Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by Redcar & Cleveland Council and the University of Teesside (LAG 11)

Preface

  Thank you for the opportunity to submit evidence to the inquiry into local authority governance. After a brief introduction, this memorandum sets out evidence in the order advised in Press Notice 69/1999-2000 dated 30 November 2000. This evidence is supplemented by information from the University of Teesside who are engaged in a project to evaluate the appropriateness of the authority's existing political management arrangements and to facilitate the process of deciding on a specific political management structure within the context of the Local Government Act 2000.

INTRODUCTION

  Redcar & Cleveland Council has been operating a Leader and Executive model since May 2000 on an interim basis. The Executive is comprised of the Leader, Deputy Leader and eight other portfolio holders, each responsible for one of the Council's major themes, derived from the thematic areas of the Community Plan. The model also includes a 13-member Scrutiny Committee, two quasi judicial committees, Policy and Resources Committee, Standards Committee, Social Services Committee and nine Advisory Panels, one per portfolio area. It was envisaged that the Advisory Panels would support the Executive in policy development by feeding community views into the process.

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

Efficiency

  Fortnightly meetings of the Executive and Scrutiny Committee together with significant delegation to officers ensures that the business of the Council is progressed at some speed. The "tyranny of the diary", however, with the requirement that a policy proposal may have to be debated up to five times in differing political formats, detracts from this efficiency. In this regard the new system is no more efficient than the committee system. To a limited extent, the number of times that matters come before the council will diminish when the Council Executive becomes a lawful decision making body.

Transparency

  For those Members involved in the Executive or Scrutiny functions, the process is transparent. For other Members, however, this is not always the case and here there is some feeling of disenfranchisement.

  Whilst meetings of the Executive and Scrutiny Committee are open, there has been little attendance by the public. The Executive may become more accessible as it adopts the discipline of declaring the policy implementation issues it will consider. If the Overview and Scrutiny function of the Council is to achieve its aspiration of becoming "the community champion" it will have to meet in accessible community locations throughout the borough and be pro-active in addressing issues of importance to the general populace as well as specific geographic communities or communities of interest.

  There is also a concern that significant delegation to officers, without the introduction of and adherence to good political management practice in the monitoring of the exercising of these delegated powers, may adversely impact on the transparency of the new structures.

Accountability

  As the accountability of the new process is somewhat the product of greater efficiency and transparency, given the comments above, it may yet be too early to form an opinion on this. Certainly, the intention is to involve the electorate in the debate, to be clear about the decisions made and to test the success and acceptability of those decisions through the ballot box. Greater attention, however, will have to be focussed on democratic processes within the elected term of a Council administration.

*Impact of new arrangements on the role of Councillors

  The new arrangements have had a marked impact on the role of Councillors. Lead Councillors (the Executive) have become very busy, with a high profile and carry considerable workloads. The new arrangements have also encouraged more communication and joint working between service areas. This has had a positive effect on dismantling the departmentalism that is so deeply ingrained in local government culture.

  The new arrangements have had a different but equally significant impact on the role of non-Executive members. Elected members on the Overview and Scrutiny committee seem to really enjoy their new role and have undertaken it with great enthusiasm and commitment. Members on the quasi-judicial committees are also happy because they have an active role in the decision-making processes of the Council.

  There is however, a problem with Advisory Panels. The Advisory Panels were established to offer advice and scrutiny support (in fact, to act as a "critical friend") to the Lead Councillor in each of the given portfolio areas. The problem is that, as they do not make decisions; many of the members feel the Panels to be little more than "talking shops". They feel marginalised and disenfranchised from the real business of decision making. The new arrangements are currently under review and the Political Structures Working Party has been reconvened to oversee this. Some of the Advisory Panels have worked as a result of a firm commitment to structured and informed debate and delegation by the Lead Councillor.

  The Overview and Scrutiny function is seen currently as being secondary and less important by a large proportion of the members. The concept of Executive and Overview and Scrutiny functions working equitably for the benefit of the Council and its electorate has not yet been fully recognised or realised. The problem, however, is being addressed alongside the need to bring a tighter focus to the functioning of Advisory Panels.

  There is growing concern from Members about some aspects of the present arrangements. The issues identified in discussion so far may be summarised as follows:

    Frontline Councillors

    —  The arrangements do not sufficiently meet the needs to link representational duties with the activities of the Council.

    —  Some of the Advisory Panels work better than others, and are more valued by their members.

    —  A number of the Advisory Panels have hardly met, and when they do, they are not sure what it is they can do or are meant to do.

    —  Advisory Panels are seen as toothless, with no real power by some Members.

    —  Members want a real and active role in decision making and making recommendations.

    —  Members value the discussion generated by Committee meetings as is evidenced by P&R and Social Services Committee.

    —  Some of the Advisory Panels work better than others as they seem to have clearer Terms of Reference.

    —  The structure and content of Advisory Panel agendas varies and continues to be officer led.

    —  Discussion at Advisory Panels where reports are produced is more informed and fruitful.

    —  Some Members feel disenfranchised and disconnected by the new arrangements.

    Executive

    —  Some Lead Councillors are concerned that the speed of the decision-making process that is governed by the current arrangement of the civic diary leaves insufficient time for reflection and full advice to be obtained on issues within specific portfolios.

    —  Paradoxically, other Lead Councillors express concern that they are dealing with the same document up to five times.

    —  Some Lead Councillors feel a sense of isolation and (as deputies outside the Executive are not permitted under the legislation) are looking to the identification of appropriate support to their decision-making responsibilities.

    —  There is also concern about how well the political structures fit with the Council's planning and decision-taking processes.

    Overview & Scrutiny

    —  There appear to be concerns about the role, functions and resources of overview and scrutiny.

  All Members were sent a questionnaire to obtain their views on the interim constitution. A total of 22 questionnaires were returned (37 per cent), split as follows:

13    Labour

6    Conservative

2    Liberal Democrat

1    East Cleveland Independent

  Eight were completed by Councillors with less than five years' experience, four had more than five but less than 10 years and 10 had more than 10 years' experience.

  To summarise the main findings of the questionnaire:

Meetings

  Eight respondents considered the number of meetings they were attending to be about right however, a further eight considered there were not quite enough or too few. Meeting information was timely and accurate and meetings were generally useful.

New Skills

  There was an even split between those who felt they had had to learn some new skills in order to carry out the new roles and those that had not. The majority felt that they had now got on top of these new roles.

Training

  The responses suggest that training and development needs to be looked at more closely particularly in relation to Members' roles within Advisory Panels and as front line Councillors.

  The respondents' overall opinion of the new arrangements suggests they much preferred the old system.

Use of Constitution

  Most respondents considered they knew the different parts of the new constitution and it accurately described the process for the role.

Officer Support

  Most respondents considered they received adequate Officer support within their role.

Support to do the Job

  Most respondents considered they received sufficient information to take part in meetings, they did not receive too much detailed information to make those decisions and they received the papers in good time to read them.

  Most respondents had an understanding of the methods of representation applicable to their roles and the majority had used a number of methods of consultation within the decision making process with debate at Committee being the most favoured.

New Ways of Working

  The respondents favoured more information workshop events being held to develop policy but were concerned that they did not have sufficient opportunity effectively to scrutinise the recommendations and actions of the Executive. They considered processes were open to the public and were accountable. A number, however, could neither agree nor disagree that processes were practical, effective, creative or understandable.

*Impact of new arrangements on the role of officers

  The greatest impact has been on chief officers, democratic services and those officers identified to provide specific support to the Executive and Overview and Scrutiny.

Chief Officers

  Are learning how to support the Executive and individual portfolio holders, exercise their delegated powers with discretion and provide information to Overview and Scrutiny without being partisan.

Democratic Services

  Are learning how to manage events within the Council Diary, ensure that the right information reaches the right people at the right time and ensure that decisions are made lawfully and communicated clearly.

Specific Executive and Overview and Scrutiny Support

  Is being organised to protect confidentiality but within the context of both functions working equitably for the benefit of the Council and its electorate.

*Impact of new arrangements on the local electorate

  This, despite consultation, has been minimal.

*Experience of setting up overview and scrutiny committees and the role of area committees or other devolved arrangements

  As yet there are no Area Committees but Members are looking at this alternative and how best it could be implemented across the Borough.

*Difficulties experienced in implementing provisions of LGA 2000 (part II) and views on the adequacy of the guidance and how it may be improved

  This is a huge task requiring much detailed work. The guidance is very helpful but it is too early to say anything significant about its practical utility.

*Extent to which opting for directly elected mayor model and advantages/disadvantages of such a model

  Neither of the directly elected mayor models have been warmly embraced by the Members of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council despite the burgeoning enthusiasm elsewhere. The Guidelines on consultation set out in the Local Government Act state quite clearly that all three options have to be put to the people equitably. It may be that following this process there is substantial support for one of the mayoral models and this would then need to be responded to by the Council.

*Other matters

  The opportunities for political debate have diminished under the interim arrangements to the detriment of developing ideas at member level and to the political vocation and appetite of councillors. It is not so much fun anymore and there is a real danger of loss of interest and political talent.

*Information from the University of Teesside

  A team of four academics from the University of Teesside has been engaged to: evaluate the appropriateness of the Authority's existing political management arrangements; and facilitate the process of deciding on a specific political management structure most appropriate for the Authority. The latter will be undertaken within the context of existing comparative evidence, drawn from a variety of sources including the Local Government Association, New Local Government Network and the Improvement and Development Agency.

  The intention is to seek and analyse the views of all Members by means of a series of focus group discussions to explore their views on interim and possible structures. This will include inviting their views on whether the interim political management structures, established in May 2000, have led to enhanced accountability, transparency and efficiency in policy-making, policy implementation and policy review. This will build upon the research already undertaken in-house as to Members' views, as reported above. In addition, the views of certain key Chief Officers will also be established against the same criteria.

January 2001


 
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