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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 251 - 259)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001

CLLR A PHILIP HENDRY CBE, MR DAVID BELL, MS JILL SHORTLAND and MR TEGWYN JONES

Chairman

  251. May I welcome you to the Committee and ask you to identify yourselves?
  (Mr Jones) Thank you. I am Tegwyn Jones, I am the Policy Manager of South Somerset District Council.
  (Ms Shortland) Jill Shortland, Leader of South Somerset District Council.
  (Cllr Hendry) Philip Hendry, Leader of Bedfordshire County Council.
  (Mr Bell) David Bell, Chief Executive of Bedfordshire County Council.

  Chairman: Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight into questions? Straight into questions.

Mr Blunt

  252. You are both, to a lesser or greater degree, looking at area arrangements. Can I ask you what role area arrangements can play in the new political management structures, beginning with South Somerset?
  (Ms Shortland) As you will see, I hope, from the paperwork that you have been given we have had area committees in place for a great deal of time. From our point of view what we were hoping was that the new arrangements would not interfere with what we see as being a successful way of working, and we appeared before the Select Committee to actually give evidence 18 months ago now to ensure, or to give evidence to hope to ensure, the legislation was framed in that way. From our point of view now, having been working with a pilot system for two years—and we changed it last year to try and reflect what we thought was going to be in the legislation, we are almost there and we are going to change again this year—that is the nature of the process, as far as we see it. We see what the Government has set out as a framework and we, hopefully, can be flexible within that framework. The benefits, certainly from our point of view, are that all members of the council are effectively and actively involved in the decision-making process on their area committees, and that the functions that we have delegated to area committees are relevant for that geographical area across the whole council.

  253. I understand that. How are you going to be able to carry on with it under the new arrangements?
  (Ms Shortland) All the guidance that I have seen shows that we can carry on with it under the new arrangements. As far as we are concerned, it looks like the guidance notes have been written for South Somerset District Council, so we have interpreted it that way.

  254. What is your population?
  (Ms Shortland) 155,000. We have got a very large geographical spread. That is the difference for South Somerset. We have a very large area, which is rural with urban centres.

Mrs Dunwoody

  255. Does it balance out fairly well in size of population? Approximately what size are the area committees?
  (Ms Shortland) Area South is probably the biggest in population terms but that is because Area South covers predominantly Yeovil and the hinterland around it. Area East, for example, on the other extreme, has a smaller population but has a much larger geographical area. In terms of members, they range from having 19 elected members—obviously each elected member's ward is about the same size across the whole district in population terms—down to 13 on Area East.

Mr Brake

  256. Can I ask you whether, to fit in with the new arrangements, you have had to distort your structure in a way that you consider to be, perhaps, disadvantageous to your residents?
  (Ms Shortland) Last year we did and we changed the way that we work to try and make it fit with the new arrangements. The new cabinet that came in, instead of the old district committee, was a change of membership in order to try and comply with what the Government was saying we should be doing. It just did not work. We found it very difficult to effectively take decisions and effectively scrutinise those decisions. We became more an authority which was looking at just the area committees—four areas coming together in a body—as opposed to being a strategic authority. We had the help of the Improvement and Development Agency, which we invited in to do a review of our authority, and with their help we have actually changed. The new cabinet this year has been changed to move away from having area chairmen on our cabinet because they said that we were in danger, they felt, of eventually, if we carried on this way of working, becoming effectively four mini-authorities in amongst a big authority. So we have changed the way we are structured now to try and get the best, if you like, of the legislation as well as the best way of working for the council.

Mr Blunt

  257. I can see from the evidence you have given us that what you have done is you have had to change from having this area based structure with executive functions to putting those area chairmen on to the executive—that is right—and now you have had to change that to then go, as I understand it, so that the area chairmen are now part of the scrutiny committee and the executive are the people with the functions that roll across the whole of the district.
  (Ms Shortland) Yes, but that has not changed the work of the area committees. The area committee work—their decision making, their monitoring of their area—has not changed at all, so their public face, if you like, has not changed at all.
  (Mr Jones) There are still some executive decisions that are made by area committees.

  258. Some?
  (Mr Jones) There are some.

  259. But there are some that are no longer made by them. Is that right?
  (Mr Jones) Yes, indeed the vast majority of the executive decisions are made by the leader and the cabinet.


 
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