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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  220. How does that link between the cabinet and back-benchers work?
  (Mr Houghton) The deputy cabinet members sit on scrutiny but not on the scrutiny area for which they have responsibility, obviously. Where, obviously, they are involved in the cabinet meeting and decisions are taken they cannot sit on scrutiny because you cannot be in both camps. They understand what is going on in scrutiny and can feed that back. Equally, a lot of this is about member relationships and members working day-to-day together and getting a common understanding of what is going on. I think having those deputies involved in those processes provides an effective link into that. Equally, we have an area forum structure which involves all members irrespective of their designation, and again it is getting those cabinet understandings and views out into the area forums and not just relying on a small group.

  221. How important do you think those things are through the deputies and area committees?
  (Mr Houghton) I think they are extremely important. I think we have tried to get the best of both worlds, where there is a clear executive decision-making process, and yet not isolate the executive from what is going on. We would be reluctant to see that removed. Obviously, if you ask would we prefer to have that option the answer is yes.
  (Mr Coppard) It is also a training ground for future members. Instead of coming straight into the cabinet they come through a deputy role, by and large.


  222. Can I ask Middlesbrough: can you explain a bit more about these Counsellor Advocates?
  (Ms Connolly) Yes. Counsellor Advocate is the link between the executive and the non-executive members. The idea of this, initially, was to bridge what would be perceived as a difficulty of communication.

  223. This is a councillor rather than an officer?
  (Ms Connolly) He is a councillor and in Middlesbrough I think we felt that the key to the role was the person who was appointed.

  224. So it is a bit more patronage?
  (Ms Connolly) No, it is not. It is about having a person who all members trust, who are not executive members, who is able to feed through to the cabinet their concerns and problems. We found that because there were teething problems when we introduced the system it has been very useful, and he has played a quite high profile role in establishing the links between the two parts of the process.

Sir Paul Beresford

  225. This would be a training ground in a similar way?
  (Ms Connolly) I think it is.

  226. And no patronage.
  (Ms Connolly) No.


  227. They do not get any extra allowance for doing this?
  (Ms Connolly) Yes, they do.

  228. How many urban districts were put together into the Barnsley authority?
  (Mr Coppard) There were 12 including the original county borough plus parts of two rural districts, so 14 altogether.

  229. So the area committees have simply re-established the urban district councils?
  (Mr Houghton) There are some members of the public who think so and who think it is a good idea do so. I do not think it is quite like that.

  230. How far do the boundaries actually come inside the original urban district councils?
  (Mr Houghton) They are reasonably close but there is no exact match.
  (Mr Coppard) It was not done on that basis, it was done on a ward basis.

  231. Do they have delegated powers to spend money?
  (Mr Houghton) They are given a small budget which equates to £5,000 per ward—if you have got three wards it is £15,000 or for two it is £10,000—to spend on their local community plans. Each of the area forums has developed its own community plan on the basis of a major consultation exercise which took place in the summer of last year and which has helped to facilitate some of the activities in and around that.

  232. How is that sum of money arrived at? Was it just the petty cash that was left over?
  (Mr Houghton) It is what we can afford. We are one of the poorest SSAs of any authority in the country.

Mr Benn

  233. Just pursuing that point for a minute, if area committees are really going to work and people turn out or they come and discuss, would you not accept that one of the things that they will want is to be able to take decisions that influence that area and that, therefore, having money (following up the Chairman's question) will be important? Take the example of traffic calming. I do not know what you spend on traffic calming, but why, for instance, could you not consider, say, a proportion of that pot being delegated pro-rata to each of the area committees for them to determine priorities and then you retain a central pot which people can bid into for bigger schemes?
  (Mr Houghton) That assumes that our responsibilities as determined through the engineers and the safety process can be met from the existing resources that we have. You know the difficulty that the council will be in if we have got a road where there are serious accidents but we do not have the money to improve that but we are giving money out to local people, introducing traffic calming improvements in their area that do not actually relate to any scientific examination of where the problems are. Once the SSA system is introduced, and next year under the White Paper I know Barnsley is going to get a lot more money, I am sure we will be able to compensate.

  234. Do you accept that for area committees really to have credibility with local people greater delegation of resources to them will be required?
  (Mr Coppard) Yes, and we want to move in that direction. This council has been through a great deal of change since February 1999 when we carried out the modernisation. These things take time to settle down and develop.
  (Mr Houghton) The next phase, in our terms, is that we are amalgamating the estate caretakers, street cleansing services and ground maintenance services in the borough into what will be known as Neighbourhood Pride Teams, based on the area forums and accountable to the area forums for the work they do. So we are trying to get rid of the bureaucracy that has come with the services. I will let these local teams manage their own local services on the ground in those areas. In other areas of service it will be less appropriate to manage it on that basis.
  (Mr Stewart) It is not just a question about area committees operating with delegated budgets. In many cases people actually do not want or need the responsibility for that delegated authority, what they want to be able to do is to see that they are, by becoming involved in the work of the local authority by engaging themselves in the process, having an impact on the decisions of the authority. Even where budgets are not delegated or decentralised, there are processes that you can use to involve people in the decision-making on a particular issue—whether it be traffic calming or street lighting—within a general policy framework set by the council. So there is that intermediate position in between full delegation and decisions still being made—
  (Mr Houghton) In some of these issues we do take it out of the area forums and get a view before decisions are made. Equally, all the area forum minutes are an item on the cabinet agenda, so there is an opportunity for members of the public to raise issues and get them discussed at cabinet level. If the forum wants to make a recommendation to the cabinet—to build a new swimming pool, for instance—that will get on the agenda. They might not get the answer they want, but that will go on the agenda.

  235. Can I ask you a question, going back to scrutiny, because you said in your evidence that the lack of dedicated officer support has led to some concern about, for example, potential conflicts of interests as far as officers are concerned. How are you trying to address that?
  (Ms Connolly) We are intending to appoint dedicated officer support. We are looking at reviewing at the moment exactly what amount of resources will be able to go into that, but we do recognise this is an issue.

  236. Can I ask how have officers who have been closely involved in developing proposals with executive board members taken to then having to appear before scrutiny panels?
  (Mr Stewart) I think that has been a difficulty in the Middlesbrough arrangements. Having only been there six months myself I cannot compare it with the arrangements of the previous authority which did have a dedicated resource for scrutiny from the outset, and it has led to two difficulties: first of all, which was a point raised earlier, we have been in a position of being, if you like, the permanent secretary servicing yourselves, which is clearly unsustainable, but, also, it ends up taking up a much greater proportion of senior management time that I think would be better spent on doing what we were all appointed to do in the first place. I think the case for having dedicated support for scrutiny is unarguable. I think, as in Barnsley, there are issues about the level of support that any local authority is able to give its scrutiny process.
  (Mr Coppard) As far as officers appearing before scrutiny is concerned, I think this is part of their job and they regard it as that. I have to say that the trend is very strongly for the scrutiny commission to call the member spokesperson from the cabinet before them and that spokesperson tends to bring the officer with them for support. When we set it up we kind of envisaged that scrutiny commissions might want to, first of all, interview the member and then take the member out and interview the officer to see whether they got the same story or not. They are not actually working in that way, they tend to invite the member and the member brings the officer with them.

  237. Have you had any complaints from scrutiny members that the officers, or indeed the elected members, appearing before them have been less than full and open with, for example, information that led up to the decision or the recommendation that they are making?
  (Mr Houghton) No, I think where there has been criticism is where questions have been asked in terms of detail that have not been readily available. So what we say to scrutiny is "Look, if you are getting into some of the minutiae here we could do with knowing what some of these questions are going to be before we come because they are going to take some researching." So there has to be a sort of too-ing and fro-ing between the executive side and the scrutiny side.


  238. How far do scrutiny panels manage to get civil society within Barnsley or Middlesbrough to put in evidence to them? Have they got anything coming from people outside the council to influence scrutiny?
  (Mr Coppard) If you take the example, perhaps, of domestic violence, the scrutiny panels are split into smaller groups and they actually interview battered women and the police officers concerned with that area of work, and so on. So they do go out. When they did their report on carers they interviewed a whole range of people involved, either as clients or as carers themselves. So there are numerous examples, really, where they have done that.

  239. That is them going out. How far do people in the community volunteer to put evidence into the committee?
  (Mr Houghton) Not massively. Engaging the public at scrutiny level is difficult.

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