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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 340 - 358)




  340. Does that mean you have very firm control of it?
  (Mr Cockell) I used to be Chief Whip before I became leader. The formal application of the Whip does not happen. Contentious matters are discussed in group meetings and the group knows what the group feels. They are expected to follow that and do. We do not have very many problems. The last one was more than 14 years ago. We had problems with members giving up the Whip and so on. It is very cohesive but it is cohesive through political support, following and implementing policies that are broadly supported by the group.

Mr Benn

  341. Clearly, that has worked because group members have had a chance to take part in the decision. Is it not possible within the new setup to continue to operate that in that you can have a party group system that meets before the executive considers major items and takes a view?
  (Mr Cockell) Within the whole of the new system, we will find ways of making it work. That we have to do. We know that. We believe there are ways we can do that. The group meeting remains essential and probably becomes even more essential because that could be the only opportunity that we are able to discuss with all our colleagues together in private. The days of chairmen of executive or service committees phoning up, having a pre-meeting or whatever and making sure that they had support will not apply. It is not going to be conceivable for the executive member, or whatever ghastly title we come up with, a member of the Cabinet, to talk to all the members of the group about a policy that he has to take a decision on, so it will have to be done in those party meetings.


  342. Do officers come to your group meetings?
  (Mr Cockell) No, they do not. That is no insult on officers; it is just not the way we operate.

  343. There are some groups who invite officers to explain a policy.
  (Mr Cockell) Indeed. In our whole history, it has never happened.

Mr Benn

  344. What impact do you think the changes are going to have on your councillors?
  (Mr Cockell) I think it will be a seismic change for those currently councillors because there will be very definitely a them and us. It will take some time for that to be clear. However one tries to cook it up, there will be ten of us who are taking the very major decisions and there will be the others who are taking an overview or scrutinising those decisions. Again, we will be trying to draw them into the process so that they feel part of it, but you cannot pretend that that is not the reality of it. We are likely to lose fewer experienced councillors at our local elections next year than I thought. I thought that, with the changes, more experienced councillors might say, "Enough is enough. This is the time to go." In fact, that is not the case. Four years on, I fear that it is likely there will be more going because for some it will be clear that they are never going to be in the executive. That will cause problems for the new people coming on because when I joined local government 14 or 15 years ago I obviously hoped to have a senior position in Kensington and Chelsea but I did not know. There was a fair chance that I might be able to achieve that. Many will never be able to get into that group of ten. We will do our best. We will apply the rules we currently have with service and executive committees, which are that chairmen cannot chair for longer than a maximum of three years. We are intending to have that within our constitution so that a member of Cabinet cannot hold a specific portfolio for longer than that time, to keep things moving, but it will change the possibilities for members. Also, the pressure of work. The expectations of the executive will also, over a longer period, change the nature of people who are prepared to put themselves forward for public office.

  345. Do you think there are too many councillors for the new structure, given the point you have just made?
  (Mr Cockell) No. I suspect that the agenda behind all this is that ultimately it will be decided that there are too many councillors and you really do not need, in our case, 54. You could do with half that number.

  346. Do you think that the scrutiny role under the new arrangements offers a really significant and potentially important role for those members who might otherwise sit there feeling that they have been carved out of the decision making process? Do you see some advantages in separating that within the new structure which were not there under the old committee arrangements? My experience was, as a committee chair, you tended, in answer to all criticisms, to say that everything was okay because you were vulnerable if you admitted otherwise. Do you not see advantages in allowing scrutiny to be undertaken in this different format?
  (Mr Cockell) We have had a scrutiny committee for a few years now. We will have more scrutiny committees in future. It has worked pretty and increasingly effectively. What I do not think is necessary is to separate that some councillors can only have a scrutiny role and some can only have an executive role. The current scrutiny role works very effectively by having members who are senior members of the council, maybe with chairmanship already, but who take on a clearly different role and are able to do that very effectively. I do not think it is healthy for the good of the whole council body to have such a clearly defined separation between one group and another. We will be doing our best to draw on the overview and scrutiny. Our intention is that if we have major decisions that, say, the executive member for education was proposing, that he or she would go to the overview and scrutiny committee at a very early stage to take soundings, to take their views on it, and then to take those into consideration, to take those back to Cabinet and so on, so that when the decision came to be made there was a clear line of how that decision had been reached, hopefully with the support of the education overview and scrutiny committee. That would lessen the need for calling in and so on in due course. We want to try and get that in train.

Mr Olner

  347. You virtually mentioned once or twice about the workload of the Cabinet and the executive. Do you see yourselves as a member of the Cabinet or the leader of that Cabinet taking on more work than your professional officers now do?
  (Mr Cockell) I think it is impossible not to. If you are expecting individuals in their own name and elected members to be taking decisions, we have throughout the whole council very able members. They are not hands off at the moment at the best of times, but if you are expecting people to take on specific responsibility delegated to them individually, they are going to demand to be far more involved day to day in the operation of their department.

  348. What do you see as the future role for officers?
  (Mr Cockell) For the very senior officers, it is going to be difficult to bring that about. Senior professional officers who have gone into local government clearly expect to be running a service, day to day. They are looking for political leadership. To suddenly have a new tier of elected bureaucrats, to some extent, senior officers' role will have to become far more enabling, helping elected members through the process, to reach decisions sensibly and to handle the type of expectations that will increasingly be falling on individual members and not, for instance, perhaps the director of education.

  349. It seems to have come full circle. You now seem to be embracing the changes because of the increased powers it gives your locally elected members and the non-elected officers.
  (Mr Cockell) I am not embracing anything. I am just dealing with the reality of what we will have to deal with. For most members, delegation has always been a touchy subject. Delegated powers to officers always raise the hackles of my colleagues, especially when something goes a bit wrong. We will be reviewing delegation. I imagine there will be less delegation, certainly less delegation initially, because members will want to be taking the decisions. The problem is it is only a few members. That is my real complaint. It is not that more authority is being given to elected representatives; it is that so few of them will wield that power.

Mr Blunt

  350. Can I ask about the effect of this on the electors of Kensington and Chelsea? What impact do you think it is going to have on them?
  (Mr Cockell) I suppose at the end in five years' time it would be nice to think that they might know the name of the leader of the council—that is likely to be the way we go—and a few others. I fear they may know those names but they may not know their ward councillors any more. Other than that, I honestly do not think it is going to have a cataclysmic change on our residents. We have done some very interesting consultation through this process. We have had to. One of the most interesting ones that worked quite well was where we had an evening where the mayor formally invited people and ended up with 250-odd residents selected at random from the borough. They spent an evening with us, though it was not run by members at all. It was actually run by Nick Ross, the broadcaster, and a representative from DETR for all the technical stuff. It was very interesting. Probably most of those people had never spent an evening talking about local government. They will probably never spend another evening talking about local government but it was helped by some food and drink and, at the end, we could not get some people to go home. The first thing you had to do was explain the current system. Most people did not know how the current system worked. You then went through the three options that we had before us. Some were interested in the mayor. Younger people were generally interested in a directly elected mayor. 57 per cent were in favour of leader and Cabinet. They thought it did not really matter too much and we should just get on with the job that they put us there to do. Every four years, if they were not happy with the work and the performance, they had a chance to get rid of us and they did not want to be bothered too much with the internal administration of the council.

  351. Do you think there is going to be any change to the turnout in Kensington and Chelsea as a result of these changes?
  (Cllr Cockell) Even when we had a very high profile by-election and a very well-known candidate with attendant press and publicity we hardly scraped any more of a turnout. Nearly a quarter of our population turns over every year in any case, so it is a very difficult thing to get a higher turnout and even more difficult at local elections than national elections. I do not honestly think it will make much difference at all. Just to give you an indication, we have done a survey of all our residents with 80,000 published pamphlets asking for a response. The response rate was 2.77 per cent that bothered to take the trouble to answer. We did a similar consultation, again 80,000 leaflets, on congestion charging (Mayor Livingstone's proposal) and we got a response rate of 4.3 per cent. So when it matters more to people, I think, they are interested, but this, I do not think, most residents thought was really of too much interest and would not have a direct effect on their lives.


  352. Quality of councillors. I will not ask you the quality of the Conservative group, as that, perhaps, would be a bit unfair. As far as the Labour councillors are concerned, they are likely to be in opposition to your council for most of the time. Do they manage to attract people of the quality that you would think would be worth being councillors?
  (Cllr Cockell) Yes, at least equal to the general quality of my side; very able, very good representatives and, I think, a group that any political party would be proud to have as members; many professionals, many with families and other commitments, other interests, who bring their expertise and knowledge to representing their residents. Of course, the area that I fear is that with the loss of a role—both less of a role for my backbenchers but, potentially, much less of a role for our Labour group—this will put people off. We are taking steps to try and make sure there is a role for our opposition because we think that is essential for a healthy local authority, because as the minority party the opposition has a very powerful role.

Mr Olner

  353. So there is going to be room for a member of your cabinet to be a Labour member?
  (Cllr Cockell) No. We have discussed it and they do not want to be part of the executive, and in their position I would not either. What we are doing is ensuring that the overview and the scrutiny committee that will scrutinise the executive will be chaired by the leader of the Labour group.

Mrs Dunwoody

  354. What sort of support will they get from the officers?
  (Cllr Cockell) He will, as a chairman of the scrutiny committee, get exactly the same support as any other chairman of the scrutiny committee.

  355. No specific designation of someone with particular expertise, or someone who is not necessarily directly responsible? How do the officers fit into the structure?
  (Cllr Cockell) Specifically on how we deal with the minority—

  356. For scrutiny, yes.
  (Cllr Cockell) There will be a small group, initially, of officers who are there to facilitate the scrutiny role. The chairman of the scrutiny committees will be equal within that, there will not be any difference between one that is a Conservative chairman of a scrutiny group and a Labour chairman of a scrutiny group. There will be a small designated group to support the scrutiny role.


  357. Do you find that someone who is going to have a cabinet responsibility is going to have enough time to actually have a full-time job and be a member of one of your cabinet posts?
  (Cllr Cockell) It is going to be increasingly difficult because just seeing the number of decisions and the amount of work that will have to be done directly by that person, for them to hold down a normal job—and, indeed, possibly, have a family and other commitments—will make it very, very difficult. We are trying to find ways of making it possible. We are intending, broadly, to mirror the business groups within the executive, but certainly I want to have the adaptability within it so that, for instance, if the intention is that the leader of the council will choose not only the members of the executive but, also, the portfolios that they hold, and if somebody who was seen, perhaps, to be about to take over as executive member for social services but had a lot of other commitments, they could say "Actually, I cannot do this job myself, I need another colleague to take some of that responsibility", so you would have two members of the executive, perhaps, handling one portfolio. So we do not just end up with people who either have their own business, self-employed, retired, of private means—whatever it may be—and we try and keep that sensible balance of true representation of the community as a whole.

  358. Do you think the allowances that are now available to councillors in those sorts of roles will be sufficient to compensate them for loss of promotion or loss of job opportunities?
  (Cllr Cockell) Of course, Kensington and Chelsea is not the cheapest place to live in the country, for a start. The figures that might recompense people who happen to live in the area, for a start, would be way outside what would be reasonable to my mind and to my colleagues' minds that ratepayers, taxpayers, should pay for local councillors. I have no doubt they will be rising substantially. I get an allowance of £15,000 a year as leader of the council, and although obviously I will not be taking a role in what allowances may be paid in future I am sure in ten years' time throughout the country there will be very, very different figures, I imagine, and they will be quickly moving to full-time, paid councillors.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.

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