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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 80 - 93)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001

COUNCILLOR DAVE WILCOX and MR MARK STEVENSON

  80. Would you say that the new regulations and the Act will have gained from the experience of what has been happening before? Will it be an improvement or is it irrelevant to what has happened before?
  (Mr Stevenson) From a personal perspective, the government and the DETR in particular have been very open about the drafting of regulations and the LGA and a wide range of senior officers and members from authorities experimenting with pilot arrangements have had opportunities to feed in. The DETR were operating what they call a virtual group of officers to whom drafts of regulations were circulated and comments were sought. The Institute of Local Government Studies at Birmingham have also facilitated quite a range of practitioner workshops at which the DETR have been present to help develop those guidelines and the guidance as well. Whilst there are criticisms of the guidance, the guidance is probably better than it would have been had it just been left to civil servants. There has been quite a deal of access for authorities to feed in their experiences and, as far as I am aware, this is the first guidance that I have seen issued from the government which does contain practical examples.

Sir Paul Beresford

  81. Can I come back to a question that at least two of us are interested in? You mentioned that you preferred overview to scrutiny. Could you define what you mean by overview and scrutiny and the difference?
  (Mr Stevenson) Sure. A lot of that comes from the minister's early discussions and debates about these arrangements, where it was just referred to as scrutiny. The word "scrutiny" tends to most people to mean nit-picking over decisions that had already been taken. That was certainly not a role that the association believed was the role for members who were not on the executive. It was certainly not a rewarding role and we were completely supportive of those members who were saying that sort of thing. The minister did change her tone and the committees were rephrased as overview and scrutiny committees. My personal view is that it is the overview side of things that should prove to be the most rewarding side of things. It is the overview side of things which is involved in reviewing how policies are actually working, getting involved in making recommendations to the executive about changes that may be needed to policies to make them work more effectively, about reviewing what is going on within local communities, because the Act provides a power to be able to do overview and scrutiny on a range of things, not just council services. It provides an opportunity not just to look at individual services but at cross cutting groups.

  82. It sounds like a DETR press release. Could we come back to the regulations etc? There has been a phased approach. Has this made it workable or more difficult for local government? One of the complaints I have had is that firstly best value, now this; the local authorities are loaded with regulations; the regulations are extremely detailed. Each month there has been another mound of them, so rather than it being phase loaded, if nothing else, it has been difficult to get them out and get them to you so it is a wheelbarrow approach. How have they reacted to it? How do the councils feel?
  (Mr Stevenson) I have had those views expressed to me by councils as well and to a certain extent I share those views. There is a huge amount of regulation and guidance that has been issued under this. The one thing I have not done—and maybe I should—is assimilate all the guidance and regulations that exist for previous systems. Maybe it is just because legislation was introduced at different points. No one has ever put it all together to see how much currently exists. There has also been an issue about the fact that, because it is all so new, councillors have asked a great many questions of the DETR as to how do you expect this to work. It is not surprising that the DETR have been very detailed and very prescriptive in a number of instances and in a lot of instances where perhaps it does not really make sense, prescribing numbers of people who may or may not sit on the committees. It is incredibly detailed.

  83. Would it be fair to say that local government is plenty of local and not much government?
  (Mr Stevenson) It could be said, yes. As authorities have been asking for more and more advice from the government, the guidance has got bigger and bigger. I think the government has tried to make some concessions to this by highlighting in the text that guidance which is statutory guidance and that guidance which has been put out in response to a lot of the requests for advice or clarification that local authorities have been asking for.

Chairman

  84. The fourth way, these local councils. Was that a good idea, to tack that on?
  (Mr Stevenson) I think it was unfortunate that it was tacked on. The association still maintains that this limit of 85,000 is somewhat arbitrary. If we could wind back the clock, we would hope that the Hunt Bill managed to receive Royal Assent because that would have provided for complete flexibility to authorities to decide whether to introduce new arrangements or not. We believe that authorities should be able to consult on all of the options for their communities, should they choose to. Restricting it to only those shire districts with a population of fewer than 85,000 as of June 2000 seems to be rather an arbitrary decision. However, when the models were first brought into the public realm, those authorities that believed they were least suitable were the smaller authorities, often the more rural authorities and often those that have a history of not having any political control or having a large number of independent members, where group mechanisms have not necessarily been so dominant, where decisions have been openly debated within the committees, where they have not been taken in groups by a majority party behind closed doors. The opportunity for alternative arrangements is a very welcome one. It is unfortunate that it is only available to other authorities if they go via the hugely circuitous route of having to have a referendum and consulting separately on what a fallback option may be. If nothing else, it requires an awful lot of time, energy and cost. Why should those authorities be discriminated against purely because they have a larger population. If you look at some that may have 86,000—?

  85. Are there going to be many which just come on that border line?
  (Mr Stevenson) At the last count, there were around 20 at between 85,000 and 100,000 population but even saying up to 100,000 is arbitrary. The biggest problem with the alternative arrangement situation is the fact that we still only have draft regulations on alternative arrangements. Those authorities which are interested in pursuing them and have been consulting their communities on the issue are cautious about consulting on the strength of what the Secretary of State intends to happen. We are very aware of what can happen in Parliament and, given the debates over the access to information regulations and the changes that were made at a late stage to those, there is no guarantee that the Secretary of State will end up with regulations that do exactly what he currently intends them to do. Authorities are understandably cautious on consulting or developing proposals on those bases.

  86. How soon do you think the government should make an announcement on that?
  (Mr Stevenson) The government are currently consulting with the LGA on a draft set of regulations and the LGA has been talking to local authorities about those. Our consultation deadline is Friday the 9th. They intend to lay the regulations before the House so that they will hopefully receive approval before the Easter recess. One cannot guarantee what happens once these regulations reach the House or indeed whether the House is still sitting by the Easter recess. There is a problem for authorities potentially in meeting a June timetable if the regulations have not been laid.

  87. What is the role for the third rate councillors who are not really given a role in the Cabinet?
  (Mr Wilcox) We identify a whole series of possible options for councillors that are not in Cabinet. It is really a matter as to whether authorities and their councillors want to seize the opportunities that there are in this legislation. If they do seize those opportunities, there are a lot of things that councillors can do that will be extremely positive in their communities. On the other hand, the legislation does seem to be sufficiently permissive to allow executives or groups to effectively close down those positive opportunities. In those circumstances, the local councillor will do what the local councillor has always been able to do and that is to start to kick up a fuss.

  88. You think there are enough mechanisms, supposing there was an independent councillor elected for, say, New Mills? Would they be able to cause sufficient trouble in Derbyshire County Council so that some notice was taken of them?
  (Mr Wilcox) Compared with what they are able to do now, I do not see that there is any restriction on what they will be able to do in future. I do not think their powers are necessarily enhanced by this legislation.

  89. You do not think they are restricted by this legislation?
  (Mr Wilcox) The papers for the Cabinet executive meetings must be made available in advance. There have to be plans made available in advance so members know what the important decisions are going to be. Their access to information, which people are understandably concerned about, I do not think is diminished by this legislation. Given that and given their natural capacity to make noises, I do not think their role is in any way restricted. I question whether it is enhanced but I do not think it is restricted.

  90. How far do you think the arrangements for area committees are working? Really, we are going back to reinstating urban district councils, are we not, in a lot of the bigger authorities?
  (Mr Wilcox) They have certainly been well received by local communities. They are an opportunity perhaps for non-executive members to take local executive decisions. Where they run into the greatest problems is if you have authorities with small majorities, where you have some tensions as to what you wish to delegate to area committees. I know there are examples where authorities have toyed with area committees and pulled back from them because they are concerned that the area committees would end up taking decisions that they as an authority were not elected to carry out. There is a tension there but it is the tension of any devolved system. If you devolve a system, the people who have the devolved powers sometimes take the decisions that you do not want them to take.

  91. Party caucuses: do they need to change substantially under the new framework?
  (Mr Wilcox) When we are talking about change, that is where I have the grave problem because there are party groups in operation at present that work well and some that are tremendously restrictive. If you talk to the leader of Bedfordshire about the new structures which they have established, they have gone for Cabinet and scrutiny and they have been running that for about three years now. He will indicate to you that the most important thing is that, in the council, in that three and a half year period since they were elected, they have never lost a vote. They have a majority of one. Ultimately, the caucus and the group or whatever has triumphed. However, we would suggest that they have an extremely good and open scrutiny system which works well and effectively. They would argue that improvement has arisen as a consequence of that scrutiny taking place. They have had improvement but they have not lost any major votes. The caucus lives but the new arrangements are perceived to be more effective.

  92. Do you think five years on we are going to have as many councillors in most local authorities as we have now or is there a move to reduce the number of councillors and does that have a direct effect on the number of party activists?
  (Mr Wilcox) I suspect the moves to reduce the numbers probably lie in your hands rather than in our hands.

  93. They certainly do not lie in my hands.
  (Mr Wilcox) No. I am going to have to pass on that because I really do not know. I know there are pressures that are on for a reduction in the number of councillors from Solace and one or two other bodies. Turn-outs in local elections may lead people to question the value of local councils. Local authorities have to establish for themselves that they have a positive role to play so they have a part to play in that but the reduced powers which local authorities have and the centre ground politics which we seem to increasingly pursue mean that it is more and more difficult for activists on door steps to knock on doors and describe all the differences that they would introduce, compared with what their opponents would introduce. I think that is a real issue.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.


 
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