Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Liberal Democrat Group (LAG 05)

1.  WHETHER THE CHANGES IN POLITICAL MANAGEMENT STRUCTURES CONTRIBUTE TO GREATER EFFICIENCY, TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT

(a)  Efficiency

  Generally, this has been improved for non-contentious decisions. Contentious decisions can take at least as long as under the previous committee system.

  It is much less efficient for the Executive to make decisions, which are then called in for scrutiny and then sent back with recommendations to the Executive for reconsideration, than to make decisions under the previous committee system.

  Considerable time has to be spent in research by Members of the Executive Committee, which meets fortnightly, who cannot be experts in everything. They have to consult with political group members to a much greater extent than previously when each committee had its own expertise.

  There is much less time to consider items for decision. Executive papers are available less than a week before each meeting. There is much less time for pre-information and discussion.

(b)  Transparency

  The legislation allows for less transparency than was the case under the old committee system. Previously, most issues were discussed and decisions made at committee meetings, which were open to the public. Because the East Riding is a balanced council, under the old system, the issues were genuinely discussed in the open, and decisions were genuinely made at committee. This is still the case for the East Riding but not necessarily elsewhere. However, even in the East Riding, increased delegation to officers and hence less transparency has been necessary to make the system workable.

(c)  Accountability

  The requirement to have portfolio holders on the Executive does not suit a balanced council nor does the requirement to have one council leader. For example, how can the council leader be expected to defend a decision to the public which neither he nor his group supported? There is now a lack of clarity about accountability. Officers have more delegated authority, another loss of accountability.

2.  IMPACT OF THE NEW ARRANGEMENTS

(a)  The role of councillors

  The new system with the Executive/Scrutiny split is divisive both within each political group and across the council, and is inappropriate at this level of government. Each political group is divided into the few who are the decision-makers and "in the know" and the many who are "backbenchers". Unless the Executive members are very assiduous in communicating information and getting responses from the rest of the group, the gulf between them can get wider and wider.

  Previously more councillors had true decision making responsibility by the nature of our committee structure and because we are a balanced council. Now for the "backbenchers" it seems as if they are the opposition, there to criticise council decisions, to oppose council policy, not part of the council, more like critical members of the public.

  There is no change in our community leadership role; that continues as before.

  The "backbenchers" life is much more complicated and uncoordinated. We are on Scrutiny committees, working groups, best value review groups, and seem to spend more time on less constructive activities than before. We spend the time considering the issues and then can only make recommendations to the Executive. We act as advisory groups, again much as the public does on e.g. Conservation Advisory Groups.

(b)  The role of local authority officers

  The relationship between officers and councillors is not clear under the new arrangements to either officers or councillors, we are all still learning, but there are still difficult areas, eg officers have been told not to discuss operational issues with Scrutiny committee members which has caused resentment among members.

  In an effort to improve communication to members, each directorate produces a six weekly newsletter, but this is not the equivalent of committee discussion of issues, or discussions with spokespersons from each political group.

(c)  The local electorate

  They find the new system very confusing and cannot see the rationale behind it. (See 1c—accountability).

3.  EXPERIENCE OF SETTING UP OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY COMMITTEES AND THE ROLE OF AREA COMMITTEES AND OTHER DEVOLVED ARRANGEMENTS

(a)  Scrutiny Committees

  At present Scrutiny Committees are not working well. It is taking a long time for them to find out what their role is and to begin to explore how best to carry it out. The officers are not helpful, stating it is member led. We have had some training, which has been useful, but not easy to apply.

  Scrutiny committees are smaller than the previous main committees, so effectiveness is very dependent on each member taking an active part, not only on the committee but also on working groups and best value panels. It requires a significant time commitment, with only a power to make recommendations at the end of it.

(b)  Area Committees

  At present, this council's Area Committees are only planning committees. It has been agreed in principle that highways issues should also be part of their remit. The other political groups have resisted true Area Committees, and Liberal Democrats on their own cannot carry them through.

(c)  Other devolved arrangements

The whole of the East Riding is now parished, but there are enormous differences between them. Again, the other political parties have resisted the devolvement of responsibilities to the Parish Councils. The Parish Councils would need training, especially the Parish Clerks, who have very varied levels of experience and knowledge of local government.

4.  DIFFICULTIES EXPERIENCED

  The main difficulty is that the new arrangements do not take account of politically balanced councils. The new arrangements seem to be geared towards inner city councils with single party overall majorities.

  The presumption in favour of portfolio holders is something that Balanced Councils have difficulty in complying with. Each Party in this balanced relationship will nominate their own "specialists" on the Executive. This system is employed in the East Riding.

  The commitment on Executive members is great, to expect that Councils do not have substitutes is unrealistic. Through illness, holidays or work demands Members of the Executive may not always be available. In the East Riding we have overcome this problem by appointing substitutes from Members who chose not to be members of Review and Scrutiny Committees. This works well for all three Groups in the joint arrangements and I commend it to you as a suggested amendment to the legislation.

  The presumption that Political Group Leaders and Deputies are on the Executive or Chair of Review and Scrutiny or other Committees does not recognise the dynamics of a balanced administration. For example, the Deputy Leader of our Group chose not to be on the Executive or Chair of a Review and Scrutiny Committee. Under the present legislation, an arrangement such as this would not attract an allowance, although the responsibilities can be quite significant.

  There seems very little point in going through a major change in order to end up with a system that is less democratic, efficient, transparent and accountable than the previous system we had in the East Riding. An improvement would be to allow not only small councils, but also any council that had a system that had been demonstrated to be working well to retain that structure. The whole point is to improve local government, and retaining what is working well can do this. Wholesale change is not only unnecessary it can be positively damaging.

5.  DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYOR MODEL

  For a large area such as the East Riding with mix of rural and urban parts this model seems inappropriate. It would reduce accountability and again would not fit with a balanced council.

TO SUMMARISE

  1.  The changes in political management have not shown any evidence of an improvement in efficiency, transparency and accountability, rather the reverse.

  2.  The new arrangements have been divisive for councillors, and confusing for officers and the electorate.

  3.  The new arrangements take no account of the working arrangements of a balanced council.

  4.  The requirement to have Portfolio holders is not appropriate for a balanced Council.

  5.  The requirement to have one Leader in a balanced Council is unrealistic; such a Leader would not have the mandate of the Council as a whole.

  6.  The function of Scrutiny committees and their relationship with officers is unclear.

  7.  The elected mayor model is inappropriate for large, mixed local authority areas, and for balanced councils.


 
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