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8th March 1999
Minutes of Special Meeting of Strabane District Council held in the Committee Room, Council Offices, Derry Road, Strabane on Monday 8 March 1999 at 7.30 pm
Present:- In the Chair:- Councillor I Barr Other Members:- Councillors Mrs A Bell, J Donnell, D Hussey, T Kerrigan, T McBride, C McHugh, I Murtagh, J O’Kane Total = 9
Apologies:- Councillors McMenamin & Turner
In Attendance:- Messrs F Hempton & R McAteer - Rate Collection Agency
Mr V O’Rourke - Valuation & Lands Agency
Messrs C McDevitt & I McCartney and Mrs A McCrea -
Northern Ireland Electricity
Mr B McGale - Westcare Business Services
Ms S Kelly - WH&SSB, Acute Hospital Services
Clerk & Chief Executive, Committee Clerk
Rate Collection Agency
The Chairman, on behalf of the Council, welcomed Mr Hempton and Mr McAteer to the meeting and invited them to make their presentation after which Councillors would have an opportunity to put forward their comments and clarify points etc.
With the aid of overheads, Members were advised of how the penny product estimates were calculated. 1997/98 penny product estimate was prepared in October 1996 using the latest available data on rateable values and 1995/96 actual penny product cost/loss of collection figures. 1998/99 penny product estimate was prepared in October 1997 using the latest available data on rateable values and the 1996/97 actual penny product cost/loss of collection figures. 1999/00 penny product estimate was prepared in October 1999 using the latest available data on rateable values and 1997/98 actual penny product cost/loss of collection figures.
Irrecoverable rates were 1993/94 £35,490; 1994/95 £9,083; 1995/96 £12,550; 1996/97 £7,468; 1997/98 £6,670. The percentage variations were as follows:- -1.99 for 1997/98; 0.74 for 1996/97; 5.34 for 1995/96; 3.32 for 1994/95; 3.45 for 1993/94. The negative variation for 1997/98 resulted in the sum of £52,895 being recouped from the Council.
The vacancies for domestic and non domestic properties in Strabane from March 1997 to December 1998 were outlined together with the rateable values for that period. The procedure for calculating the 1997/98 penny product was also outlined. In October/November 1996 the Rate Collection Agency prepared estimates for 1997/98. In February 1997 Councils strike the District Rates for 1997/98 financial year. During 1997/98 monthly payments were made to Councils based on estimated District Rate revenue. In September 1998 the RCA calculates actual District Rates and compares this with the estimate. Adjusting payments/paybacks were arranged.
The calculations for the estimated penny product 1997/98 for the domestic and non domestic sectors were outlined which resulted in a non domestic penny product of 197,780. Calculations of the actual rate product (domestic) and (non-domestic) 1997/98 together with the summary were outlined. The estimated penny product from a penny of domestic rates was £17,300 for 1999/2000 and £78,670 for the non domestic rates.
The Chairman thanked the officials for their detailed presentation and invited Members to comment. In response to a query by Councillor Murtagh, it was explained that the rateable values at 1st April did not reach the estimate given to the Council at that time. The figures were revised, however, for the 1998/99 year and the Council may exceed the estimate provided. The calculation for next year for the current period had shown a growth.
Following a query by Councillor McBride, Mr O’Rourke of the Valuation and Lands Agency, who was present at the meeting, explained that when a property was vacant it was entered on their records accordingly. In the event that a premises was capable of occupation, it was kept on the valuation list. He explained that the revaluation list had been compiled in 1996 and a number of public bodies used this information for various purposes i.e. agricultural grants and housing grants etc.
Valuation & Lands Agency
The Chairman, on behalf of the Council, officially welcomed Mr O’Rourke to the meeting and invited him to make his presentation after which Members would have an opportunity to clarify any points.
Mr O’Rourke outlined the role of the Valuation & Lands Agency. He explained that a list of all rateable properties was produced to which a valuation was attached. As a surveyor he looked upon rates as being a tax on property. The Agency had a historic link with local authorities and undertook valuations upon request.
With regard to rating, the Agency was responsible for revaluation and production of a list. The last valuation list was prepared in 1996 and came into operation in 1997 and was a redistribution of the rating liability. Revaluation was necessary from time to time, rateable values were fixed but the list was maintained with account being taken of new properties etc. The Agency also had responsibility for defending the valuations. There were opportunities to challenge valuations. Ideally all properties would be valued. Limitations facing the Agency were resources. In the rating system there were only marginal returns. A major inefficiency was the communications system currently used which could be addressed if computerised.
The legislation required the Agency to produce a rateable value or NAV and was based on the date of the revaluation. Property and occupier designations were used in the compilation of the list. Exemptions applied to those premises in public use and public occupation and also churches etc. Industrial properties were entitled to be de-rated as were buildings used for sports and recreation etc. and special facilities for the disabled were exempt. It was difficult to speculate how the NAV of the list would move. Since revaluation in January 1999 the total rateable value in Strabane had increased more than 2%.
The Chairman thanked Mr O’Rourke for his informative presentation and invited Members to clarify points etc. In response to a query by Councillor McHugh, Mr O’Rourke explained that the Building Control Department notified the Agency of all new dwellings after which a valuation was placed on the property. The Agency could place a value on a property before, during or after it was built. Rates were payable from the date on which a property was occupied. The staff of the Agency also took note of details of extensions, alterations etc. of all properties whilst out on business regardless of whether they were officially notified or not. Details of properties which were advertised for sale were also taken account of with the valuation list being updated. The Agency was notified of all sales and where the sales price was higher than that estimated, a visit may be undertaken as the details held on record may be out of date in relation to improvements etc. undertaken which increased the value of the property.
Councillor McHugh enquired the level of access to information and criteria regarding properties and particularly so when a valuation was challenged. Mr O’Rourke explained that a property was valued in comparison with the nearest similar type property. There were no simple formulas available for calculation purposes. The rental value of a property was taken into account and location, size, standard of finish and level of accommodation were used in the Valuer’s judgement. In the case of a challenge of a valuation, Mr O’Rourke stated that there was no strict legal obligation to hand over all information in a particular file, however, the Agency was always willing to discuss how a valuation was arrived at. Information would be provided upon request, and where it was felt relevant, to a qualified person in order to explain how a valuation was arrived at. Requests were regularly received seeking clarification on how valuations were arrived at. Where someone rang up requesting information relating to someone else’s house, this information would not be given out unless it related to an appeal and was required to be produced at court.
Councillor Donnell sought clarification on whether the value of a dwelling house was affected by noise and smell nuisances, a factory being located nearby etc. Mr O’Rourke explained that where capital valuations were carried out on properties, the market price reflected this. He further explained that when the research for the revaluation was undertaken in 1976 evidence was available for rental values of property at that time. When revaluation was carried out 20 years later the impact in today’s terms had to be taken into account together with changes since then and the most appropriate weightings used. There was plenty of opportunity for challenging valuations through the appeal procedure and this avenue was also open to statutory bodies such as the NIHE etc.
In response to further queries by Councillor Donnell, Mr O’Rourke explained that the provision of water mains, sewers, street lighting, roadways, footpaths etc. were undertaken at different times and locations with associated nuisance for residents being experienced at varying degrees. The NAV of a property was required on a year to year basis. Where a nuisance occurred for less than a year, the Agency would not take it into account. In relation to aged farmhouses, the location, size, standard, rental value etc. would be taken on board when a valuation was being made. Many farmhouses were disadvantaged to some extent by the close proximity of agricultural buildings. A judgement was made in respect of caravans and mobile homes in order to place a value on them.
Councillor Donnell enquired how a valuation would be arrived at in respect of the Travellers’ Site in Strabane. Mr O’Rourke explained that a judgement was made with occupancy rate taken into account. The Council also assisted with valuations and particularly where units were not occupied on a permanent basis. If a nuisance was sufficiently permanent on the Site, account would be taken of it. Minor matters did not normally affect the rateable valuation.
Councillor Hussey indicated that he had missed the main presentations and apologised if he was seeking clarification on any matters which may have been outlined earlier. He enquired how a valuation was carried out on business properties as opposed to dwelling houses. Mr O’Rourke explained that the law stipulated that the Agency should arrive at the market value of a property as at 1 April 1995. Its rental value was taken into account and a judgement made on the market evidence of similar properties rented at or around that time. Councillor Hussey enquired if the type of business had an effect on the way that the calculation was done. Mr O’Rourke explained that some properties by being licensed attracted special provisions. Any value arrived at was done so by examining turnover etc.
Councillor Hussey indicated that he was a publican and felt that the turnover depended on the type of business and competition. He also enquired why other businesses were not treated in a similar way to the licensed trade whereby the effective turnover of the business was the basis for rating. Mr O’Rourke commented that the capital value of licensed premises related to the nature of business, location, turnover etc. A potential tenant would also consider this information prior to making any decision. Councillor Hussey remarked that the licensed trade had taken this argument forward with the relevant bodies and perhaps it was up to the other trade bodies to pursue their case further.
He queried whether town centre businesses in larger towns were banded together with those in smaller towns or at what point they were differentiated. Mr O’Rourke advised that real rental values determined the valuations in specific areas. Inferences were used in respect of similar size towns, villages etc. in order to calculate the rateable value after which a reasonable judgement was made.
Mr O’Rourke explained that from time to time the Government decided to carry out a revaluation. Over a period of time settled values became apparent and where economic values changed in a particular area within a period of time, a revaluation would be carried out. Significant changes were identified when the last valuations were published which resulted in major increases for business premises. There had been no mechanism since 1976 to take account of rental values hence the significant increases being charged when the more recent revaluation was carried out.
Councillor Hussey commented that there were some properties throughout the country which were neither residential nor business. Community activities were undertaken but the premises were not recognised as Community Associations. Some of these were rated at a business rate yet they did not carry on a business and he queried the justification for this. Orange Halls, for example, were charged a business rate. Mr O’Rourke advised that two rates were levied - domestic property and non-domestic. The property would be valued as being available for letting. Most Orange Halls and Halls of any kind particularly in rural areas probably realised a reduction in the rates liability. Some Halls had improvements carried out, however, due to the nature of their business a considerable period of time elapsed on a number of occasions prior to such changes being noted. He undertook to discuss the matter further with Councillor Hussey after the meeting or alternatively urged that contact be made with his office if required.
Councillor Kerrigan referred to the presentation by the Rate Collection Agency during which it had been pointed out that £35,490 had been irrecoverable in 1993/94. He enquired the detail in relation to this. Mr McAteer explained that he did not have this specific information to hand but it could have related to one business or a combination. Councillor Kerrigan commented that a large number of factories in Strabane and Castlederg had closed down and queried whether rates paid would be recouped. In response Mr McAteer explained that factories were de-rated and this was offset in the general grant allocation
Councillor Kerrigan remarked that it was generally believed by the general public that if a mobile home had wheels on, it was not rateable. Mr O’Rourke stated that any property which was exclusively occupied was rateable. Caravan parks were charged rates and touring caravans were also rateable. People residing in caravans were charged rates, albeit very modest rates and this also applied to touring caravans. Services were generally connected to a caravan, therefore, giving it a degree of permanency.
Councillor McBride commented that rural houses in some areas did not have water or sewage systems and, therefore, the occupants were of the opinion that they should not have to pay rates or that they be significantly reduced. Mr O’Rourke advised that the legislation required the Agency to take account of the rental value of a property. Matters such as access to water and sewage facilities, collection of bins etc. were taken into account but usually resulted in relatively small differentials. Where a valuation is placed on something attached to a property which did not exist, redress should be made to the Agency.
Councillor Murtagh commented on the percentage of time allocated to disputes, appeals etc. and enquired what percentage of original assessments stood. Mr O’Rourke explained that following revaluation this figure was usually artificially high and this trend could continue for a period of approx. two years. The normal rate of appeals was much lower than that experienced in England and Scotland. The appeal procedure was a time consuming activity. Approx. 8-10% of the rates applied to commercial properties were appealed, 50% of which were upheld.
The Chairman of the Council thanked the three officials for their informative presentations and for addressing the many queries by Councillors. They responded accordingly and left the meeting at this juncture.
Northern Ireland Electricity
The Chairman, on behalf of the Council, welcomed Mrs McCrea and Messrs McDevitt and McCartney, NIE, to the meeting. He apologised at the outset for the delay in hearing their presentation as the previous delegation had overran somewhat. He then invited the officials to make their presentation after which Councillors would have an opportunity to clarify any points and put forward any views.
Mr McCartney referred to the previous visit to Council on 4 January 1999 at which the Boxing Day storms were discussed. Approx. 1200 broken poles caused some of the faults. The DOE reported that over 2,000 fallen trees were dealt with. For the network as a whole, direct wind damage caused 64% of the faults, 24% of the damage was caused by fallen trees. From 26 to 31 December customers made almost 650,000 attempts to contact the Helpline. Over 300,000 call attempts were made on Boxing Day alone. Problems were experienced at every layer of the organisation structure.
The hurricane conditions experienced over the Boxing Day period tested NIE’s networks and systems to their limits. The worst storm this century set challenges that they must now strive to meet and be prepared for the worst possible situation occurring in the future. The storm was the worst since records began in 1928 with widespread damage to the rural network. 4,000 separate faults were reported and 162,000 customers were affected on Boxing Day alone. The major problems were resilience of the rural network to severe storm conditions. The call centres were overwhelmed by huge numbers of calls. There was limited information available for customers in the early stages.
Staff were deployed prior to the storm. 100,000 people (62%) had their supply restored on Boxing Day despite poor working conditions. Over 80% were restored within 24 hours. Staff worked continuously for 5 days, some of whom worked in hazardous conditions. Third party call centre was opened to take extra calls. Goodwill payments were made. The widest possible consultation was undertaken and feedback sought from customers, Assembly members, District Councils etc. A thorough analysis was undertaken of every aspect of the handling of the storm particularly in relation to communications with customers and staff.
Recommendations were made to improve communications with customers, management of restoration of supplies and the ability of the system to better withstand such extreme conditions. In a move towards Best Practice, the call handling capacity will be doubled. A planned escalation procedure will be put in place to deploy call handling staff within 2 hours from the declaration of an emergency. A new IVR system will provide a more effective range of facilities. The £2m expenditure, already planned, will be spent on communications capacity and technology to enhance call-handling capability. A planned £12m expenditure in customer service and IT programmes will be accelerated. This investment will include a new Trouble Management System which will enable the company to more rapidly record and process information. NIE will also propose to Ofreg to reallocate £24m into an accelerated programme of refurbishment. This will reduce the time required to refurbish the electricity network in NI.
A comprehensive media communications strategy would be put into operation in the event of future major disruption to electricity supplies. NIE accepted that it should have informed people at the outset of the sheer extent of the damage caused and not to phone for information.
Procedures and operations would be reinforced for anticipating and quantifying the scale of a major incident and managing the restoration of supplies. An acute team of senior and middle managers has been set up in addition. Steps have been taken to secure the availability of resources and materials in similar emergencies. Agreements are in place with other organisations to allow help and resources to be secured within a short period of time, where necessary. Improvements would be made to the systems for passing information on faults to the field and getting feedback on restoration progress. Measures would be taken to enhance the security of the services provided by NIE Telecommunications. Changes to organisational arrangements at Customer Centres will be reviewed.
The programme of full overhead line refurbishment has been accelerated. Other areas would be targeted for supplementary refurbishment. The tree pruning programme would also be accelerated. Within 3 years 45% of the total 33kV and 65% of the 11kV networks will have been refurbished. The full refurbishment and supplementary programmes would ensure that the complete 33kV and 11kV networks would be improved by one or other form of refurbishment within the next six years. Over the next three years 120 km of overhead LV network would be replaced by underground cabling.
Consultation had taken place with the relevant bodies regarding the tree pruning programme.
The Chairman thanked Mr McCartney for his presentation. In welcoming the delegation, Councillor Kerrigan referred to the Boxing Day storm after which a reassurance had been given that £93m would be set aside to upgrade the service throughout NI. A large number of the problems were due to falling trees on the lines. He commented that there were still a number of trees close to lines in various areas and he asked who was responsible for overseeing this. He also enquired the length of time it took to replace poles which were identified as being defective and needing replaced.
Mr McCartney advised that some of the £93m did not have to be incurred and discussions were ongoing with the Regulator. The expenditure on the transmission system was clawed back. Trees on lines were a perennial problem and were not easy to deal with. There were problems with the growth rate, people requesting that trees should only be pruned rather than being cut down etc. Customer service staff investigate the issue of trees growing close to lines and a judgement is made as to whether or not attention is required. The responsibility for the management of trees had been taken back to NIE, however, contractors were still used to prune trees etc. Network staff carried out a monitoring programme on an annual basis. In relation to decayed poles, some required urgent attention but were replaced in terms of priority.
Councillor Kerrigan commented that he had received a complaint from someone where a pole was to have been replaced five years ago but this had still not been done. One of the main failures on a particular line on Boxing Day was due to trees which hit the line and knocked the fuse on the transformer. The line was out of order for a period of time, however, the trees had not been removed since then. Mr McCartney undertook to pass this information on to Customer Care.
Councillor Hussey remarked that he appreciated the PR exercise. Approx. 162,000 customers were affected on Boxing Day and he enquired what percentage of these was in the rural area as opposed to the urban area. Mr McCartney indicated that he did not have those figures. Councillor Hussey referred to the storm damage statistics and the comparison of faults in Belfast with that in the North, South, East and West. The NIE report referred to direct storm damage causing 64% damage. When considering the report and the nature of faults highlighted, he questioned why the NIE was totally resistant to introducing an underground system as it had obvious advantages.
Mr McCartney stated the debate for underground versus overhead cables had been ongoing for a number of years. Investment had been put in place to examine the urban areas. In terms of the nature of NI in a rural aspect and overhead lines, the cost associated would be significant to underground these. There were various factors in terms of the amount of additional expenditure which would be required and the amount of money which customers in NI were prepared to pay. NIE attempted to provide the highest quality of service to its customers in the interests of best practice and they felt that the balance was correct. Significant investment was being made to improve the rural situation. The refurbishment programme and reinforcing network was being carried out. Tree cutting which was underway should have an impact and show improvement. In the event that investment was made in the underground network, the investment would not be utilised as much in terms of undergrounding. The customer was paying ultimately and were the major stakeholders.
Councillor Hussey commented that there appeared to be blackspots as a result of the damage caused. He enquired if it was possible to underground the blackspots. Mr McCartney remarked that the services affected needed to be analysed. In some cases underground sections of the network also experienced problems. The best way to ensure improved quality of supply was to refurbish and build the lines.
Councillor Hussey remarked that the electricity supply was a monopoly situation. He welcomed the proposed increase in the overhead line refurbishment programme from 1,500 km per year to 2,000 km in 2000/01 and 2001/02 and queried whether that entailed the initial phase. He queried whether NIE would increase its own staff to undertake this work. He felt that at least for four years if NIE were to increase its own linesmen the problems encountered in the past would not reoccur.
Mr McCartney advised that a number of strategies were adopted. NIE planned to have the necessary resources on the ground immediately so that the impact was immediate. New staff would be brought in through the core business i.e. NIE Industrial which was due to be re-launched on 23 March and was a wholly owned subsidiary. The number of sub-contractors in place in NI on the NIE network would be increased. To date NIE had and would be employing more staff.
In welcoming the report, Councillor McHugh remarked that he was disappointed that he did not know the exact role which the members of the delegation had played in relation to the Boxing Day storm. He believed that specific matters should be related directly to the top management. He was also disappointed that on 4 January, when the NIE deputation met with Council, all Councillors were not aware that the meeting would be taking place. He accepted, however, that the NIE officials had met with the Council at short notice and at Council’s request.
With regard to tonight’s meeting, Councillor McHugh commented that the member of the press who had been present left the meeting when the NIE deputation had given out a report at the beginning of the presentation. Councillors, therefore, did not have an opportunity to raise the many points which they wished to and that press coverage would be limited to the NIE report and would not take account of Councillors comments raised tonight. The members of the public were concerned with the problems which had occurred in their specific areas, however, the report was a summary of the impact on NI as a whole and a detailed breakdown was not given. He stated that there were parts of the Castlederg area where it was traditional around Christmas that they lost their electricity supply. Councillor Hussey commented that he was aware of a number of people who were purchasing a generator in preparation for the anticipated loss of power for next Christmas.
With regard to the NIE Report, Councillor McHugh remarked that all the points highlighted were well addressed, however, he felt that it could have been more specific i.e listed the location of the majority of the breakdowns and whether the rural areas suffered the most. He stated that some elements of the Report were untrue. Castlederg, for example, had a loss of power supply for four days with some people living near the town centre having no supply for four days. In relation to elderly people and contact with Helpline numbers these were not available. With regard to extra staff being on duty from the beginning of the storm, he felt this was untrue. He understood that more staff were on duty from the Monday after Christmas. A number of people needed help but did not get it. Some people experienced loss of water supply for a considerable length of time and there was limited communication with Water Service. He felt that initially there was a complete breakdown across the whole spectrum of services provided. He also felt that Councils did respond slowly in the aftermath of the storms. He believed that NIE and DOE officials were on holidays until the Monday.
The matter of bringing in additional staff was not highlighted sufficiently. He believed that NIE were operating with a skeleton staff and those who were working were put under unbearable pressure.
Councillor McHugh pointed out that anyone who watched the weather forecast would have been aware that the North West of Ireland would suffer storm damage from 26 December. He referred to page 15 of the report and the delay in declaring an emergency until 1.00 pm. With regard to overhead cabling, the Belfast area would have the least number of overhead cables, however, Danesfort in Belfast was the only centre which employed extra staff and he questioned the reasoning for this. He felt that the west of the province was only targeted when problems in the Belfast area were resolved. Despite several attempts he had been unable to make contact with the Omagh Call Centre. He felt that engineers could have provided the necessary advice and information. There was an instance whereby a wake was held in the area which he represented and a great amount of distress was caused due to the lack of electricity. A breakdown of the statistics relevant to each particular area was not given in the Report.
In relation to page 19 of the Report which indicated that 19% of customers were left without electricity for longer than 24 hours, he felt that a diagram could have shown the specific areas affected and that NIE would have this information to hand. In Castlederg there was loss of supply for under 24 hours and in many rural areas they were four days without power.
Councillor McHugh referred to the NIE letter dated 16 February 1999 which refers to the upgrading of work to the South and South West of Castlederg and he sought clarification on the exact areas involved. He stated that the Tullycar Road had continuous interruptions of its supply all year round. He had letters from NIE dated 1996 and 1997 which stated that upgrading would be carried out, however, to date this had not been undertaken.
Water pumps also failed regularly. If a fuse blows, it resulted in people being left without water. He expressed the hope that all the relevant agencies would come together in the case of emergencies. He also hoped that the NIE would meet with Council in due course to confirm that the various recommendations and suggestions had been taken on board and were in place. He enquired what sort of Committee would be set up so as to ensure that there was a concerted approach in the future.
With regard to the Helpline services available he urged that every household be advised of this information and particularly in the rural areas. He stated that he was prepared to be supportive of the recommendations of the Report but hoped that a similar incident would not occur in the future. He felt that a lot of the abuse which the NIE staff faced could have been avoided. There was great admiration for the bravery of the NIE staff who went out to fix faults despite the severe weather conditions.
Mr McCartney accepted the comments made by Councillor McHugh. He acknowledged that there were a number of failings in the way in which the problems on the ground were dealt with. The NIE had come forward and accepted this in a very positive way and apologised for the difficulties which arose. The problems highlighted would be addressed in an appropriate forum and in a constructive manner and it was hoped to move forward. He explained that he had visited a number of Councils at which similar type problems had been highlighted. NIE accepted that problems arose and failures were recognised. He stated that the Report was attempting to recognise the failings identified and was prepared with a deadline of the end of January. The information was not as detailed as it could have been but was the best which could be achieved given the timeframe. With regard to the letters which Councillor McHugh referred, he undertook to follow these up following clarification of the exact details.
Councillor McBride commented that the Council had raised a number of issues in January. He welcomed the Report which acknowledged that NIE had seriously under-estimated the damage caused by the storm. He welcomed the proposals to have more extensive use of the media and more direct information to be given to the general public in the future. He queried whether the MMC would allow the proposed upgrading to be undertaken to the extent suggested. He also queried the location of the underground cabling proposed on the outskirts of urban areas. He stated that he had made strong representations in the past in respect of Curleyhill/Hollyhill which experienced problems with the electricity supply on a frequent basis but no reference had been made to these by NIE in its response.
Mr McCartney accepted the comments put forward. He reiterated the point that the NIE had never experienced problems to this extent previously. He felt that NIE now had an opportunity to go to Ofreg with its experience of the Boxing Day storms behind it. The undergrounding was aimed at urban/suburban arterial routes out of towns and villages. Another tranche of 800 km would go into the more rural areas. There would be instances where services would be undergrounded. With regard to Curleyhill/Hollyhill, he explained that this was an oversight on his part but agreed to follow this up.
In welcoming the officials Councillor Murtagh remarked that it had to be recognised that any system could not have withstood the storm which had arisen. He also remarked that it had to be recognised that temperatures of -18° C can also be experienced.
Councillor Murtagh queried the cost of undergrounding approx. 80% to 95% of the system. In respect of liaising with BT and water supplies, he enquired if this was ongoing. He supported the views expressed by other members regarding the loss of electricity in the Castlederg area. He also supported extensive use of the media. He remarked that avoidance of problems and improvements in the system must be the key elements.
Mr McCartney reiterated his view that ‘Best Practice’ was being pursued. The standards for overhead lines are to international level. The refurbishment should address a lot of the problems experienced. There was significant under-investment in the network prior to privatisation and this was now being addressed. Attempts were being made to improve the programme and the quality of supply. Some areas of the province were worse off than Castlederg. The network in and around Castlederg had been improved 6-7 years previously. Additional work was scheduled for the South West of Castlederg. Councillor McHugh enquired the townlands to which this referred but Mr McCartney indicated that he could not be specific about this but undertook to provide this information.
With regard to the cost of undergrounding 80% to 85% of the system, Mr McCartney indicated that this would be extremely complicated to calculate. In relation to liaison between Roads Service, Water Service and British Telecom services, there were a number of standing bodies and committees which address issues such as this on a continuing basis with regional bodies and also NI bodies. There was a new computerised system being introduced which would notify the DOE of any proposed or planned works in the NI area. All bodies involved in carrying out work of any kind including road networks, Councils carrying out work etc. would provide information through this system so as to enable co-ordination.
Globally it was suggested that a conference would be hosted for all the utility services involved. It was intended to establish a system whereby each body would best help each other.
Mr McDevitt explained that a lot of work was carried on behind the scenes. A public forum would be held in the summer time. The use of the media would be increased. Every option would be explored and every channel of communication examined. In the event of storms, public press notices would be issued in order to meet customer expectation. Upon receipt of information from the Meteorological Office, advertisements will be placed in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter etc.
Councillor Hussey requested information on the special needs section as soon as possible. He remarked that it was a welcome development. As elected representatives he explained that it would be beneficial to have the relevant information on how to enrol people on that register.
The Chairman of the Council enquired if it was possible for the NIE to provide the Council, through the Chief Executive, with a copy of the current programme of works and future planned programmes so that it would be aware of work which was ongoing. In respect of weather warnings, the relevant information could be faxed through to the Chief Executive to facilitate his role in emergency situations. This was taken on board by the NIE officials. The Chairman of the Council remarked that the Council could perhaps have utilised its resources more effectively if it had received prior warning.
Mr McDevitt concluded by pointing that NIE had a more structured approach in the pipeline prior to Christmas. There would be a specific focus on programmes of work and there would be engagement at a much earlier stage in the future. It was intended to compile a 2-3 year plan by the Summer which would be available for full discussion by Council.
Councillor McHugh requested that officials from NIE meet with Council in October/November 1999. The officials indicated that they would be very much in favour of such a meeting.
The Chairman of the Council thanked the officials for their presentation. They responded accordingly and left the meeting at this point.
The meeting adjourned for a tea break at 10.00 pm and recommenced at 10.20 pm.
Suicide Prevention Strategy
In welcoming Mr McGale, Suicide Awareness Co-Ordinator, to the meeting the Chairman, on behalf of the Council, apologised for the delay in receiving his presentation.
With the aid of overheads, Mr McGale gave a brief overview of the Suicide Strategy and how it came about. He explained that a co-ordinated approach involving government, health and social services, local authorities, voluntary agencies, the private sector and the media was important. The Western Health & Social Services Board is the only area which has a strategy. The Secretary of State had requested that a task force be set up.
The four key elements identified within the Strategy were education, the environment, the media and research. It was essential that the Strategy was applicable to the Western Board and particularly in relation to the area. Two Suicide Awareness Co-Ordinators were appointed namely himself and Mr Dermot Lynch.
Health of the nation imperatives for the year 2000 were that suicide rates should be reduced by 15% from the 1990 level of 11.0 per 100,000 to 9.4. Suicide rates among the severely mentally ill should reduce by 33% (from 15% in 1990 to no more than 10%). In the WH&SSB this represents a reduction from 10.7 in 1991 to 9.1 by the year 2000.
Councillor O’Kane commented that social deprivation and money problems were a major cause of suicide attempts. He also remarked that some people who could not afford luxuries approached money lenders and in a lot of cases the associated pressures of repayment led to serious suicide attempts.
Mr McGale explained that in 1994 there was a total of 27 suicides, 24 males and 3 females in the WH&SSB. Figures for 1995 and 1996, however, show a decrease with 19 males and 4 females in 1995 and 14 males and 1 female in 1996.
Councillor Hussey pointed out that 10 years previously there may have been pressure not to record deaths by suicide as such. Mr McGale confirmed that this was still the case. Efforts were being made to identify trends. Statistics were obtained from the Coroner’s Court and information gathered from the General Register’s Office. He explained that the term "suicide" was not used, however, the term "death by own hand" was used. It was proving extremely difficult to establish the actual cause of death and there were major problems with the terminology being used.
In relation to education, to date multi-disciplinary training days had been held and currently ongoing are suicide risk assessment training days for mental health staff. These were being provided in conjunction with the Western Area In-service Training Consortium. An information leaflet was designed and published for distribution to all people admitted to the General Hospitals in the Board area as a result of deliberate self harm. Funding was being sought to produce an interactive piece of drama to target 14-16 year olds. An accompanying resource pack will be designed for teachers to help with prevention, intervention and post-vention. Depression and suicide risk awareness training days were organised for GPs. The role of the voluntary sector was also being recognised.
Councillor Hussey referred to the pressures which young people were exposed to particularly during exam time and enquired what steps were taken to address potential problem areas. Mr McGale explained that it was hoped to develop a closer relationship between Health Services and the schools and work was currently underway with local schools as they provided a focus for help and a preventative role. Statistics did not show that exam pressures had a dramatic increase in suicide attempts. There was a higher level of suicides recorded in relation to those children who left school than those who stayed.
Mr McGale advised that two major mental health campaigns were held each year i.e The National Depression Campaign and World Mental Health Day. This heightened awareness and provided useful contact telephone numbers etc. In response to a query by Councillor O’Kane regarding problems with bullying, Mr McGale explained that the drama activities for schools examined crisis issues of bullying in relationships. Councillor Murtagh referred to the statistics which suggested that eight times as many young people take their lives. He also commented that in the past the male was dominant but roles had changed and there was a feeling of depression among some males. Mr McGale confirmed that statistics, particularly in America, were highlighting this change and that in some instances women were now identifying with symptoms previously experienced by men.
Councillor Kerrigan queried the situation with regard to the drug scene. Mr McGale advised that surveys revealed that 1 out of 3 have taken alcohol. A lot of people who had taken their lives had been drinking beforehand.
Mr McGale advised that the Strategy stressed the necessity to remove, reduce or make less accessible the means of suicide. In September 1998 the Government introduced legislation limiting the sale of Paracetamol over the counter to 16 tablets in blister packaging. The ‘bridge issue’ in Londonderry was a major issue to be addressed and firearms control.
Media guidelines were produced with the aim of making the media aware of the complex issues surrounding suicide and giving guidance on how to report suicide in an effective and responsible way. Sensitivity for families was also extremely important. Research has shown that there is a need to further investigate the causes of suicide and deliberate self-harm. An information base was required to collate local information on suicide and deliberate self harm, evidence of effective intervention and other work which was ongoing. A framework for evaluation of projects should be set up. Relative support and further development work was essential together with co-ordination of a multi-agency approach.
Councillor O’Kane commented that there were a number of serious issues which could be raised tonight during this presentation, however, due to the time constraints and the late hour it was not possible to do so. He expressed concern at incidents whereby some people with mental health problems who were discharged into the community had committed murder and other serious crimes but who could not be charged legally and he asked how problems such as this could be tackled. Councillor Hussey commented that this issue was being reviewed by the Government. He also thanked the Board for the invaluable work which was carried out and was much appreciated.
The Chairman remarked that a lot of people suffered from stress in today’s society. He explained that Councillor Mrs Bell represented the Council on the Foyle Forum on Suicide. He also stated that the Council and individual Councillors would be more than willing to provide any assistance in the future. He thanked Mr McGale for his informative presentation. Mr McGale responded accordingly and left the meeting at this point.
Scheduling of Presentations
At this point Councillor Hussey commented that the Council had just heard the fourth substantial presentation of the evening and a further presentation had yet to be heard despite the late hour. The Chairman remarked that the Chief Administrative Officer was attempting to bring the various outstanding presentations before Council and this was the reason for tonight’s special meeting. Councillor O’Kane commented that the representatives who were due to make the presentation on the review of Acute Hospital Services had already been waiting for a two hour period. There were a number of serious issues which he wished to raise, however, he felt that the personnel whom he should be addressing comments to were not present and he requested that account be taken of this even if it resulted in a further meeting with senior officials. Councillor McHugh remarked that there were only five Councillors present at the meeting and that due to the late hour he was also due to leave. The presentations which were being received were of vital importance and it was unfortunate that all Councillors were not present to hear the content. The Chief Executive took the various comments made on board and stated that this would be borne in mind in the future. It was agreed that the next presentation be taken despite the late hour and that a further meeting be held to discuss the Review, if necessary.
Review of Acute Hospital Services
The Chairman, on behalf of the Council, welcomed Ms Kelly and her colleague to the meeting. He offered sincere apologies for the delay in hearing the presentation but explained that the agenda had been somewhat overloaded. He explained that the Council had agreed to the presentation tonight but a further meeting may be required given the importance of the Review. There were also a small number of Councillors present at this stage of the evening and it would be beneficial if all Councillors had an opportunity to discuss this Review further.
Ms Kelly thanked the Council for the opportunity to make the presentation. She explained that she would reduce the detail of the presentation which she had intended to do due to the severe time constraints. A copy of the overheads used would be circulated to all Members for their perusal.
With the aid of overhead transparencies, Ms Kelly explained that "Looking to the Future" was a Review of Acute Hospital Services for the people of the Western Area commissioned by the Western Health and Social Services Board. Acute services provided in hospitals for residents of the Western Area, future needs for acute services and links between services provided in hospitals and those provided in the community and by primary care teams were being reviewed. Acute hospital services incorporated those provided at an acute hospital, services provided by a Consultant elsewhere included inpatient, outpatient, emergency and day case services. Access was normally through the GP or the Accident and Emergency Department. The objectives were to share information on possible sustainable Models for future services and to listen to views and to feed them back to the independent steering group.
The "status quo" was not an option and if changes were not made then services in this area would decline. Specialist teams could achieve better results, staff needed to treat enough patients to maintain skills and without change it would not be necessary to recruit sufficient key staff. The goal was to achieve a sensible balance between the accessibility of services and the sustainable provision of modern, high quality standards of clinical care.
Feedback identified that effective emergency services were vital, travel for specialised care was acceptable, people wanted more care to be provided locally, there were concerns about service "style", there was a need for policy co-ordination on health and social care issues within Health & Social Services and between all agencies. Roads infrastructure in the Western area was a major concern. The "Shaping our Future" document was a key element.
Steering group findings suggested that any change must lead to improved quality, effective emergency services are vital, the importance of strong interdependencies between specialties and between primary/community and secondary care. This meant change at all levels, including how and where people work. Change must not be constrained by existing structures and boundaries.
The various service models were examined. Status quo (emergency, in-patient, day care and out-patients on 3 sites in existing pattern) was rejected as it was not sustainable. Model 5 (all in-patient and A&E services at Altnagelvin) was rejected as it was not acceptable. The strengths and weaknesses analysis for Model 1 - Altnagelvin, Tyrone County and the Erne, was outlined. Both TCH and the Erne would continue to have a range of in-patient and day care core specialties, some specialised services and full out-patient services. The configuration of A&E services would need to be agreed plus increased integration and collaboration between the Erne and TCH e.g. sharing in-patient services between the two sites. Further development of the established clinical networks with other hospitals would be required.
The strengths and weaknesses analysis for Model 2 - Altnagelvin and "Greenfield" Site in the Southern sector was outlined. The location was undecided but between Omagh and Enniskillen was identified as most accessible.
The strengths and weaknesses analysis for Model 3 - Altnagelvin and TCH in-patients with day provision at the Erne Hospital was outlined.
The strengths and weaknesses analysis for Model 4 - Altnagelvin and Erne Hospitals and day provision at Tyrone County Hospital was outlined.
Models 2, 3 and 4 meet the requirements of quality and sustainability and are the options to be further considered by the Steering Group. Status quo was not sustainable and single in-patient/A&E sites were not acceptable and will not be considered further. Model 1 would evolve to provide the bridge between the present position and the implementation of the long-term Model which is finally agreed.
Essential building blocks for all models were formal managed clinical networks, development of primary care, emergency response arrangements, effective human resources/recruitment and training strategy.
The review timetable was outlined as follows:- Independent Steering Group report to the Western Board by the end of March 1999; formal consultation in second quarter of 1999 which would include public meetings; recommendations on future pattern of acute hospital services by WH&SSB in Summer 1999.
Councillor Hussey enquired who made up the Steering Group and what scope was available for expansion of the present facilities at the Erne Hospital and the TCH and which site was likely to be chosen? He referred to 999 calls and adequate ambulance cover not being provided. A lot of difficulties had arisen with regard to response to out-of-hours service provided and problems with identifying the location of patients residing in rural areas.
Ms Kelly explained that the Western Board had commissioned an Independent Steering Group under the Chairmanship of Mr Bob Nicholls who had 30 years administrative experience. Membership of the Steering Group was representation from the Trusts, the Board, the Health Council and GPs.
Councillor Hussey queried the structure of the buildings. He pointed out that the Derg Valley Hospital was closed in view of the costs to upgrade the building to a satisfactory standard. Ms Kelly advised that an option appraisal was being carried out with both the Erne and the TCH being considered. The Erne was landlocked but there did not appear to be any problems in improving the hospital. This situation was equally possible at the TCH. Patients would have to be decanted to facilitate any improvements requiring a lengthy process but still quite feasible. The Royal Colleges’ input suggested that general surgery had been moving towards greater specialisation. There were very few general surgeons training at the present time. A survey carried out last year indicated that none of the surgeons in NI expressed any interest in general surgery but wanted to specialise.
The TCH would no longer provide paediatric services from the end of this month and the RCN was withdrawing its training status. The RCN provides guidelines but it was becoming increasingly difficult for Trusts to achieve the standards set. Clinical governance etc. was being introduced. Litigation was also coming increasingly to the forefront.
The Chairman suggested that as it was now approaching midnight that the meeting should now close and that a further meeting be arranged as soon as possible to allow further discussion. Councillor O’Kane indicated that he was a member of the Health Council and the sub group and comments had been submitted on the Review. He had a number of important issues but would raise these at the next meeting. Councillor Hussey expressed the hope that the Steering Group was aware of the "hub" position of the TCH.
The Chief Executive pointed out that the deadline for receipt of comments was the end of March and it was, therefore, important that Council formulated a response prior to that. Ms Kelly advised that the Acute Services Review would produce a report at the end of March. The formal consultation period would allow 3-4 months to comment on the recommendations. In the event that the Council wished to submit comments at this stage, they would need to be available before 17 March.
The Chief Executive advised that a meeting with the Sperrin Lakeland Trust had been re-scheduled for Monday 15 March but would now conflict with the Millennium and Cultural Committee meetings.
Councillor Hussey pointed out that Mr Frawley was due to meet with the Council.
It was agreed that a Special Council meeting be held at 7.00 pm on 16 March, prior to the Finance meeting, to further discuss the Review of Acute Hospital Services with the Board officials.
The Chairman thanked Ms Kelly for her informative presentation and again apologised for the delay in receiving same.
The meeting closed at 12.00 midnight.
DATED this 8th day of MARCH 1999
Clerk & Chief Executive
DATED this 23rd day of MARCH 1999