Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Malcolm Meikle, Leader of Wychavon District Council (LAG 10)

  I understand that the Sub-committee is interested in five particular points in respect of this matter. My comments relate primarily to the first two, whether the changes are likely to contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability, and their impact on those involved, particularly councillors.

  I believe we in Wychavon are in a position to give evidence on the special but rather effective arrangements for governance that we submitted for continuing approval. We can also produce member experience of operating the two systems as two members of Wychavon Leaders Panel are very frustrated Members of Worcestershire County Council where a cabinet style administration with portfolio holders has been introduced.

  Other Wychavon District Councillors are also County Councillors, representing the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent parties. The view of the great majority of those who are District and County Councillors is that a Cabinet-style approach to it's decision making just does not work. Decisions are not made more quickly and efficiently and the role of `back bench' Councillors has been significantly marginalised.

  Wychavon is a rural District Council with a population of about 112,000 in 70 Parishes and we have put in place management structures which we think provide total clarity as to which Councillors are responsible for making decisions, include vigorous overview and scrutiny arrangements, and public participation. We believe that these structures meet the Government targets and are applicable to most, if not all, shire District Councils.

  The arrangements we put in place following the May 1999 elections, and were specifically designed to comply with the Government's then stated policies on Modernising Local Government.

  Key features of our arrangements are:

    —  a Leaders Panel, consisting of the Leader of the Council and the Committee Chairmen (but not the Chairman of the Council), meets fortnightly. Members meet for an hour on their own before joining the Managing Director and other officers to advise the Council and its Committees on policy and strategy matters. It addresses current matters for decision and reviews performance of Committee Meetings. Senior second and third tier Officers are invited to participate and representatives from other potential partner organisations are invited to discuss their interests with the Panel. (Recent attendees include an Assistant Chief Constable, representatives of the Countryside Agency, developers with interests in the District, and the Managing Director of a local housing association.) Details of items discussed at these Panel meetings are circulated to all members of the Council, and are made available to the press and public. Such an approach provides an ideal opportunity for interested parties to comment on matters of interest at a formative stage and before final decisions are made.

    —  Committees and working parties that existed previously were reduced from 19 to five, meeting regularly in public, and who are encouraged to attend and have the right to ask questions of Councillors. All Members of the Council have the job satisfaction of making decisions in Committee and Council.

    —  Best Value service reviews are carried out by politically balanced groups of councillors, with members of the Leaders Panel not participating in such groups. Also involving members of the public and interested groups.

    —  The Leaders Panel have underlined the public consultation by direct contact `walk-abouts' where Councillors and Senior Officers can meet people on the streets and hear and observe their problems. We have held seminars on topics that are not strictly our responsibility, but are of increasing interest to our electorate, such as Health and Youth, to bring together a wider representation of deliverers and receivers.

  In summary, we see the advantages of our current system as follows:

    —  A corporate approach in the introduction of new ideas in partnership with officers.

    —  Clarity in reporting and decision making in public Committees.

    —  Much greater Member satisfaction.

    —  The retention of the best of a system that provides the proper checks and balances.

    —  A system that is understood by the Parish Councils and electorate who have the satisfaction of knowing that their representative has an equal role to play in decision making and is not a second class councillor. (A view expressed in public consultation).

  In comparison, the County Council Cabinet Style Portfolio Holder has:

    —  Reduced public accountability.

    —  Weakened the role of an elected Member (A portfolio Holder unless he is a long standing Councillor with a full-time commitment is at a clear disadvantage to an officer and officer preference is more likely to prevail.

    —  Trivialised and isolated the remainder of the Councillor Members.

    —  The effectiveness diminished Member Groups.

    —  Reduced electors interest in local government.

  We regret that we have not been allowed to submit our well-tried and preferred system to the democratic choice of our electorate. It is sad that the Government have presumed that because our population is over the 85,000 limit we need to receive the same structure as a sizeable urban authority. In a rural authority there has always been a presumption that the electoral representatives from each Committee are equal and have a right to be heard and vote.

January 2001

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