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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 323 - 339)

TUESDAY 20 MARCH

COUNCILLOR MERRICK COCKELL and MR DEREK MYERS

Chairman

  323. Can I welcome you to the Committee and ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?
  (Mr Cockell) I am Councillor Merrick Cockell. I am leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council.
  (Mr Myers) Derek Myers. I am town clerk and chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

  324. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Cockell) I am quite happy; you have my views.

Mr Olner

  325. Could you give me and the Committee what the political numbers are, what is the political makeup of Kensington and Chelsea Council?
  (Mr Cockell) We are two-thirds Conservative; one-third Labour; no Liberals. That has historically been the position and no change in any seat since 1972.

  326. It has always been this way?
  (Mr Cockell) Since the royal borough was formed from the two boroughs, yes, since 1972 which was the last change in holdings on particular seats.

  327. You have probably answered my question as to why you were opposed to the government's policy.
  (Mr Cockell) We may be quite definitely a Conservative authority but we are fully aware that Parliament and government have a right to implement change. We have always been open to change. Our systems have not been set in aspic for the last 100 years. As time has moved on we have changed the whole time. At the time that this government brought forward its proposals, it produced a list of 13 or 14 requirements at the end of the process that they would be looking for. We have already met 11 of those as we currently work.

  328. You argue in your submission that the government's reforms are based upon assertion rather than evidence. Can you elaborate on that statement?
  (Mr Cockell) If we go back to the inspiration for much of this, it refers to the number of hours, for instance, that councillors spend in committee and identifies this as being rather a waste of time. The numbers quoted are up to 90 hours a month. My experience in Kensington and Chelsea and other well run authorities is that that is not the case. It may be the case in large counties where people have to travel large distances, but most of our committee meetings rarely last more than two and a half hours, three hours at the very outside. Most members on the council who do not have chairmanship responsibilities are members of two service committees and one executive committee, plus add-ons obviously. That does not get anywhere near half the number of hours, including preparation and so on. A tightly run, well chaired committee and well chaired council takes up far less time of members. Therefore, the premise that there is a lot of wasted time and unnecessary activities by councils is plain wrong.

  329. Is the far less time explained by the fact that you have group meetings before your committees?
  (Mr Cockell) We do not have group meetings before our committees. Most chairmen of executive committees have a read through half an hour, possibly an hour, before. As a group, we meet once every cycle. There are six cycles a year and we meet once every cycle for an evening. I stop it after two hours and that is normally sufficient for everyone. Chairmen of committees are in close touch with their colleagues on that committee to make sure they have their support on policies and that they are going to have the majority at the end of the day but a lot of time is not spent on group meetings or whatever.

  330. Apart from your own position, the sub-committee has received little negative evidence on these changes. Why do you think that is?
  (Mr Cockell) I imagine that most authorities like us are busily trying to get to grips with it, spending their time trying to create a system that will work, also in the knowledge that the system is coming in. We are all moving towards that; it is not going to change. You may not have had much seriously negative evidence but, having read it, you have not had that much that grabbed it with joy and thinks this is the best thing for local government that has ever happened. It is all very equivocal and a lot of people com in to try to get to grips with a very prescriptive and very complicated system that they have to implement. In our case, on 19 July, we intend to go to leader and Cabinet.

Chairman

  331. Barnsley and Middlesbrough last week were pretty enthusiastic for it. They were fairly dominated by one party, if you like.
  (Mr Cockell) Can I ask: have they done a pre-leadership Cabinet or pre-mayor, like some?

  332. They have done pre-Cabinet systems in both cases.
  (Mr Cockell) In two years' time, I am happy to come back.

Mr Olner

  333. We are grateful for the way you have expressed to us your opposition to the proposed changes. Have you also expressed that opposition through the Local Government Association or to the DETR directly?
  (Mr Cockell) Indeed. I appeared before the joint select committee, your predecessor, I suppose. You said at the beginning that the fact that we are a strong Conservative council meant it was pretty obvious what we were going to say. The view I have expressed today is unanimous. There is no difference between us and our Labour colleagues whatsoever on this. Frankly, my experience in talking to fellow leaders of London authorities is that if you talk to them in private they are pretty close to mine as well.

Chairman

  334. Why have they not expressed them then either to the Committee or elsewhere? Is there a slight fear that if you upset the government it might affect your funding next year?
  (Mr Cockell) We have had a lot of experience of being a Conservative authority with a Conservative government and that does create tensions sometimes. For instance, on the poll tax, we had problems because from day one we were opposed to it.

Mr Olner

  335. Westminster did not do too badly, did they?
  (Mr Cockell) I cannot speak on behalf of Westminster. Therefore, I can understand that there are difficulties in Labour authorities being able to say publicly what they may be saying within their groups and in private.

Mr Benn

  336. You said that your party group meets once a cycle. At what point in the cycle?
  (Mr Cockell) We meet two days before the council meeting.

  337. It is a mopping up.
  (Mr Cockell) It is a mopping up but it is the business ahead, really.

  338. Clearly, if you have major decisions of great significance that could be the subject of controversy that are about to fall upon the committee cycle to come, I take it that those are the kind of things that would be on the agenda of that group meeting.
  (Mr Cockell) Indeed or way ahead or policies that we are at the first stages of considering, just to see whether my group thinks it is worth carrying on with investigating them. It can be at a very early stage of a policy. It could be even years ahead of something coming to fruition.

  339. That is advance thinking within the privacy of the party group. How do you think the party group structure is going to have to change its operation to accommodate the new system in local government? Have you given some thought to that?
  (Mr Cockell) Yes. I think it is going to be very difficult. We are a cohesive unit.


 
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