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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)

TUESDAY 20 MARCH 2001

RT HON HILARY ARMSTRONG and MR PAUL ROWSELL

  400. It is purely arbitrary? A wet finger in the air job?
  (Hilary Armstrong) No, more than that. We looked at the lists, we looked at how those councils were operating, who would qualify within the 85,000, and so on.

  401. So there was a political deal, was there, in terms of how many councils controlled, perhaps, by the Liberal Party, who were—
  (Hilary Armstrong) I certainly would not put it that way. As I say, the definition was "What is a small district council?" That is quite a difficult area to define, because in some areas small district councils will co-operate very fully though they deliver services jointly with other authorities, very often. Once they get up to about 85,000 they are not doing that.

  402. How many authorities are below 85,000? How many qualified for alternative arrangements?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I need to come back to you on the detail of that.

  403. Can you come back to us on how many are below 85,000 and what—I think we may have the answers—the political control is of each of those councils?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Do you want that before the election or after the election? I have to say, particularly in small districts, political control changes fairly often.

  404. As at the date on which the deal was brokered in the House of Lords.
  (Hilary Armstrong) Eighty six.

  405. And political control?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We need to come back to you on that. Many of them have no overall control.

  406. Perhaps your private secretaries might be able to add them up between now and the end of the session.
  (Hilary Armstrong) They would only be adding up a snapshot.

  407. It is a snapshot on which the negotiation took place. The principle of 85,000, you said, is non-existent to those opposed to the principle of these changes altogether. I am trying to get a feel for the influences that came to bear on the deal.
  (Hilary Armstrong) I really have said as much as I possibly can on that.

  408. We have had a discussion saying that June 2001 is not a deadline but a guideline. Particularly given that the regulations on alternative arrangements were only laid on 15 March, if district councils who are below 85,000 are seeking to apply under these regulations, can you give them some idea of how long they have got?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Most of them are now getting on with it. They have to have a decent consultation period and then get their information in to us. Quite honestly, not many of them are saying that they cannot do that by the end of June.

  409. What is a decent consultation period?
  (Hilary Armstrong) It will depend on what consultation they already have in line. So those authorities that already, for example, have citizens panels will have somewhere to start. Others that only ever have public meetings will have some difficulty. What we are trying to do in terms of consultation is not even the period, it is using a variety of methods and actually making sure that they do get involved. If you think about some of the smaller districts where there will be a large number of parishes, they should be using their parish councils, their area structures, to actually get involved and get out there. There are not elections in district councils this year, so they ought to be able to get on with things.

  410. Are you going to be absolutely inflexible around the 85,000 mark, in terms of if there is a local authority population of just over that or close to it? Of course, the figures on which they are based are the Registrar General's estimate, in any case. So is there any flexibility in that?
  (Hilary Armstrong) We will have much better information about actual population once we have got the census data.

Chairman

  411. But not in time for this.
  (Hilary Armstrong) Not necessarily in time for this. We are not wanting to be so flexible that it allows councils to flout the spirit of the law.

Mr Blunt

  412. One of the most onerous parts of the new arrangements is this split between executive arrangements and the servicing of the overview and scrutiny committees. Why have you then inflicted, in the alternative arrangements, at least one overview and scrutiny committee?
  (Hilary Armstrong) Because I think that given the roles and responsibilities of local government today, scrutiny has become an aspect of work that is just very important and cannot be missed in the small district councils. For example, the Crime and Disorder partnerships are based on small district councils' size. They do not, as an authority, have responsibility for the police, but there are lots of other things that impact on the Crime and Disorder partnership that they would have responsibility for: some of the licensing, planning applications, the work on neighbourhood estates, on housing estates and leisure centres—a range of things—which are all part of "How do you get an effective Crime and Disorder partnership working to reduce crime in your neighbourhood?" If the authority is having no means whereby it is, through the proper channels of the authority, looking at how its work there is relating to tackling crime, then it could be that in one committee or another committee they would be making decisions without actually looking at what is the impact of that decision in the housing department, of that decision in the leisure department and bringing together and looking at it.

  413. Surely, you are not suggesting that the committee structure and the full council structure we have had to-date is capable of delivering any scrutiny at all?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I am saying that in too many councils scrutiny did not happen at all.

  414. At all?
  (Hilary Armstrong) At all. Not by councillors, anyway.

Mr Donohoe

  415. Where did the idea of this scrutiny come from?
  (Hilary Armstrong) It has come from every other aspect of local government everywhere else in the world. This was part of the debate and the discussion that we had in opposition that was actually put into a document before I was the spokesperson for local government in Opposition, and was developed alongside talking to a range of local government members and a range of other people interested in local government, about how do we actually enable local government politically to bring in more accountability but, also, how did we make sure that the corporate and the cross-cutting attention that was very clearly seen to be necessary was made possible within the structures.

  416. So it is not a possibility that all you do is put in another tier of bureaucracy that delays decision-making and, therefore, does the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve?
  (Hilary Armstrong) It is always possible to frustrate the way things are meant to work. In any organisation there are always people around who are good at that. I would, therefore, not say that that is not ever a possibility. That is one of the reasons that the regulations and the guidance have been written in the way that they have been, in order to try and make sure that people do not get away with doing just that. What it is meant to do is make sure that those councillors who are not in the key decision-making positions—and in the past that meant anybody, really, who was not a chair or a vice-chair, because they were the people who really made the decisions that would then be reported to the committee meeting—actually had better service and support to understand the decisions that had been taken and to examine their impact.

  417. Surely, you are losing what is, perhaps, the centre of any argument as far as any councillor that I have had any dealing with (and I have had dealings with most in Scotland) is concerned; that you only get a few high calibre councillors and the remainder would, if you sat them in a room for two days, not ask any decent questions about problems. You are kidding yourself on. Really, what the problem is is about the calibre of the council.
  (Hilary Armstrong) You get into an ever-declining circle if you go down that route, because some people would say "If you accept that, then the reason that that happens is because councillors are never given the opportunity to do anything real and not given powers and opportunities to satisfy their intellect, their commitment, their belief in democratic participation. I do not go down the route that there is only a handful on every council that has the potential to be good councillors in a very wide way. It does not mean to say we all have to be the same. There are some councillors who are able to be good ward representatives, which is a very important part of the new system, and who are able to be forensic about issues in their ward. Really, what the new system does is give them the opportunity to get the chance to be like that. In the past that was getting much more difficult.

  418. What are you going to do if the experience is the exact opposite and that people who have got the calibre start to move away because they are frustrated by this extra tier of bureaucracy that you have introduced?
  (Hilary Armstrong) I do not accept it is an extra tier of bureaucracy and I do not accept that in most authorities that is how it is being treated. Nor do I accept that there are good councillors that we were able to keep in the old system. All of our surveys showed that the younger, more professional people left the council after their first term. That was one of the reasons why the cohort of councillors was becoming much older. So I do not accept the premise. What I do say is that in any system it is possible to frustrate it and make it very difficult. My modernisation team tell me that in going round they meet some people who are evangelical about the system but they also say that within their group or within their council there are people who do not like it and who try to frustrate.

  419. What about the position in terms of members versus officers? That is another conflict that I have seen time and time again. This does nothing, in any event, but further frustrate those of the officers who are wanting to get decisions through on authorities as quickly as possible to deliver services. That is part of the reason why there are problems—probably the main reason—in the ability of authorities to deliver.
  (Hilary Armstrong) The new regime of best value is very much geared to delivering, and this system gives councillors and politicians certainly more overview, more influence and more ability to map what is going on in terms of delivery. I accept that for some officers democracy is a very frustrating thing (it is a bit frustrating for politicians now and again, too) but nonetheless I think it is something that is worth sticking with because, at the end of the day, I actually do believe it delivers better services.


 
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