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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 156 - 179)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001

MR STEPHEN HOUGHTON, MR PHILIP COPPARD, MS SYLVIA CONNOLLY and MR STEVE STEWART

Chairman

  156. Can I welcome you to the Committee, and ask you to identify ourselves for the record.
  (Mr Stewart) Steve Stewart, Head of Corporate Strategy Unit, Middlesbrough Borough Council.
  (Ms Connolly) Sylvia Connolly, Deputy Leader of Middlesbrough Borough Council.
  (Mr Houghton) Stephen Houghton, Leader of Barnsley Council.
  (Mr Coppard) Phil Coppard, Chief Executive of Barnsley Council.

  157. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight to questions.
  (Mr Houghton) Straight to questions.

Mr Blunt

  158. Could you each tell us in turn what are the benefits of your experimental arrangements?
  (Mr Houghton) From a member perspective in Barnsley, first of all, we have a more open system in the modernised arrangements than we had previously. As a result of that, I think the public understands the decision-making process of the council much more. Elected members understand their roles more clearly, where under the old system the roles were mixed in. In terms of decision-making it is much more streamlined and therefore much more effective. Overall I think we have seen service improvements arising from the modernised arrangements.

Sir Paul Beresford

  159. Could you explain the openness. You have just said it is more open. How is it more open?
  (Mr Houghton) Under the previous committee system the decisions by and large were taken behind closed doors by the political groups; that is no longer the case. The decisions are obviously taken by cabinet on day-to-day matters within policy and within budget. The cabinet recommends to the full council directions in terms of key areas of the council's work. That is an open process done in public to which, occasionally, the public and certain members and the press are in attendance.

  160. You do not have political group meetings discussing these items at any stage?
  (Mr Houghton) We do, but the political group meetings come at the end of the process and not at the beginning, which was the case under the previous system.

Mr Blunt

  161. When was Barnsley last not controlled by the Labour Party?
  (Mr Coppard) 1933.

  Mrs Dunwoody: A very intelligent group of people!

Mr Blunt

  162. Perhaps your colleagues from Middlesbrough could tell us what they think are the main strengths of the changes they have put in?
  (Ms Connolly) We feel that the decision-making process is more streamlined now. We have fewer meetings and we are able to deal with issues quicker than we did before. It is less cumbersome; there is less time spent in meetings. Therefore, councillors are able to spend more time in the community, instead of spending all of their time in the town hall. Cabinet meetings are open; they are publicly held. Therefore, there is a transparency about the decision-making. We find we have taken a flexible view of how we deal with our new structures; and we have been able to change as we have gone along. We are able to find new ways of working and pilot new ways of working. All of our non-executive members have a role in scrutiny, and some of them have other responsibilities as well.

  163. When was Middlesbrough last not controlled by the Labour Party?
  (Ms Connolly) Some time in the 1940s, I think.

  164. What do you think the main weaknesses are which you have found in the new system?
  (Mr Houghton) Initially I think cultural weaknesses. Members were not used to the new form of governance. We had 150 years of one particular type of arrangement and members found it difficult (and some members still do find it difficult) to come to terms with the new roles and responsibilities. As a result of that, I think training and development of members is a key issue under the modernised arrangements, so people are aware and understand what is required of them from the new system and they are given the development and the skills in order to carry that through. That is certainly an issue for us early on. Also on an officer level, officers have had to come to terms with changes in the way we do our business, and that has not always been easy either because the relationships have started to change. It does take time for people to get used to that, and for people to take advantage of what has been brought about.
  (Mr Coppard) I just want to add to what has been said about the advantages of the new system from an officer perspective. What it does mean is that there is just a single point of political authority.

Chairman

  165. You mean there is just one member you have to fix?
  (Mr Coppard) There is one cabinet. I should say that all decisions in Barnsley are taken collectively by the cabinet and they are not proposing to make use of the ability to have single member decisions. All decisions are collective. There is a single point of authority—the cabinet. Previously we had 14 committees, each with a chairman and chief officer; each operated a conspiracy to smuggle their business through the committee; and each one represented a political power base separate from the leader of the council and separate from the rule of the political group. There were all those tensions and the senior management team struggled to operate in that environment. Now the senior management team has a very clear, single political agenda that is set by the cabinet and any differences can be resolved.

Mrs Dunwoody

  166. Have you had any instance of any of your councillors involved in scrutiny, as opposed to be involved in cabinet, of being able to highlight some decision or some problem with a decision which is not in the interests of the ratepayers?
  (Mr Coppard) I am not sure "not in the interests of the ratepayers", but certainly scrutiny committees are very sharp on pulling up the cabinet on matters where they have a disagreement.

  167. Have they been able to influence, and has there been an instance in which there has been a change in decision?
  (Mr Coppard) I think there are two parts to that: on the proactive part of that agenda, where they conduct their own investigations into matters, they have very significantly influenced the council's policy in a number of areas.

  168. Where?
  (Mr Coppard) On road safety, for example, we now have a system of 20 mile an hour zones around schools in the borough, which is a direct result of the scrutiny commission bringing that to the cabinet's attention.

Mr Blunt

  169. Of course, changes like that would have been invisible before because they would have taken place within committees?
  (Mr Coppard) No, they were strangled by the ruling group, I think.

Mrs Dunwoody

  170. What is the second part, because you said there are two parts?
  (Mr Coppard) There is the reactive part as well. Obviously the scrutiny commissions do scrutinise the actual decisions of the cabinet. There have been quite a number of instances where they have referred cabinet decisions back for further consideration.

  171. How many of those have been reversed?
  (Mr Coppard) I think very few have been reversed, but a number have been modified.

Sir Paul Beresford

  172. The procedure for that is that the executive make a decision and, surprise, surprise, nobody in the majority group knows about it; it goes through to the scrutiny committee where a number of the majority group decide they do not like it, so then does it go back for majority group decision?
  (Mr Houghton) Could I just explain the process. In Barnsley the cabinet can do two things: it can take day-to-day decisions within policy and within budget. If the decision is required either to introduce a new policy or change policy or it is outside budget constraints that have been set, that must be a recommendation to the council and that is a decision of all members of the council to do that. The cabinet obviously outputs its day-to-day decisions or its recommendations through the system. The cabinet agenda is circulated to all members of the council prior to the meeting. All cabinet decisions and recommendations are circulated to all members of the council at the end of every cabinet meeting, so people are fully aware of what is going on in and around the cabinet. The meetings are open so if people wish to attend, they do. Indeed some members, if there is an issue about their individual ward or a general issue of concern, often attend the cabinet meeting to see what is going on. Scrutiny commissions then can obviously oversee what has happened within those cabinet meetings. Particularly on recommended items, each one of those is pulled in for scrutiny before it proceeds to full council. The scrutiny commissions will take a view: either they are happy with what is going forward and they pass that through; if they are not happy they can refer that back to the cabinet and ask them to have another look at the issue of concern. Indeed, on a number of occasions they do so.

Mr Blunt

  173. How many hours do the cabinet members put in as opposed to how many hours the scrutiny members put in, in terms of council business?
  (Mr Houghton) It is difficult to assess. At the end of the day, it depends on each individual member and their commitment to the process. There is no doubt that the cabinet members do put in hours far in excess of what is expected, and certainly some of the chairs of the various scrutiny bodies, but I cannot say that it is X hours for one and X hours for another.

  174. What are the allowances for each category?
  (Mr Houghton) The allowances were set by an independent review panel 12 months ago. I have not got the figures before me for individuals, but it is about £5,000 per year for the chair of the scrutiny body.

  175. How much do you get as Leader?
  (Mr Houghton) There is a basic allowance plus a special responsibility allowance of £17,000.

  176. A total of £17,000?
  (Mr Houghton) No, there is a basic allowance of round about £7,500 on top on that.
  (Mr Coppard) Every member gets the basic allowance and then there is a special responsibility allowance on top of that.

  177. And cabinet members?
  (Mr Houghton) They will get a basic plus the SRA.

  178. Which is?
  (Mr Houghton) I cannot remember the SRA off-hand.

  179. Approximately?
  (Mr Houghton) I would think it is around £10,000.


 
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