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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 240 - 250)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001

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

Mrs Dunwoody

  240. Do you use IT to tell them what you are doing and what subjects you are looking at?
  (Mr Coppard) Yes, we use the website. IT take-up in an area like Barnsley is extremely low anyway, so that is not necessarily the answer to it. We do publish and the press publish what is going on in the scrutiny commissions. I think we have got to be honest. Are the public queuing up at the gates at the new system? The answer is no, they are not. Where we are getting the public engaged (and, in my view for what it is worth, the most important bit of modernisation is the cabinet and its scrutiny) is where we will get the public starting to be attracted to the work the council is doing. Maybe they should be interested in the education development plan but actually they are more interested in getting the gate mended and the bins emptied and so on. It is those sorts of issues which attract them to area forums and discussions about whether we are performing in those areas as opposed to the economic development plan for Barnsley for the next five years.

  241. I think what concerns us is the way the public always reacts when it is something negative. People always tell you when it is wrong. Do you get any indication that the flow of information to the general public is better than it was before, so that they know early enough to talk to their local councillors about problems that might arise?
  (Mr Houghton) We are trying to measure those aspects of our performance through the citizens' panel—the 1600 people referred to by ourselves, the health authority and the police from time to time. We have not got the figures with us but the evidence shows it is getting better. We are still way away from where we would like to be. I think, like most local government, we are not the best communicators in the world.

Sir Paul Beresford

  242. Is your public getting an overload? You have got best value, you have got all of this, you are producing magazines and booklets and boring them all—and God knows what it is costing. Are your 1600 people find they are saying "Good night. It's Christmas. Go away"?
  (Mr Houghton) There is always a danger of consultation fatigue, and we are conscious of that. Having said that, there are things we have got to do, by statute.

Chairman

  243. Is it good statute?
  (Mr Houghton) By and large I think it is.

  244. Can I pursue you on this question of the statute? What about the information that you have got to provide? Are the regulations that the Government has come up with helpful? Do you think the general public can understand their rights to information? Does the council understand their rights to information?
  (Mr Coppard) I think there are simpler ways of doing it by driving decisions out into the open, which is what we largely do in Barnsley. There are certain categories under the old Access to Information Act which have to be taken in private because they are commercially confidential. I think that does get widely abused in local government across the land. If it was rigorously adhered to the decisions are there and they are open. I am not sure that all the bureaucracy on top of that is really necessary. We can make that work—all the stuff about Forward Plans and key decisions.
  (Mr Houghton) The Forward Plan looks onerous to say the least.
  (Mr Stewart) I think, on the positive side, in the Forward Plan, we are aware this might have to come about but the Forward Plan requirement is going to assist the process of looking in scrutiny to the executive part of the process. The most difficult of the three elements of scrutiny is the policy development. A lot of scrutiny is focused on reviewing things that have already happened. The difficult area, in starting to look forward, would actually be, I think, facilitated by the requirement to produce a Forward Plan because it would then provide a window within which the scrutiny body could develop its own work programme in the Forward Plan. So that at the point of decision, scrutiny advice and evidence is available to the decision makers. In some cases people are a long way ahead of the formal requirement in the Act and some of the things that we have to produce are in two-, three- or four-year time-scales, and although I agree it is going to be an administrative burden I think some of the advantages of it will be quite profound.
  (Mr Coppard) I think there is a danger, though, of losing some of the advantages of the new systems, which is about clarity and responsibility for decisions, and the speed of decisions by tying it up with a lot more bureaucracy.

  245. You do not think the Government bureaucrats have done a good job for you?
  (Mr Coppard) I think the civil servants have been trying to make sense of some late amendments to the legislation to get it through.

  246. So it is our fault rather than the civil servants?
  (Mr Coppard) The civil servants are trying to make the best of a difficult position.
  (Mr Stewart) On the other hand, I think a lot of the Part Two guidance and the modern constitution is very good.

  Mr Blunt: Can I just take you back to the overall context of these changes. You both represent authorities that have been in the control of one party. Do you think that these changes that you are implementing and which you are reasonably positive about and are actually suited to the circumstances in which you find yourselves should be imposed on other councils who do not enjoy the same political arrangements—if that is the right word?

Sir Paul Beresford

  247. Can I add to that one? If I was sitting in a local authority that had worked the previous system and I had got the Ofsted report etc equivalent to yours, I might turn to you and say "Your system is working well because your previous system was so damned awful—the way you ran it."
  (Mr Houghton) There may be some justification in some of the things that you say there. All we can go on is the evidence that has been produced by Ofsted and the other bodies. They did not put it in that context. What they said is that modernisation has added a positive into the work that was being done. In terms of your own question, will our system work in different political balances, the answer to that is yes, because the officers of the authority could not agree to us having this system that only suits one particular party or body, because that could change in an election—even in Barnsley. It has got to be robust enough to stand different numbers in terms of who is representing who. Would I like to impose Barnsley's system on others? Barnsley's system suits Barnsley. I think local authorities need to tailor whatever the arrangements are to suit their own particular needs and their own ends.

Chairman

  248. Very briefly, an elected mayor in Middlesbrough?
  (Ms Connolly) I think some members are quite positive about the idea of elected mayors, others are not, but we have got a consultation in process at the moment. We are very open about it, we have not tried to sway the public one way or the other and we will wait until we get our responses back from our community.

  249. And in Barnsley?
  (Mr Houghton) We have just carried out our public consultation and the overwhelming view of the people of Barnsley is they are not interested. But when we twist their arms and say "Come on, give us a view" the view is leave the current model.

Sir Paul Beresford

  250. How many responded?
  (Mr Houghton) We have done it in a number of different ways.
  (Mr Coppard) I can send this to the Committee.

  Chairman: If we could have the information. We must finish it at that point. Thank you very much for your very helpful evidence. Thank you.


 
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