Examination of witnesses (Questions 240
TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001
CONNOLLY and MR
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' panelthe 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 alland 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.
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 workall the stuff about Forward Plans and key
(Mr Houghton) The Forward Plan looks onerous to say
(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
(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 arrangementsif 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 awfulthe 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
electioneven 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.
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
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
Sir Paul Beresford
250. How many responded?
(Mr Houghton) We have done it in a number of different
(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.