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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 94 - 119)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001

CLLR MALCOLM MEIKLE, MR SID PRITCHARD, MS LIZ KERRY and MS SUE JEFFREY

Chairman

  94. Good morning. Can I welcome you to the Committee. This is the second of our sessions on local authority governance. Could I ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
  (Ms Jeffrey) I am Sue Jeffrey, the Regional Assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside.
  (Ms Kerry) Sue is the Head of Policy at the Regional Assembly. My name is Liz Kerry, Director of the Regional Assembly.
  (Mr Pritchard) Sid Pritchard, Managing Director of Wychavon District Council.
  (Cllr Meikle) Councillor Meikle, Leader of Wychavon District Council.

  95. Would you like to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight to questions?
  (Cllr Meikle) Go first to questions.

Sir Paul Beresford

  96. As I understand it, Councillor Meikle, you believe that the cabinet-style decision-making is inappropriate for district councils and rural councils in particular?
  (Cllr Meikle) Yes, I do.

  97. Can you tell us why, and what you think you would prefer as the options, or what options you would like to head and choose from?
  (Cllr Meikle) My principal reason for not liking it is that it creates division within a council, in the first instance. It creates, in my view, a two-tier system of councillor. It is extraordinarily divisive and disruptive to creating harmony within the community. If I may just comment: two years ago, when we had the election, we had 22 new members out of a council of 49, and I felt that it was a denial of democracy to say to those 22 new members, "You have no part to play in the decision-making process". As our written evidence shows, what we did, we believe we have complied with all the requirements the Government have asked us to do, save in actually creating a formal cabinet. What we have done is created a leaders' panel of six, which is an advisory group; in all other ways it meets fortnightly with our officers. It is an extraordinarily good forum for involving officers, because we have second and third tier officers coming in and making a representation. We have had external people, the Countryside Commission, the Local Government Association, the Deputy Chief Constable, and it has worked really very well. We cut our committee structure down from 19 committees and sub-committees to four. We felt that it was reasonable to give every elected member at least the chance of making a decision in one committee.

  98. What would you have preferred? What would your preferred option have been?
  (Cllr Meikle) Our preferred option was just this. We submitted it to Hilary Armstrong but regrettably she rejected it. We wanted to retain the informal leaders' panel without executive powers and a very much streamlined committee of four, plus the planning committee.

  99. You had how many before the change?
  (Cllr Meikle) We had 19 before the change.

  100. Now you have?
  (Cllr Meikle) We have four service committees and the planning committee, making it five.

  101. What is the cost of those?
  (Mr Pritchard) I do not know.

  102. Is there a significant cost difference?
  (Mr Pritchard) I suspect it is very much the same. The main cost obviously is far less papers are produced as a result of the reduction we have there. There have been some minor reductions in the staffing arrangements for the committee section that operated. In terms of significance, I do not think there is a significant reduction in cost.

  103. Is there a significant improvement in decision-making?
  (Cllr Meikle) There is a vastly significant improvement.

  104. Speed?
  (Cllr Meikle) Speed and consistency to a certain extent, because the leaders' panel consists of the five chairmen of the committees. We analyse the agendas of those committees, and we consider them before the committees take place. We actually have an inquest on how well the committee went.

  105. To a degree, the Minister would say you have proved your point?
  (Cllr Meikle) Yes, except there is one major difference: she will not give you the latitude of asking your own constituents what they prefer.

Chairman

  106. If you had not been forced by legislation to change, would you have changed?
  (Cllr Meikle) I believe so, because there was a general recognition that the proliferation of committees and working parties had got out of hand.

Mr Benn

  107. Could you just tell us how your party group operates in relation to these new structures?
  (Cllr Meikle) We are a very strong party within the whole council since the election. We were in opposition prior to the last election. We have a group meeting, and on major issues of policy, which I am not 100 per cent. sure I would get through the committee or the council, I discuss it with the whole group first of all. I might say, as far as our leaders' panel is concerned, as it has developed we now circulate to the whole of the council topics that have been discussed within the leaders' panel. We now circulate within the press topics that have been discussed within the panel. We actually say that we invite public comment or contribution to those topics at the formulative stage. In fact, by doing that we have probably flagged up something well in advance of it coming to fruition.

  108. Can I just be clear, the leaders' panel, is that six members, and they are all from the same party?
  (Cllr Meikle) Yes, they are.

  109. You have said that the Minister had said that this was not an acceptable arrangement. Given that a party group can operate entirely as it wishes to in parallel to the formal structure, what is to stop you under the new arrangements to operate that system informally?
  (Cllr Meikle) Indeed, there is absolutely nothing and, reading the written evidence, every other council is going to do the same thing. It appears to us, all the other councils are now creating a new system of committee, sub-committee, review panel etc. To be absolutely honest, reading the written evidence many of them are going to have a much more cumbersome structure than we enjoy at the moment. Again, if you were asking me why there is an element of complaint in my voice, it is that we do not believe there was any particular merit in identifying a district council at 85,000 as an authority that might be allowed some option. We believe that it should be based more on fluidity. We are an authority of 112,000 and again, coterminous with what is happening, there seems to be this desire to create new structures, such as forums, to involve the public in them. We actually have 72 or 74 parish councils within our authority. I am not sure Parliament realises how a council in a district operates these days. We are expected, if you are a councillor of any use at all, to attend these parish councils. I have four within my ward. The line of communication and partnership is very extensive indeed. If you were to put a forum in on top of this you are, in fact, bypassing the democratically elected parish council, which I personally think is unfortunate.

  110. What impact do you think the new arrangements will have on the relationship between members and officers? There has been some evidence of officers saying, "A smaller number of councillors devoting more time—we have got less influence and they have got more".
  (Cllr Meikle) I am happy to let Sid Pritchard speak for himself.
  (Mr Pritchard) Certainly there is a changing relationship, because clearly chairmen of committees have long influenced what has happened within any organisation because they are clearly drivers. We do find it a little surprising that people say they do not know who to identify with and who is responsible. In my experience, and this is my fortieth year in local government, it has been very clear that chairmen of committees and their vice chairmen are people of influence whom the public can address and get to, to get information. Officers have long established their relationships. From my point of view, it is important to remember that I, as an officer, serve the whole council. Whilst retaining the relationship that there is with the leading members, the leaders' panel, the chairmen and so on, I do make it very clear (and I am sure the Leader will confirm) that I serve the whole council. I attend variously all the different types of groups and provide them with information as the council as a whole. Quite often during our discussions I do say to leaders, "I have to advise the council on the whole range of these issues, and not simply the points that you as a political party may wish to go down". That is why, when we are presenting reports and so on to committees and via the leaders' panel, the officer's report and the officer's comments are there, and the views of the leaders' panel are expressed separately. They are getting a clear view as of the officer's professional view, professional advice about particular issues and they go forward and the leaders' panel express their views and recommendations before decisions are then taken.

  111. Do you think the new arrangements would adversely affect that relationship you have just described?
  (Mr Pritchard) My concern is that you will end up with too cosy a relationship. That there will be more pressure on individual officers from portfolio holders because they have the right to make decisions, and will have the ability to put more pressure on officers; because they are the ones who are actually making the direct decision at that time.

Mrs Dunwoody

  112. Alternatively, could it not lead to a situation where you have, in effect, almost a two-tier officer system, where the officers advising particular committees (particularly if you have a scrutiny set-up) would feel duty-bound to point out problems with the arguments being put forward by other officers? It would hardly lead to a harmonious relationship inside the offices?
  (Mr Pritchard) That is right. It would make corporate working amongst the officer cadre very difficult. Everybody would be looking over their shoulders all the time.

  113. That is a possibility, is it?
  (Mr Pritchard) It is clearly a possibility. It happens to a minor extent now when you look at auditors. Auditors are seen as people who are questioning the decisions that have been taken, and it is only an adjunct from that I would suggest. As you go on providing different views about what decisions and what recommendations will be made, it is only likely, as Councillor Meikle said, to be divisive amongst the officers in the same way it is divisive amongst members.

Mr Blunt

  114. Can I concentrate on the effect on councillors. You mentioned you have 22 new councillors who, in a sense, are going to be disenfranchised, no longer part of the decision-making process. How easy is it to get people to stand for council in your area, and what effect do you think these reforms are going to have on that?
  (Cllr Meikle) It is quite difficult to get people to stand at all. I actually think the way we are being encouraged to will have an absolutely disastrous effect; because I do not believe that people will want to stand merely to be on a review or scrutiny panel. One of the reasons why we won control of the council was because we had worked extremely hard to get people to stand for the council, and we had a very good new intake. Because I wished to recognise this new intake, when I found myself being allowed to nominate the chairmen and vice chairmen of the committees, I put a brand new member as vice chairman of every committee; so in fact it was not merely us carrying on through the old way. There was a very determined effort on our part to create a new situation, and I do believe we have.

  115. That will now be lost?
  (Cllr Meikle) I hope it will not be lost, because I do not intend that those of us who have been there for so many years should remain the principal office holders. It clearly would be lost if you went to portfolio holders. I have to say, human nature being what it is, I hope you have reviewed the salary structure which is now being introduced, and the weighting that is being given to portfolio holders as opposed to the ordinary members of the council. This, of course, in my view is going to be a divisive issue and is probably going to be an incentive to the people who are not necessarily the most able to retain office.

  Chairman: It gives you a lot of patronage?

Mr Blunt

  116. Or does it. How do you select your portfolio holders?
  (Cllr Meikle) You may well ask! The pattern that seems to have evolved (it was not the one I was used to) is done by the Leader of the Council.[1]

  117. You owe your position to carrying the confidence of the ruling group, and you then have the patronage, to a point, of the portfolio holders?
  (Cllr Meikle) This, as I see it, is the norm. It was not the one which I was used to at all in the years I have been in local government until this last election.

Sir Paul Beresford

  118. Going back a step, one of the things that concerned Members when the Bill was going through House was the possibility of corruption. I know that is rare in local government, but it does happen. You have mentioned you felt the relationship between members and officers under the new system would become cosy?
  (Mr Pritchard) There is the potential to do that, yes.

  119. Do you feel it has increased? I am not saying for your local authority, but if the temptation was there would a cosy relationship make it more suitable for that environment?
  (Mr Pritchard) I suspect it would, yes.


1   Note by witness: Nominations are made by the Leader of the Council and considered by the full Council. Back


 
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