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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)




  40. That is because the present system has been pretty open.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I entirely agree with that.
  (Mr Dobson) Do bear in mind, in relation to planning that system will more or less continue unchanged.

Mrs Dunwoody

  41. Probity goes across committee—ignore my comments, everybody else does!
  (Sir Michael Lyons) If we put planning to one side, because it is an important case and there the government has seen fit to make special arrangements, all that I can say is, it is important that each and every council addresses these issues quite openly as it sets up its new constitution. Indeed, that is what they are required to do under the legislation.

  Chairman: I think we had better leave this.

Mrs Dunwoody

  42. No, there is no point in having somebody with his experience and letting them get away with that kind of answer. The way people measure whether this system works will be how efficient and honest it is. That is a word we all run away from. Unless it is honest and open it will be totally blown out of the way by the electorate sooner or later. How do you ensure, in moving away from our existing machinery, you put in place something that gives you those safeguards?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I do not know how to be the most helpful to you. I can acknowledge that, as you make any change, you run risks. You are right to say that, in many ways, the conduct of local government is a function of a shared understanding, a set of conventions, about the way we do business. The new constitutional arrangements fundamentally challenge how local government has worked in the past; therefore, quite explicitly we have to bring those issues out into the open. The legislation requires each authority to work these things through. I cannot give you a guarantee that they will be adequately thought through in every local authority.

  Chairman: I will have to stop you, otherwise we are not going to finish.

Mr Olner

  43. The Local Government Act makes two sorts of elected mayor options available: one, the elected mayor with Cabinet; and the other the elected mayor with council manager. How do you see those two options shaping up in two-five years?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) To my knowledge there is no local authority in the country which has yet indicated that it is seriously considering the elected mayor and manager model—even though it is one which if you look elsewhere in the world works well. I do not know any British local authority which is thinking about adopting that model. I think we will see a series of authorities, probably a small number to begin with, choosing an elected mayor. There is a good chance, if one looks forward, that Birmingham will be amongst the first of the authorities given it has decided to have a referendum.

  44. Birmingham would opt for the elected mayor and Cabinet?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think it would be a bit rash for me to say what the people of Birmingham will choose, but there is a probability of that.

  Mr Olner: How do you see this elected mayor issue going with Cabinet, if a non-political mayor is elected?

  Mrs Dunwoody: What is a "non-political mayor"?

Mr Olner

  45. Mr Branson.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) It will be interesting, will it not? To some extent the only elected mayor model we have in this country, which is Greater London, gives us some insight into that.

Mrs Dunwoody

  46. I am glad you think so, Sir Michael!
  (Sir Michael Lyons) There are tensions in any council. Let me be clear, the elected mayor is going to be a very powerful person—a very powerful person. Whoever it is, whether they are of the same party or of no party at all, there will be a set of tensions between those powers and how they are discharged by the elected mayor and those people who serve on the Cabinet, unquestionably.

Sir Paul Beresford

  47. One of the insights picked up in London was that people were bored silly. They did not turn out to vote. You are going to be leading them with all these documents, and very nice documents; you have got consultation on best value; you have got consultation on this; and then you are going to have a campaign; people are just going to throw up their hands and go home. Are they going to respond to the consultation towards the mayor, or are they going to stay home, what do you anticipate the percentages will be?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I do not know. I am going to be cautious about that.

  48. Less than 10 per cent?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) The challenge for Birmingham is to respond to the paradox that, as you say, we have put a lot of energy into consulting but if you go out and survey people they say they do not know enough about what we are doing; and the majority of them say they want to know more about what we are doing. The job of communicating effectively is very important.

Mr Olner

  49. It is certainly very important but, to go on from what Sir Paul said, there is no popular support out there in any of the populations for an elected mayor, is there?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) There have been different surveys on this which show different things. Certainly the turnout in London might suggest that it was not popularly supported but, on the other hand, there is a danger if you take turnout—

  50. The London one got massive publicity because it was the first, and if you cannot get popular support for that how are you going to get popular support in Birmingham for an elected mayor?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I am not here to defend the proposition that Birmingham will be better governed by an elected mayor—that is not my remit. Secondly, we will see; because Birmingham will, unquestionably, have a referendum on this subject and then we will all know how strong public support is.

  51. You mentioned briefly the English regional government—do you see authorities like Birmingham being in a little bit of a standstill at the moment with the elected mayor position until the regional government situation kicks in?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) No, Birmingham City is not in a period of standstill in any sense at all. The City is clearer about where it wants to go at the moment perhaps than at any point in recent history. I think there is a considerable consensus about that. The City is not at a standstill; but your underlying point was about the relationship with the region. This is bound to be problematic for any big city.

  52. Birmingham has got no problem with the West Midlands. Birmingham is the capital of the West Midlands and that is it, because there is no other major city to compete with it within the West Midlands. Its relationship has got to change with the rest of the region.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) In reality these things are very complex, are they not? When the Regional Development Agency was first established it had some problems, coming to espousing the notion that Birmingham is the capital of the region—partly because a whole series of people elsewhere in the region were saying that the very expression of Birmingham as a capital meant that they were too preoccupied with the needs of metropolitan areas. These things are complicated. I think we have the right balance at the moment.

Sir Paul Beresford

  53. One of the major complaints that many councillors have had is that they have got virtually no role and virtually no say. Following on from what the Chairman said earlier, I can see you have got a committee structure set up here so that some of that is alleviated perhaps by patronage, and everyone has something to do. What really have they got to do? Could I pick on something the Chairman will be upset about. Looking at your system, you have got a Deputy Leader who looks after organisational development and IT. Say you had the same structure in Bloggs council and it followed the line of the well known north western councils under the old system where they were caught out and there was a close link between officers and members and people ended up going to prison after a court case on corruption. One of the things that bothers me, and it bothers Mrs Dunwoody, is that the role of the non-executive councillor is such they will not be able to get at that, if that is what was happening. I am not saying it is happening in Birmingham; I am not saying it is going to ever happen in Birmingham; but it is going to happen somewhere.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) You are right, I do not believe it would happen in Birmingham. We have got 117 members and some very talented members amongst them.

  54. You can think of some examples.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I come back to the point, it is not a function of the new arrangements that there is greater risk, but rather the move from one arrangement to another. If you do not put enough energy and care into issues of probity and transparency then you can face problems. Let me deal with the issue of the member who is not a member of the executive—the term "non-executive" is for me slightly odd. What Birmingham has been doing, of course, is to expand the number of people who have an insight into the executive function; and that is why each of the Cabinet members has an advisory group on a cross-party basis. Effectively the number of people contributing to each executive function is more substantial. At the end of the day, the Cabinet will only have ten members.

  55. What is the cost going to be? Firstly, you have 15 committees, and now you have 28, so you have doubled the size of the committees and you will have finance officers.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think I have been clear on this, I think the new arrangements will be process intensive. I think we will be spending much more money on transaction costs in every authority in the country than previously. What is the role of a member who is not a member of the Cabinet: firstly, it is scrutiny, and we will have sharpened scrutiny arrangements set up. Mr Dobson can take you through those in greater detail. Secondly, the authority is wholeheartedly in the process of devolving decision making to a more local level. If you look through the Green Paper we have provided you will see a real intention to have more decision making at a local level; ward members will be executives; they will be making decisions on behalf of their ward. That is a new development we have been paving the way for and taking them towards over the last three years. Then we come back to what is a critical issue—here I can say I do not agree with SOLACE about the need to reduce the numbers of councillors—the critical role at each member is that of representing a constituency on the council. I do not think that is going to be any more difficult under the new arrangements. I accept Mrs Dunwoody's point that you cannot rely on the old committee process for automatically giving you information. The council and the member have to change their form of behaviour if they are going to be effective in this new situation.

  56. Do you think it is working? What is the reaction of the scrutiny members of Birmingham Council?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think it would be mixed. There would certainly be members who would say that they do not get all the information they need. I have to say, ever since I can remember, and I have known Birmingham for a long while, it has always been a complaint that under the old arrangement people could learn more by reading the newspaper than they could by relying on council procedures.

Mrs Dunwoody

  57. This time it may be true.
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think it has always been true.

Sir Paul Beresford

  58. Under the old system and the committee they had the opportunity to scrutinise the papers before the decision was made. There was an opportunity to hammer the officers and the chairman and pseudo-executive members and there were changes made. The patronage system to a lessor degree still worked and was called "whipping".
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think between us we could pick up plenty of examples in local government of the committee system not adequately scrutinising proposals.

  59. It could be very easily changed, could it not?
  (Sir Michael Lyons) I think committee work still has a place in local government, yes. Indeed, what is interesting is, as local authorities respond to these new arrangements, very often what they set up are more streamlined committee arrangements.

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