Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Sir Michael, can I welcome you to the first session of the Committee on local authority governance. Can I, first of all, put on the record that we now have the written evidence in published form, published yesterday, and it is on the Internet for anyone who wants to look it up. You have also given us this document this morning setting out the consultation in Birmingham; it is nice to see you have so much money to spend. Would you like to introduce yourselves for the record, please.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) My name is Michael Lyons, and I am the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council.
  (Mr Dobson) Stewart Dobson, Director of Corporate and Democratic Services of Birmingham City Council.

  2. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight to questions?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Perhaps just a few brief words to underline the context in which we are working at the moment, and to thank you for the invitation to come and give evidence. Birmingham City Council, under new leadership, enthusiastically took up the opportunity to restructure and has introduced, as from January 2000, an early Cabinet form of decision making, which we have described and we have given you a diagrammatic illustration of the structure we are working to at the moment. I have to say, it has been a fairly frantic time. Never previously having had a written constitution, we will now be in a position where we have gone through three fully written up constitutions in a period of two years. I think Stewart Dobson must be one of the most experienced constitutional lawyers in the country on the basis of that. There has been a fair bit of learning coming out of that exercise. Critically, we are also an authority that has committed itself to holding a referendum to test the opinion of the people of Birmingham over a directly elected mayor. That referendum will be held in the autumn of this year. That was the recommendation of our Democracy Commission. If it is positive, will lead probably to election for a directly elected mayor in May next year. We will be very happy to provide you with copies of the Democracy Commission's report, if that is relevant to your proceedings. We are happy to answer any questions.

Mrs Ellman

  3. What is the impact up to date of the new management structures on officers?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) It has been a period of fairly frenetic change, as I have described; and one of finding new modified roles. We no longer serve committees in quite the way we did before; but, of course, under current arrangements individual members cannot make decisions, so we are not yet into the new governmental arrangements which the legislation provides for. We are in a middle zone at the moment. In many ways the most profound changes are yet to come, because they will come when we have fully executive members—whether it is a mayor or whether it is a leader and Cabinet. The changes at the moment have been more about people working across portfolios, getting used to scrutiny arrangements, and getting used to a modified way of doing business whilst still, formally, making decisions in committees, even though we are working to people who are designated as Cabinet members.

  4. What trends have you identified which you think will be continued or increased under more formal arrangements.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think the area that immediately takes me to are the pressures of working between scrutiny and executive; this is already fairly clear in the time we have been running the new system. I have to say, we have a fairly extensive scrutiny system, as you can see from the diagram. Under the new constitution, which is being worked on at the moment, it will be substantially slimmed down. Nonetheless, it is becoming clear that both executive and scrutiny will require more dedicated staff to work for them, and people have to work with a slightly different perspective if they are working to support a scrutiny committee than they do in their normal managerial roles and in support of executive decision making.

  5. Is it possible for the same officers to serve a scrutiny committee as well as individual members taking decisions in an authority?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think this is one of the big questions about the new constitutional arrangements. As a Chief Executive, I think it is essential that we service the particular needs of those two distinctive roles within the council, and do not allow the council to become divided. Anyone who has worked in local government, as a member or an officer, will have knowledge of history when officers and members have formed `camp-followers' opposed to each other and will know how destructive that can be to an organisation and its purpose; and how, very often, that bleeds into the community. That is a real danger, but I am equally clear that if you are going to help members to undertake the role of scrutiny effectively they have to have people who are good at that support role. They need good enquiry skills. I think the art is to try to develop a single organisation which brings appropriate skills to both functions, but hopefully in a way that individual officers do not see themselves as forever and a day committed to one form of activity.

  Mrs Ellman: But is it possible for the same officers to serve the executive of a local authority taking decisions and to serve members who are there to challenge those decisions?

Sir Paul Beresford

  6. What you have been asked to describe is a new definition of the art of the impossible!
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I do not think it is impossible. I think it requires care. I think the main message I would offer you is that what we need to do is to be quite explicit that these are very changed circumstances; and I do not think the guidance has adequately revealed how changed the circumstances are. They need care and thought. I think you can move a long way through protocols and understandings and the development of machinery which, as it is designed, acknowledges some of the dangers. If I answer Mrs Ellman's question specifically, we can show some good experience of officers serving both scrutiny and executive arrangements. We can also show where that has been less successful. I am clear that a good scrutiny committee wants somebody who understands the service that is being scrutinised. They do not want someone who is just a good generalist who will go off and beaver for them.

Mrs Ellman

  7. You have said you do not wish to continue as Chief Executive. Is that the reality of the changes and the proposed different role of chief executives?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think the answer to that, in all honestly, is yes and no.

  8. If you could expand on the "yes".
  (Sir Michael Lyons) When I negotiated a second contract with Birmingham, both I and the Council recognised that these constitutional changes were in prospect—not certain but in prospect—and it was formally enshrined in the contract that half way through there would be a review period. It became clear to me, as soon as legislation was passed, that it was time for me to give notice that I was going (and I have given a year's notice) because the Council needs to rethink its chief officer arrangements, particularly the role of chief executive; and I wanted to avoid being left as part of the furniture inherited by a new leadership arrangement.

Mr Donohoe

  9. So the traditional role of the chief executive will be changed then?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Yes, it will. It is the one officer for whom the change is most profound.

  10. What about the officer of the authority as far as discipline is concerned; who will that be?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I am clear, and the legislation provides, that there should still be a head of paid service. In terms of the discipline of the office body that will remain unchanged. Whoever is appointed to the post of head of paid service will be responsible for ensuring that is in place.

  11. What about emergency planning?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Again, I do not think that is a problem really. In a big authority like Birmingham it rests with the Chief Executive but in fact for most purposes, and many minor emergencies, it is devolved to others.

  12. What will be the responsibilities that shift from the Chief Executive?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) The critical issue is almost encapsulated in the title, is it not? "Chief Executive" is the head of the executive body. Under the new arrangements that title strictly is no longer appropriate. If you have an elected mayor, unquestionably the elected mayor is head of the executive body. Even the Leader under the regulations is effectively the head of the executive body.

  13. I am asking specifically what duties and responsibilities will be removed? I have experience of all of this from a different angle over 11 years, and I have to tell you that it does not work. After a time there is a friction created between the staff and the executive in these circumstances and the whole thing collapses. If it does not collapse immediately what happens is that over a period of time you lose all your best officers.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think I would be less pessimistic about this. Firstly, I certainly agree that these are profound changes. It is important that individual authorities address their minds as to how they should deal with profound changes. I would not be pessimistic that it leads to collapse. Essentially what the changes bring about is, firstly, greater clarity as to who the decision maker is. We have been through a period, particularly since 1971, of members growing much closer to the executive role. Many authorities now have the illusion of decision making by committees, and sometimes by officers. That phrase "taken under delegated powers in consultation with a member" in practice in many authorities is a decision taken by elected members. The new arrangements make much more explicit where the decision is being taken and who it is being taken by. I am not so pessimistic about that. To go back to your first question, I do not think this changes the managerial role of the chief executive. The need for someone to be the chief manager I think is unchanged and the role is essentially unchanged. The function that is changed under the new constitutional arrangements is essentially the interface between political decision making and officer decision making.

  14. What do you call this individual?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) It depends what I am trying to do.

  15. What title do you give this individual?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think there are some choices here.

  Mr Donohoe: Managing Director?

Mrs Dunwoody

  16. Why was that enough of a problem for you to say you did not want to do it?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I have spent 17 years as a Chief Executive in local government in this role. If a different role is coming along it is fair for me and for the council to have free choice about that. I am not saying I am driven out by these changes. If I was five or ten years younger I would look undoubtedly at the opportunities of this new arrangement.

Mr Donohoe

  17. If I could come back to what you would call this individual. If it is "Managing Director" there is no change, it is semantics.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Firstly, I do not know what the Birmingham City Council will call my replacement; that is a decision they have yet to make. I think the term "General Manager" or "Managing Director" would be perfectly acceptable. In the current situation where they are trying to recruit, they might use the title "Chief Executive", because they would almost certainly secure a stronger field of applicants, even though that title would not strictly be true. You see that is very well illustrated by the Greater London Authority where, unquestionably, the Chief Executive is the Mayor, but they then advertised the post of Chief Executive presumably because they felt it was more likely to attract the best candidates even though we all know there is an illusion about it.

  18. What changes have you in particular made to your officer structure, and what do you perceive are the necessary changes in the future?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I have made a series of changes over time. When I first arrived—

  19. I am talking specifically in this change, not over a period of time. Every Chief Executive makes changes almost immediately they come in the door. We are not talking about that; we are talking about specifically for this purpose. What changes have been made, and what changes do you see having to be made in the future?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) Let me briefly answer that and perhaps ask Mr Dobson to come in and add to that. The first thing we did, with the introduction of the new arrangements, was to introduce the role of Director of Corporate and Democratic Services, partly in recognition of the fact that there was a big constitutional job to be done but, even more important, to make sure that someone other than myself directly acted as the aid and support for the scrutiny process. Stewart Dobson effectively acts as Chief Officer, with oversight of all scrutiny arrangements. What I then did was to name a lead officer for each of the scrutiny committees, and I followed the principle that this should be someone taken from the relevant department so that they were expert in the service but they should not be the Chief Officer for that department. By and large, what we have used is a Senior Assistant Director or a Deputy Director taken from the relevant service department. For most cases that has served very well, and that is the basis for my earlier answer to Mrs Ellman. We have also set up a small and dedicated team to service the scrutiny function as a whole; to provide it with some dedicated resources so there are group of people who are seen as scrutiny specialists. The way I see things going, that function will need to be further strengthened and will need to be replicated, but does not exist at the moment, by a Cabinet Office.

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