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


Memorandum by the Regional Assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside (LAG 50)

  1.  The Regional Assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside is the democractic voice of the region representing the 22 local authorities both nationally and in Europe. It has cross party support and was formed in July 1996 with offices in Wakefield and Brussels. It brought together the Regional Association, Regional Planning Conference and the Brussels team. The Assembly is led by the Leaders Group which is all 22 Leaders of councils. There is also a political post (part-time) of Leader of the Assembly and a chair and four other office holders with portfolios covering spatial planning, rural affairs, education, social care, and LGA links. The Assembly supports local authorities across a wide range of activity. This includes strengthening education, securing a fair share of public sector resources and private sector investment, promoting sustainable communities, introducing e-government and communications and so on. The Assembly has produced Draft Regional Planning Guidance for the region which includes a Regional Transport Strategy and was taken forward together with the Regional Economic Strategy. These strategies were jointly launched, jointly consulted upon and jointly tested by the same sustainability appraisal. The emphasis is on planning for a sustainable future by strengthening our towns and cities, improving our competitiveness, regenerating our communities and looking after our environment.

  2.  The Regional Chamber for Yorkshire and Humberside is the region-wide partnership body which for example the RDA is obliged to consult on its work. It is made up of 35 stakeholders which includes the local authorities. It also includes the TUC, CBI, Chambers of Commerce, Association of Colleges, Churches Regional Commission, Environment Agency, NHS Executive, Cultural Consortium, Universities Association, Rural Community Council, Training and Enterprise Councils, Forum for Voluntary and Community Organisations as well as RDA, Government Office, the Local Council Association as observers and the Police as associates. It operates through five commissions on economy, skills, sustainability, infrastructure, and quality of life. The Regional Chamber has in place a single strategic framework "signed up" to by all the partners which provides the overarching framework for the region. This is "Advancing Together" which has become the brand for key regional activities.

  3.  The role of the Assembly and Chamber is currently under review with the intention to move towards a single organisation with much more of the business done through the wider partnership.

  4.  On 24 January 2000 the Assembly set its regional modernisation strategy. This was put together in partnership with the region's Local Government Management Board and supported by the DETR Modernisation Team. It was launched by Hilary Armstrong MP in March 2000 at a regional conference in York.

  5.  The strategy is about supporting local government in the region. It is about helping local government manage change in response to the Government's Modernising Britain agenda and its vision for local government identified in the White Paper "In Touch with the People" and the two Local Government Acts 1999 and 2000.

  6.  There is nothing new though about local government modernisation. Local government has always been innovative and responsive to change and since its inception has been champion of its communities adapting change to local circumstances and providing for the rich diversity that is in evidence across the region. Whatever the circumstances, local government is at the front-line and this has been in evidence most recently with the adverse weather conditions resulting in the autumn floods 2000. In our region local authorities provided a first class emergency response.

  7.  What is new in the strategy is the role of the Assembly and wider partners. It provides extra strategic capacity for local government. This currently allows for:

    —  greater involvement and ownership of all the key regional players to support modernisation in the region;

    —  building on existing plans and activities of these wider partners, including Government Office for Yorkshire and the Humber, Yorkshire Forward, as well as the DETR Modernisation Team and the Local Government Management Board;

    —  positioning the region at the leading edge of efforts to enhance the governance and performance of local authorities (recent survey work shows this region's local authorities are the most responsive to modernisation outside of London);

    —  provision of a framework and steer for the work of the DETR and Government Modernisation Team in the region.

  8.  The Strategy is based on:

    —  providing a single voice for dialogue and lobbying with Ministers on local government modernisation issues;

    —  an extensive roll-out programme of regional workshops, seminars, training and experience sharing for elected Members;

    —  region-wide officer networks on new constitutions, best value and scrutiny;

    —  joint working with regional officers from various local government auditors, Best Value Inspection Service, District Audit and the Audit Commission;

    —  developing robust intelligence about authorities in the region and progress on modernisation.

  9.  The activities have included conferences, regional workshops, networks as well as regional products such as political management simulations and the development of a knowledge warehouse based on the development of our interactive website which will provide an easy means of knowledge transfer, dialogue and sharing of good practice.

  10.  The setting up of a regional New Constitutions Network has made possible the Assembly's opportunity to respond to this Select Committee and it was following discussion at its meeting on 9 January 2001 that it was decided to see what evidence we might produce.

  11.  Our response to the five key areas identified by the Committee is below.

Preliminary views on whether the changes in political management structures are likely to contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in local government.

  12.  The evidence from within Yorkshire and Humberside suggests that where transitional political management arrangements have been in place for some time there is stronger confidence in their modernisation and new structures. There is also greater recognition of efficiency and accountability benefits. Just about all the local authorities in the region now have a new Cabinet system in place. The evidence suggests that as a result decision-making is more efficient and focussed. A number of authorities champion weekly Cabinet meetings, which take place in public. Barnsley MBC and Wakefield MDC in particular are realising the benefits and have had new arrangements in place now for about two years.

  13.  In some other parts of the region new arrangements are relatively recent and it is clearly too early for those local authorities to make judgements about their impact. Some of the smaller authorities have only just moved towards a new system held back by capacity and resource constraints to implement the change.

  14.  East Riding of Yorkshire Council have had arrangements in place since May 2000 and argue that the increase in corporate working and greater involvement which results from the new arrangements has to be balanced against greater efficiency. Executive members are finding it necessary to consult widely to stay on top of their wide portfolios. East Riding Council also indicate that non-contentious and less complex issues have been speeded up as a result of the new arrangements. However, the contentious and more complicated issues are not helped by the new arrangements because they keep bouncing back and forth between Executive and Scrutiny which takes more time. This is to be expected but it remains to be tested whether the outcome is higher quality decisions.

  15.  Elsewhere, scrutiny is really starting to bite as experimentation with the system develops. In Barnsley MBC Cabinet spokespersons are very seriously having to justify what they have done and what they propose to do, to their colleagues. If they do not convince them the Scrutiny and Overview Commissions can, and do, force them to think again.

  16.  Overall the evidence in the region emphasises how important it is that the new arrangements respect local diversity, flexibility and experimentation. A number of particular issues impact differently upon different circumstances. For example, East Riding Council is concerned about the requirements for cabinets to have a single leader. This does not sit well with a balanced Council. The joint leaders in East Riding have always worked well together and been jointly accountable for leading the decision-making process. A "single leader" approach imposed by the proposals works against what they see as sound democractic and mature decision-making in the interests of the area. Equally, there is a concern that decision-making by individual portfolio holding Executive Members does not work well in a "balanced" environment.

  17.  The overall experience of East Riding suggests these new arrangements are really not appropriate in such balanced environments. East Riding suggest that the proposals have really been designed and shaped to fit councils with single party majorities. Whether this is right or not the evidence available in this region does seem to show that where there is a single party majority that the new arrangements are working well, but there is no cause and effect link with a range of possible factors to take into account not least of which is the likelihood of a more complex environment provided by politically balanced councils. Ultimately, local government is about allowing for diversity and ensuring that Central Government does not impose "one size fits all". Proposals must allow for differences whether its big or small authorities, urban and rural, single party or hung councils, single or two tier authorities and so on.

The impact of the new arrangements on:

 (a)   the role of local councillors

  18.  Local authorities in the region have been working hard to utilise their new arrangements to clarify and increase the involvement and role of councillors in their authorities and communities. There is generally an acceptance that there are three key functions, decision-making, representing, and scrutinising. Those authorities which have had transitional political management arrangements in place for some time are finding that the new arrangements are starting to work and some councillors are really starting to feel more empowered. There is evidence to suggest that this is happening in some cases at the ward level as well as through scrutiny activities.

  19.  Other councils are finding it hard to break out from previous practices and the "old" status quo. The views about the benefits are very mixed. Some councils welcome that the cabinet now provides a single focus for the political management of the council—a focus which was not there under the committee system. Others are more concerned about the impact of the cabinet system on back-bench councillors and front bench opposition, who feel excluded from mainstream council activities. This has led to widespread disillusionment in some areas. Harrogate BC for example takes the view that some decisions which are not fundamental in their own right, but which have political significance, are no longer being debated.

  20.  Some elected members have clearly got their teeth into scrutiny and community representative activities. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that representing the community to council, rather than the other way round, is starting to emerge much more. Authorities refer to many examples of good practice in both area forums and scrutiny. Wakefield MDC for example refer to the establishment of a Community Assembly for its District, Local Listening Days, taking the Cabinet on tour to local schools, presentations by ward members to full Council. Barnsley MBC refer to in-depth investigations carried out by their scrutiny commissions on issues such as road safety, the countryside, the future of the Magistrates Courts, the policy aspects to licensing, caring for carers, the use of IT by elected members, the way in which the Council has responded to the Crime and Disorder Act and Domestic Violence.

 (b)   the role of local authority officers

  21.  There is an emerging view from the evidence in the region that the new arrangements are improving corporate working. Under the old structures in some authorities the Committee Chairs built up close relationships with "their" chief officers. They often developed a common agenda for the services, independent of the Chairs of other Committees or the Leader of the Council. This is now changing. In those areas chief officers no longer have the close, exclusive relationship that existed, and they do not manage their services without reference to other parts of the organisation. Many of the regions authorities now operate within a corporate model, where business directors with portfolios sit within a matrix of activities to enable a focus on cross-cutting issues and customer focused outcomes. This is all good news for corporate working but this must not be at the expense of service improvements where the link between Committee Chair and the chief officer led to good and improving service delivery. Both need to come together. There is also the issue about elected members increasing their executive power and the impact this has on the role of chief executives. This requires re-defining in the light of the overall new arrangements but the evidence suggests does not mean that the role is diminished but in need of re-alignment and could be enhanced.

  22.  Some concern has been expressed about the bureaucracy associated with the Forward Plan.

 (c)   the local electorate

  23.  The evidence in the region suggests it is too early to assess the impact on the local electorate. The initial feedback in East Riding for example suggests that many people feel the "old" system worked well. Other authorities reported greater interest from communities in response to the new arrangements. Barnsley went so far as to say that its transitional arrangements have helped to stabilise and re-engage residents from a position of increasing disillusionment and decline. Turnouts are slowly increasing and all seats are once again being contested. Area forums in particular have been popular. In Kingston Upon Hull CC the local electorate is now much more engaged with literally as many as up to a hundred turning out in area forums. Also, press interest in Cabinet business is higher than press coverage under the Committee system.

Local authorities' experience of setting up overview and scrutiny committees and the role of area committees or other devolved arrangements.

  24.  The evidence in the region suggests overview and scrutiny committees are starting to bed down well. Barnsley MBC has done extensive work in this field. Key lessons include: preventing the scrutiny role taking the form of "old style" committees (avoiding traditional agendas, reports etc); encouraging their operation in a non-partisan way ("politics" follows outcomes); providing dedicated officer support (and don't let others report to them); involve the wider community; co-opt members of the public on to them; ensure they are member-led; balance their work—both scrutinising and "call in" of key decisions and carrying out detailed investigations. In Wakefield their scrutiny "Panels" include representatives from their Community Assembly and the scrutiny Panels are developing an integrated role with the Best Value reviews.

  25.  A variety of devolved arrangements are in place across the region. In many places area forums are becoming effective "sounding boards" and proving instrumental to developing the local community planning process. In other areas stronger linkages are being made with parish and town councils in line with the Rural White Paper.

Difficulties authorities have experienced in implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 (Part II) and views on the inadequacy of the guidance and how it might be improved

  26.  There is concern in the region about the failure of the Act to provide for Cabinet deputies. Whilst there is much greater clarity about who is responsible for what decisions in the new political management arrangements it seems reasonable to allow for deputies. The advantages are demonstrated in Barnsley MBC where deputies both bridge the relationship between the Executive and backbenchers, providing effective "honest" brokering and reduce the pressure of work on the portfolio holders.

  27.  Generally, the guidance provided by DETR has been welcome but there is concern to see less prescription and greater flexibility to allow for local circumstances. Some authorities would have welcomed a model scheme of delegation as part of the guidance on Modular Constitutions. It would also have been helpful if, at the time of publication of the "New Council Constitutions—Consultation Guidelines for English Local Authorities", DETR had issued some general, standard information to the public. Such an initiative might have assisted in stimulating interest in the debate locally on the options.

The extent to which local authorities are opting for the directly elected mayor model and the advantages and disadvantages of such a model

  28.  Few authorities in the region had much to say about this issue and are currently consulting their local electorates. Concern has been expressed about the directly elected mayor model. Reasons are essentially about appropriateness, the lack of checks and balances on a mayor, the dangers of extremism, and the permanence of the position. However, about five or six authorities in the region have mayoral petitions currently running in their areas.

  29.  In conclusion the regions' local authorities are engaged in major change management programmes—often self stimulated—which are addressing governments' modernisation agenda. Local government has an impressive track record of turning new ideas into practical solutions that work on the ground and this is proving to be no exception.


 
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