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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 68 - 79)




  68. Can I welcome you to the Committee? Can I apologise that we are running a little late? Could I ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?
  (Mr Wilcox) I am Councillor David Wilcox from Derbyshire.
  (Mr Stevenson) I am Mark Stevenson, policy officer from the Local Government Association.

  69. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
  (Mr Wilcox) I think we can go straight into questions.

Mrs Ellman

  70. What progress is local government making in putting the new structures in place?
  (Mr Stevenson) I think it is making fairly good progress. The most recent research that the LGA or the IDA has done has found that well over half of local authorities have already introduced some form of pilot arrangement. They have been experimenting predominantly with the Cabinet leader model because that is the only one that you can experiment with under current circumstances. I think it is fair to say that authorities have been involved in their arrangements. There are a number of authorities now that have been operating pilots for two and a half, coming up to three, years. They have been reviewing the arrangements, how they have been working. They have been making changes to those arrangements. They have been experiencing some of the problems that have been talked about and are trying to develop solutions to overcome some of those problems. Authorities have not just got this agenda to deal with. That is quite an important point for the Committee to bear in mind. These new arrangements have been introduced at the same time as authorities are now required to carry out best value. They are also being introduced at a time when there is talk about PSAs, as Sir Michael Lyons was just talking about, at times where there is a greater focus on neighbourhood based initiatives, the neighbourhood renewal fund and some of the work of the social exclusion unit. There is quite a change in culture that is being expected of local government at the moment as well as these structures. I personally think it is unfortunate that so much of the emphasis has been placed on an analysis of the structures and not on an analysis of the cultural change that is being required or the outcomes that are being sought from all of these changes.

  71. Have you seen any benefits from the new arrangements?
  (Mr Stevenson) I think there have been some benefits. There are mixed pictures across the country and I think it would be wrong to say that it was being successful everywhere. There are a lot of communities which have used this impetus to change as a way of changing a lot of the things they do, as a way of re-engaging with the public. It has provided a stimulus for a lot of authorities to think about how they have been doing things over the past 10, 15, 20 and, in some cases, 100 years, and about trying to make an effort to reconnect with local communities, certainly to try to do things that are more relevant to local communities. There have been advantages particularly in the leadership aspect of a lot of authorities. There is evidence from a number of authorities that are piloting arrangements that public understanding of who their elected members are and who those members in cabinets are who are taking the major decisions at the moment—there is a growing recognition of leadership of communities. There is also in those authorities where overview—I prefer to use the word "overview" and ignore the scrutiny bit because I think the scrutiny bit is rather misleading in a lot of cases—has really helped to engage the public and local press in raising a lot of issues. There are a number of authorities that have worked very closely with the local press in their overview and scrutiny processes and are managing to engage the public in a lot of issues to get a lot more public interest. Those overview and scrutiny reports, because they are backed by that public support, have been that much more difficult for the executives to ignore, which I do appreciate is happening in some places.

  72. Could you give us some very specific examples of where the things you are talking about have happened?
  (Mr Stevenson) One in particular is Hartlepool, where they have been doing quite a lot of work and have had a number of overview and scrutiny reviews that have looked at executive decisions or proposed executive decisions.

  73. What have they achieved?
  (Mr Stevenson) They have managed to change the executives' minds as to what way they are taking a decision.

  74. For example?
  (Mr Stevenson) To be honest, I cannot remember. It was a session I attended at a conference some time ago, but there were two press stories that they had with them that they were holding up as examples of what they had done.

  Mrs Ellman: Do you think that is sufficient evidence, what somebody holds up as an example?

Sir Paul Beresford

  75. Could that have happened under the old system anyway?
  (Mr Stevenson) Probably it could have happened under the previous system. This is again one of the problems with getting focused in on current systems and new systems. There are a lot of things that happen under current systems that are currently being levied as criticisms of the new system; there are a lot of benefits that the new system purports to bring that could currently exist under the present system. To be honest, it is certainly not the association's right to judge what is going on in local communities, if local authorities believe their overview and scrutiny processes are working and their communities believe they are working.

  Mrs Ellman: How do you know that? What is the role of the Local Government Association in this? You have given evidence where you point to quite a number of problem areas. In your very generalised answer to my question you say how all kinds of things are better; yet you cannot give me any precise answers. What is the role of the Local Government Association in this period of change? Is it to be specific? Is it to find where the problems are or is it just a general principle which does not mean very much?

Mrs Dunwoody

  76. What is the difference between an overview and a scrutiny?
  (Mr Wilcox) If I can start on the one from Mrs Ellman, I think our role at the moment is to identify examples of emerging good practice and try and make those examples available to authorities, because there is considerable scepticism with members of local authorities as to whether or not they will have fulfilled an influential role within the new structures. I think it is based on a mythical past or a mythical present in as much as reality, as Sir Michael Lyons said earlier, has been very much that executives have generally made decisions in local authorities. Back bench members have gone through a lot of processes where they seemed to be taking part in decisions but they actually were not. A lot of people have felt that they are losing something as a consequence of the new structures coming in. There are also a lot of people who have tried to develop new structures who feel they have gained. We have seen it as our task to go and find examples of where that has happened, where the authorities feel they have gained, where they have a positive thing to say about the changes that have taken place. In the report which we made as a task group, we gave a series of examples of what authorities have been doing or trying. Do not forget, we are still in the old structure. We have not got the new structures up and running and in place yet.

Sir Paul Beresford

  77. Do you not see there is a role to look at it objectively on behalf of all local authorities? You have just said you have looked at the positive sides. What about the negatives? Have you looked at those too?
  (Mr Wilcox) In our reports and our comments, we do stress quite a lot of concerns that we have. It is not wholly positive, but I think you have to take a view as to whether you want the new legislation to facilitate improvements and whether you want, as a Local Government Association, to support that process; or whether you want to say, "We will knock this process." We have been committed long term to an improvement agenda and the improvement agenda requires us to say, "How might you improve by using these new structures?" You may say, "You could have done that under the old structures" and maybe you could, but we do not have the old structures. We have some new ones and it is about making a virtue of those new structures.

  78. To go back to my original question, you can use the negative to improve the procedures, but you sound as though you are biased towards the positive side.
  (Mr Wilcox) We were certainly looking for good practice and where authorities felt things had improved. We were looking towards disseminating that and that was not a partisan view; that was the view of the whole committee.

Mrs Ellman

  79. How many of the current arrangements will have to change to comply with the Acts and the new regulations and guidance now being published?
  (Mr Stevenson) I do not think we can particularly give a specific answer to that. A lot will depend on the details of what some authorities have in place and what some authorities do not. Most authorities where they are operating pilot arrangements at the moment with a single party cabinet are having to use a ratification committee or they are formally delegating decision making to officers to be able to operate that as a pilot arrangement. Under the new legislation, they will not have to. All of them, as far as I am aware, will probably have to introduce new reporting mechanisms under the access to information regulations. A requirement to produce a forward plan will certainly require new systems to be put in place by local authorities, systems that presently are not being operated in most councils.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 9 April 2001