible adverse effects on local attractions and businesses and local tourism economies.

 

Mr Charles Forgan from the Captain Cook Museum and a representative on the Yorkshire Coast Tourism Advisory Board, pointed out that over the last decade, employment in tourism in Whitby had increased by 40%, well ahead of Scarborough, other seaside towns and England generally.  He maintained that a key component of the marketing mix was a welcoming TIC in the best location, and that the rise in internet usage did not replace print nor diminish the demand for the face to face welcome and the provision of information by TICs.

 

Mr John Freeman, Chair of Whitby and District Tourism Association, was of the opinion that both of the alternative proposals for the Whitby TIC were inadequate, noting the sites were too small, not prominent enough, both had flooded in the recent tidal surge, and that the Harbour Office was in a dangerous location for pedestrians. He felt that the people of Whitby should be given more time to come up with ideas, and that the Cabinet’s decision to limit the leasehold interest in the existing TIC site to less than 25 years, precluded the possibility of a Community Asset Transfer.

 

Ms Sue Boyce, of Whitby Area Development Trust, criticised the scant consideration of benefits in the Cabinet report, other than saving money, and challenged the assertion that the proposals would save £50k per year.  Ms Boyce underlined Whitby’s key reliance on day visitors (some 3m a year), and that the TIC was essential to serve their needs as a visitor centre, not as an accommodation booking service, since this function had moved to the internet.  She acknowledged that the TIC could not continue running in its present form, and the need for savings, but called on the Council to explore alternative options.

 

Both Mr Peter Croft and Mr Rob Sim were critical of the lack of consultation and also noted the limited broadband and mobile signal in Staithes.

 

The Director, Mr Trevor Watson then responded to these concerns, commenting in particular on a constructive meeting with Whitby Town Council and Whitby and District Tourism Association at which the following key points had emerged:

·         A recognition that the Borough Council needed to make significant efficiency savings, and that this did not only involve changing the way services were delivered, but also raising revenue from capital assets

·         The TIC should rely less on retail (which currently took up 60% of the space) when Whitby already offered an extensive retail offer through its private sector businesses

·         The TIC was too large for the needs of the service, and therefore there was an opportunity to lease all or part of the site for alternative uses

·         Whitby needed to retain a staffed TIC and this should be in or near the current site

 

Mr Watson considered that the Cabinet’s decision took account of these points.  He noted that by seeking expressions of interest, the Council was allowing both current and new uses of the building to come forward. In respect of Scarborough and Filey, the Cabinet’s decision was to provide tourist information points in other facilities and upskill other employees to provide visitors with information.  Further, the Council had also received widespread support from the local tourism industry to secure and sustain its core destination marketing and tourism bureau service and focus resources on improving digital information provision and driving additional visitors to the area through the development of events and conferences.

 

Mr Watson understood the concerns about the consultation process, but was satisfied that it had been proportionate by capturing the key stakeholders.  He defended the footfall statistics for Whitby TIC in the February report, which had corrected erroneous figures in earlier reports.

 

I asked the Cabinet Member for Leisure, Tourism and Culture, Councillor Andrew Backhouse to comment on the debate in light of the Cabinet decision.  He defended the Cabinet decision; he understood that at the meeting in Whitby, both the Town Council and the local tourism association had spoken on behalf of local interest groups. He had noted the concerns expressed by all present but was still of the opinion that the Cabinet’s decision was in the best interests of the Borough.’

 

Councillor Backhouse  then provided a statement in response to the scrutiny committee’s recommendation (i):

‘We have reconsidered our decision in light of the call-in and the scrutiny committee’s deliberations and now respond to each recommendation in turn.

 

Firstly, let me say that I welcome the debate and input from the scrutiny committee which I was permitted to attend.

 

In response to the first recommendation of the scrutiny committee, I would like to say that if Cabinet were to reconsider its position in relation to the provision of Tourist Information Centres, I would expect this to encompass the whole of the Borough and not just Whitby and Scarborough and find it disappointing that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee saw fit to exclude the important sister destination of Filey, from its conclusions.  I believe that Filey should be treated on an equal footing with its sister resorts of Scarborough and Whitby.

 

In relation to the suggestion that part of the current Whitby site should be reserved for use by a manned TIC/Customer First facility, the Cabinet resolution of 16 February 2016 allows for the possibility of retaining a TIC facility on the existing site.  If this is not feasible the resolution provides that a manned TIC facility will be provided from the Council’s Harbour Office or at a disused storage facility, both less than 200 metres away from the existing TIC site.  I repeat, a manned TIC facility will be retained in the centre of Whitby less than 200 metres away from the existing site. Provision has also been made for the retention of a Customer First facility in a location with disabled access in the centre of the town.

 

With regard to the request that a manned TIC should be retained in Scarborough, the report upon which Cabinet made its resolution states that Open Air Theatre Box Office staff will be trained to offer tourist services from the new North Bay facility.  Negotiations are ongoing with the RNLI in relation to the provision of an unstaffed point in the new lifeboat house building together with a courtesy phone with a direct link to the Tourism Bureau.  This, together with the existing tourist facility at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the provision of a 24 hour touch screen information kiosk and training of outdoor leisure staff, will actually increase the provision of tourist information in the Borough, and give a more even spread across the most popular tourist areas.

 

On this basis I would suggest, Members, that there is no reason for this Cabinet to alter the resolution it made in February.’    

 

Councillor Donohue-Moncrieff provided a statement in turn in response to the scrutiny committee’s recommendations (ii) and (iii):

‘As already alluded to, the Council’s consultation has engaged with the key stakeholders across the three resort towns.  The consultation brought forward concerns which were considered prior to the conclusion of the Cabinet decision.  Indeed, many of these concerns were raised yet again at the scrutiny committee meeting.  With no new issues highlighted we would not expect further consultation (including with villages outside the Borough) to bring forward any fresh issues which have not already been through the previous consultations or considered at Cabinet or at the scrutiny committee.  We are of the opinion that these concerns have been listened to and dealt with and that yet further consultation will not add to this process.

 

In respect of the request to reassess the statistics used in the report, the statistics included in the report to the Cabinet on 16 February are entirely accurate and informed the report’s assessment and recommendations.  We recognise that the current Whitby TIC is the most used by some margin of the Council’s staffed TICs, and therefore that a manned TIC should remain in Whitby either on or near the current site and this is what we propose.  However, generally face to face demand is reducing, and the web and new digital service delivery channels are fast becoming the preferred method of contact.  This is only expected to grow as residents and visitors have access to improved mobile technology and become increasingly digitally aware.  It is imperative that sustainable resources are provided to support the new ways of accessing information.  This is not to say that we are diminishing the importance of pamphlets and brochures.  But these can be displayed in a wide range of outlets in addition to a staffed, dedicated TIC.’

 

The Cabinet Member for Finance, Procurement and Legal then provided a financial perspective on the debate in the following statement:

Councillors are aware of the significant financial pressures facing the Council in coming years and the need to make ongoing savings in excess of £5.5m over the period 2018 – 2020. As a result the Council must inevitably make difficult decisions in relation to service provision, particularly in relation to discretionary services such as Tourist Information Centres.

The review of TIC provision highlights that customer demands have changed in recent years, which in turn has reduced footfall and income across the sites and increased the net running cost of the service. Currently the service costs £141k per annum to run; £31k of which has no base budget provision. To maintain a status quo operating position the Council would therefore need to cut other service costs by £31k and possibly even further if income at the sites continues to deteriorate. In addition the opportunity cost of utilising buildings situated in prime locations across the Borough cannot be ignored in the decision making process.

Although proposals to make reductions in service provision are always difficult to make the following facts pertaining to this decision cannot be ignored:

-          The Council will not have to identify £31k savings needed to fund the unbudgeted cost of maintaining a status quo operation across the sites;  

-          The Council is expected to generate rental income of £105k per annum from letting out the sites. This income will be a new source of funding for the Council and can  be used to support the costs of future service provision;

-          The proposal will direct £65k of base budget funding towards the sustainability of the Destination Marketing Service and Welcome to Yorkshire Partnership which is critical in ensuring the ongoing promotion of the Borough and the development of festivals and events, for which there is no current base budget and which is funded from reserves and through external grant which poses a huge risk.

-          The proposal is expected to generate annual savings of around £64k, which will be used to reduce the 2018/19 funding gap of £2.4m.  

Given the extent of the Council’s funding gap to 2020 it is clear that this is one of the first in many difficult decisions that councillors will be asked to make in the coming years.

This decision allows for the continuation of Destination Marketing using a wide ranging marketing mix including face to face, telephone, digital, print, PR and advertising.  I along with Councillor Backhouse see no reason why the Cabinet’s original decision should be overturned.’

In conclusion, the Cabinet Member for Harbours, Assets, Coast and Flood Protection, Councillor Cockerill provided a statement in response to the scrutiny committee’s recommendation (iv):

‘First, I would like to thank Councillor Backhouse who in his response referred to the fact that the scrutiny committee failed to consider the situation in Filey to be of sufficient note to be included in its resolutions.  We are often told we are part of one Borough. 

 

The tender process proposed will be open to all who seek to participate.  We will actively encourage creative proposals to come forward as this will enhance the tourism offering within our Borough, as this is within all our interests.  Rather than being a threat, we see this as an opportunity to be grasped.  This tender process will not be driven by price alone, but by a recognition of the importance of the Borough’s unique tourism offering from each of the three towns together with the hinterland.

Despite the views of witnesses to the scrutiny committee, I conifirm that the proposals in the report accepted by the Cabinet are emphatically about improving and transforming services within the very limited resources we have at our disposal.  All our consultees agree that the Council should look to secure and sustain its core destination marketing and tourism bureau service whilst focusing decreasing resources on improving digital information provision and driving additional visitors to the area through the development of events and conferences.  Furthermore, the Cabinet’s decision is about extending the number of points and outlets which can provide tourist information and literature, whilst challenging the assumption that this can only take place through a staffed and dedicated TIC. In the case of Scarborough, we believe that the face to face welcome which is so important to our stakeholders and visitors, can just as well be delivered at the Open Air Theatre Booking Office in its new, improved location, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and through all those who work within the hospitality trade itself, as at a dedicated TIC. 

In conclusion, whilst being grateful for the deliberations of the scrutiny committee and the contributions of the various witnesses, and after careful consideration of the scrutiny committee’s recommendations and for the reasons I have given, I put to the Cabinet that our original decision is upheld.’

Councillor Cockerill’s motion was then seconded, put to the vote, and carried unanimously.

 

(In accordance with his declaration under Minute 1, Councillor Plant left the meeting during the debate and determination of the above item.)