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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 280 - 292)

TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001

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

  280. Have you looked at the details of the proposed Bill? I think you will see in there that the powers proposed for local authorities are quite limited. You would not have the power to call for all of the information requested, you would not have the power.
  (Cllr Hendry) It depends on the background. We are fortunate that in Bedfordshire we have a very good relationship, going back many years, between health and social services. For example, last week we had a meeting with all of the members of the executive, with the chief executive and all of the executives of the health authority and the chairman of the health authority to discuss common problems. We have a very good relationship. I do not envisage that we will be sticking strictly to the letter of the law. I think there will be good will on both sides to do the job that we are required to do. Yes, I agree with you that it does in some areas seem limiting. I do not think it will provide an impediment in Bedfordshire because of the culture we created over the last seven or eight years.

  281. Is goodwill enough? If there were issues of concern do you think you would have sufficient power to be influential in exercising the scrutiny role?
  (Cllr Hendry) We hope so. Nothing is set in stone, not even Westminster gets everything right first time.

Mrs Dunwoody

  282. How could you suggest such a thing?
  (Cllr Hendry) I would like to think that if is not quite right we can fine tune it as we go. Experience is the best teacher, I think.

  Mrs Dunwoody: These are very revolutionary ideas that I hope will not catch on.

Chairman

  283. In Bedfordshire you almost set the structure on the basis that it is going to be hung after the next set of elections; is that a fair comment?
  (Cllr Hendry) No, no, no there is going to be a very large Conservative majority. We are going to at least double the Conservative majority from one to two. From 1981 to 1997 Bedfordshire had been hung for 16 years we were a hung authority. Therefore, it was absolutely essential that the three political parties worked together for the benefit of Bedfordshire. Surprise, surprise we found that 95 per cent of the time we were all agreed on everything and it was only for 5 per cent that we were politicians and we fought about things. When we, in fact, brought in the modernisation agenda on 1st January 1999 I felt it would be a tragedy if we lost all that we created over that period of time and went for a single party executive. That is why we did have an all-party executive. I believe the all-party executive has worked very well in the two years that we have been in existence. Who knows what the election result will be, if it is close either way, Labour or Conservative, I would like to think that we would have an all-party executive. If there is a large majority for one party then I am sure the pressure will be on to have a single party executive. Our executive is totally flexible, we have eight members of the executive with eight portfolios and they can go to one party, or in our case they can go to three parties.

  284. Does that framework fit well with the party caucuses?
  (Cllr Hendry) I am not sure how party caucus is affected. The leader of the Liberal Democrats is the only Liberal Democrat on the executive; the leader and the deputy leader[4] from the Labour Group are the only two Labour members on the executive. Myself and my deputy leader and three other members are the Conservatives. Clearly we have, if you like to so describe it, the most influential caucus on the executive.

  285. In terms of the party groups do they discuss policy before it gets to the cabinet or afterwards?
  (Cllr Hendry) Both before and afterwards. It is naive to suggest that it is not discussed before it gets to the cabinet. Whatever the law says people will meet in smoked filled rooms and discuss things if they are of sufficient importance, I believe. Yes, of course we discuss amongst ourselves different things.

  286. As far as the legislation is concerned is government guidance helpful?
  (Mr Bell) In many cases it has been helpful. Draft constitutions have prevented everyone having to write for themselves. At times it has been a bit frustrating and we are trying to get moving on the agenda and are finding that consultation documents or guidance does not quite arrive when you expect it, and that is frustrating.

  287. Sometimes it is helpful, do not knock it.
  (Mr Bell) I think there is an issue, perhaps after the county council elections, about whether we are going to be able to move quickly enough, given what Councillor Hendry said, and if the majority shapes up differently we may want to move to a different arrangement quickly. We need to be clear that we can move to that. On balance I think it has been quite helpful, you have to be sensible and not wait for every bit of guidance, and take some initiatives and make some decisions yourself.

  288. How long did it take you to read?
  (Mr Bell) We divided it all up, no single person has read it all.

  289. How many hours of officer's time?
  (Mr Bell) It has taken a considerable amount of time. I am not complaining too much about that, it is a major change and it demands some attention. Again, to be fair to the DETR they have provided a model constitution which helps us to slot in, as it were, where we want to put the local emphasis without having to go back to the beginning and write all of the text out for ourselves.

Mrs Dunwoody

  290. Did you say a moral constitution?
  (Mr Bell) Model.

  Mrs Dunwoody: I am so glad.

Chairman

  291. As you get the new councillors to sign on on 4th May, somewhere round then, do you hand them this pack?
  (Cllr Hendry) The one plea I would make is that the Government is not to be over-prescriptive. Somebody said in evidence earlier on that there should be the flexibility to fashion things that are right for your community. I think that that is very important. Inevitably there might be some who want to use an over-prescriptive direction to their political advantage, and so on, which I think would be highly detrimental. I do hope there is still enough flexibility for the individual.

  292. You hope, but do you think there is really enough flexibility?
  (Cllr Hendry) I question that.
  (Ms Shortland) At the moment it looks as though there ought to be enough flexibility. The more guidance that comes out of it, it looks like that flexibility is reducing. Also, there are other parts of government working that impact upon what local authorities do. Can I give you a very brief example, building control, which we have area based, it works extremely well. It fits within all of the regulations for modernisation of local government, but there is another part of government which says that building control has to be self-financing, has to compete with the private sector and it has completely wrecked everything that we have built up in terms of building control. That is one service, we can live with that. If that happens with planning, with environmental health and government bring all of these other things in the guidance notes that allow us the flexibility to keep area committees it will be wasted because it will go out of the window because the other things will impact upon it and cross it all out.

  Chairman: On that note can I thank all of you for your evidence. Thank you very much.


4   Witness correction: Another councillor from the Labour Group. Back


 
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