Memorandum by Bedfordshire County Council
A. Introduction and Description of Main Features
1. Bedfordshire County Council serves a
population of about 380,000, covers an area of 119,000 hectares
and spends £350 million net, annually. In June 1997, 25 Conservative,
14 Labour and 10 Liberal Democrat councillors were elected to
the Council. There is a Conservative administration with a majority
of one over other parties. The only other time that there was
a political administration at Bedfordshire County Council was
in the period 1977-81, when there was also a Conservative administration.
Otherwise since 1973 there has been no overall control. There
is therefore a tradition of cross party working. The Council's
external auditor has also commented on the extremely good, while
proper, relations between elected members and officers as professional
2. Since January 1999 the County Council
has been operating a "modernised" system of local governance,
albeit operating within the then current legislative framework.
It has increased the frequency of its meetings from five a year
to eight or nine a year, depending on the volume of business.
3. The Council has adopted a Cabinet and
Leader model. The cabinet, or Executive as it is styled locally,
comprises five Conservative, two Labour and one Liberal Democrat
Councillors. Each member of the Executive has a cross cutting
portfolio of responsibilities. The portfolios held by the Conservative
Environment and Sustainability.
Services for Children and Young People.
The portfolios held by the Labour Group are:
Community Development and Welfare
The portfolio held by the Liberal Democrat Group
4. The Executive meets in public. It is
Promoting and delivering integrated
policy and performance through the Community Vision/Objectives,
the Best Value Programme and the Medium Term Plan.
Proposing the Revenue Budget and
Capital Programme to the Council for approval and adoption.
Political accountability for service
delivery from a community champion perspective including consideration
of major corporate and service policy issues and plans to drive
forward the Council's response.
Day to day decision-makingalbeit
that senior managers, operating under existing legislation discharge
this function after consulting with portfolio holders. Other decisions
are taken by the Executive.
External links with other partners.
5. The Council's Officer structure was reorganised
at the same time as the changes in political management arrangements
were brought in. There is dedicated support for the Executive
through the Council's most senior professional advisers working
closely with the portfolio holders. Portfolio holders report to
the Executive in their own name, with the views of the professional
advisers featuring prominently on the front-sheet of the report.
6. The Council's Overview and Scrutiny function
is discharged through four all party, non-proportional Select
Lifelong Learning (which also has
Parent Governor and Diocesan representatives).
Community and Environment.
Each of these are chaired by the Conservative
administration, with three Conservative and one Labour Vice-Chairmen.
The Select Committees also meet in public and focus on:
Policy Development and Review.
Monitoring Other Public Bodies operating
in the County.
In addition, since April 2000, the Council has
established an all-party Scrutiny Committee. It comprises three
Conservative Councillors, four Labour members and two Liberal
Democrat members. There is a Labour Chairman and Liberal Democrat
Vice Chairman. The Scrutiny Committee focuses on scrutinising:
Decisions of the Executive.
The performance of the Executive.
Performance of the Council as a whole
in respect of service delivery, community leadership etc.
7. The Scrutiny and Select Committees were
established by the Council and report to it. Select Committee
reports are sent to the Executive as a courtesy and for the Executive
to advise the Council on the place of the recommendations in the
Council's overall corporate strategy.
8. There is dedicated officer support for
the Scrutiny and Select Committees.
9. The Council also has arrangements, outside
of the Executive and Scrutiny split, to discharge its quasi-judicial
functions, principally Development Control but also Appeals, Student
Awards and Adoptions. The Council also has a Standards Committee.
It has a majority of independent Members including the Chairman.
They were recruited following a public advertisement and provide
a wide range of backgrounds, experience and skills. There is also
specific support, including staff support, to enable members to
better fulfil their Representational role.
B. Have the Changes led to Greater Efficiency,
Transparency and Accountability?
10. The County Council had always prided
itself on being an efficient, transparent and accountable local
council. There is not a unanimity of view about this issue amongst
current County Councillors. Some, especially those who were involved
in decision making in the previous "power-sharing" periods,
do not believe that the Council is more transparent and accountable.
It could be argued that those members are attributing to the modernised
arrangements a form of exclusion that would have taken place anyway
with the introduction of a political administration after a considerable
period of no overall control.
11. EfficiencyMeasures of
efficiency in public services are notoriously difficult to establish.
However the Council has continued to receive a clean bill of health
from its external auditor. A Joint Review by the Social Services
Inspectorate/Audit Commission gave the County Council a good report,
although there are always service areas which such reviews rightly
identify as needing further attention. We await an Ofsted inspection
of the LEA although the Council came through an earlier pilot
inspection some three years ago with little criticism. The Executive
portfolio arrangement, coupled with the Best Value requirements,
have led the Council to embark on a significant programme of performance
management and performance reporting. This was not really possible,
nor would it have been as effective, if the reporting had been
dissipated over a number of service committees and a plethora
of sub-committees. Reporting such performance in public, in one
place, the Executive, is one indicator of greater transparency
and efficiency. Another is the position of the Council in the
Council Tax league for County Councils. Over the last four years,
the Council has improved its performance by moving from second
to sixth in the league table of high spendersie outside
of the top decile.
12. TransparencyThe Council,
its Executive and those committees forming its Overview and Scrutiny
function all meet in public, with full Access to Information provisions
being met. Almost always portfolio holders, officers and other
giving evidence, do so in public. The Executive has also taken
its first steps to produce a six month forward agenda, which itself
should allow the Scrutiny and Select Committees to prepare their
scrutiny and challenge positions. Briefings by officers are available
to all councillors who request them. There are also set-piece
briefings for all members of the Council on issues of local concern,
or major policy initiatives. Portfolio holders and senior officers
are questioned in public at Select Committees and the Scrutiny
Committee. Commercially confidential and other exempt papers are
made available to the Select and Scrutiny committees and when
necessary they use the facility to consider these issues, including
taking evidence from and questioning portfolio holders and officer,
in private. Taken together these arrangements all help to promote
transparency within the Council and in the wider community.
13. Accountabilityalso a difficult
area. The Executive is accountable to the Council. There is provision
for non-Executive members and for members of the public to ask
questions at the Executive and for non-Executive councillors to
put questions to portfolio holders at the meetings of the Council.
The Council has four mechanisms, each with a fairly low threshold,
which enable matters to be referred to the Council from the Executive,
the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of a select committee or the Scrutiny
Committee. Taken together with public question time, these procedures
are regarded by portfolio holders as challenging. They are certainly
more challenging than the previous arrangements where a service
committee chairman was rarely held publicly accountable, and only
infrequently challenged at private political group meetings.
C. The Impact of the New Arrangements on
(a) the role of councillors;
(b) the role of officers;
(c) the local electorate.
14. Role of CouncillorsThe
Council has had reviews of the arrangements on five occasions
since they were introduced in January 1999. There were three and
nine month reviews. There was the February 2000 Budget debate,
when the Budget was presented for the first time in portfolio
rather than service groupings. There was the annual meeting of
the Council in Spring 2000. The Council is now preparing its new
constitution for submission to the Secretary of State after the
County Council elections in May of this year. On none of those
occasions has there been a motion, still less a vote, to abandon
the experiment. A number of Councillors have however indicated
that they will not be seeking re-election. What is not yet clear
is whether the proportion of members so doing is greater this
year than at previous council elections. Some members regret the
passing of the old service committees. It would not be too strong
to say that one or two members mourn their passing and exhibit
some characteristics of grief. Those members who recognise that
the former service committees were debating rather than decision
forums, (and some regret their passing because they perceive that
there are fewer opportunities for such debate), do recognise that
decision making is more streamlined under the modernised arrangements.
Formal political debate, which is essential for a healthy democracy,
now take place at the meetings of the County Council. Individual
members have their own views as to the right balance between democratic
debate and effective efficient decision-making.
15. Portfolio holdersmost
portfolio holders have had recent experience as a committee chairman.
They believe that their current workload is considerably greater
than in their previous role. Their time commitment, especially
those Executive members with the bigger portfolios, is often four
days out of five. The County Council conducts its business during
the day, with few, if any, County Council meetings in the evening.
For those authorities which conduct much of their business in
the evening, the pressures on portfolio holders will be all the
greater. The Council experimented with Deputy Portfolio holders
for about a year and the post holders judged the role to be both
unsatisfactory from a personal and a political perspective in
that they were bound by collective responsibility, unable to vote
and excluded from the Overview and Scrutiny side of the operation.
There were also difference interpretations of the role by different
portfolio holdersresearcher, political adviser, "PPS",
"Parliamentary Under Secretary", "Minister of State"
with responsibility for part of the portfolio.
16. Overview and ScrutinyThe
Council has tried very hard to develop an inclusive overview and
scrutiny function. When it was realised that there were councillors
without a place on a committee, and who wished to be on one, the
Council voted without any member dissenting to abandon proportionality
on the Select Committees. The members had also recognised the
nature and depth of the work, the taking of evidence from external
witnesses, portfolio and officers and the drafting of unanimous,
authoritative reports were not activities that were conducive
to political posturing. The work of the Select Committees, by
practice rather than by explicit decision, became effectively
non-political. This was confirmed in a decision of the County
Council in September 1999 to abandon proportionality for Select
Committees. The same thinking has been taken into the design of
the arrangements for the opposition chaired Scrutiny Committee.
It has been more difficult for the Scrutiny Committee to separate
its scrutiny function from the political opposition role. This
is for several reasons,
its non-Administration majority,
its perception that it is more than
another select committee, and,
its focus on the decisions and performance
of an Administration led Executive.
Some members have been heard to remark that
the Scrutiny Committee is "The Opposition Committee".
Clearly, if that is the perception, non-political scrutiny will
be more difficult to achieve. That said, many of the Scrutiny
Committee recommendations have been adopted, without amendment,
by the Council, especially where it perceived them to be a "scrutiny"
rather than a "political" proposals. The Scrutiny Committee
meets at least as often as the Executive. For the first 18 months,
up to September 2000, Select Committee scheduled fortnightly meetings.
One of the Select Committees still meets that frequently, and
there is agreement by its membership that they need to do so to
get through their workload, especially the onerous Best Value
studies. The three other Select Committees have now reverted to
monthly meetings. The overall message is that the new arrangements
require a greater time commitment from scrutiny members and, because
of the inquiry based and evidential nature of their work require,
greater inquisitiveness and intellectual commitment.
17. Representative Role of CouncillorsThe
Council has supported the development of the members representational
role through a number of mechanisms, including an innovative pilot
scheme to provide members with a support officer. There are also
dedicated representational support officers who support all members.
Support for members' surgeries, patch profiles (statistical, demographic
and performance information for each member's division), a Millennium
Fund for voluntary groups in each member's patch, regular "walking
the patch" visits by the Chief Executive all help buttress
the member's representational role. There are also other duties,
only for some of which can councillors be supported by officers.
These include; attendance at parish council meetings, school governing
bodies, public meetings in their divisions, surgeries, party meetings
at the constituency, divisional and ward level. These are often
evening activities taking place after what has for some members
been a lengthy journey to and from the venue of the Executive,
Scrutiny or Select Committee meeting and a busy day or half day
taking and sifting evidence or discharging portfolio duties. Overall
the message is that the expectations and time commitment required
are greater than under previous arrangements.
18. Role of OfficersThe most
important point to make is that in local government, unlike the
Civil Service, Council Officers serve all of the Council. This
present a number of "tight-ropes to walk", including,
for example, providing the same support to members of different
political parties, and ensuring that members in each of their
Executive, Scrutiny and Representational roles are afforded support
and parity of esteem. There are five principal roles for officers
under the new arrangements,
Officers as Advisers to the Executive.
Officers as Scrutiny Support.
Officers as Expert/Professional Advisers.
Officers as Accountable Managers.
Officers supporting members in their
Bedfordshire County Council has determined that
each element of the new structure needs to be properly supported,
and be seen to be supported. Only in this way can "parity
of esteem" between the various Councillor roles be demonstrated.
There are however different roles to be performed at different
times and the Council's "hard split", with separate
support for the Executive and the Scrutiny functions in particular,
should always be seen as a continuum with different roles being
played at different times. Strategic Directors who support the
Executive do still act as the lead professional and mentor of
employees in other parts of the council's structure. Scrutiny
officers advise accountable managers how to best present material
to the select committees. Scrutiny officers also help the Select
Committee to ask difficult questions of the portfolio holders
and their professional advisers/service experts. The formerly
clear lines of professional responsibility have become blurredthe
professional bureaucracies no longer formally feature in the Council's
structure, but nevertheless they live on in working relationships.
Officers have not become politicised. Some are now clearly identified
with particular functions. There is greater visibility of individual
functions. There are still unanswered questions about the transferability
from, say, scrutiny to Executive support or into service operations.
There are new roles and some uncertainty for professionals where
the old career paths are now not as clear. There is a need to
be vigilant and work hard to retain the professional independence
and integrity of the officers in the new arrangements.
19. The Local ElectorateThe
Council has been operating its modernised arrangements for two
years. The Council holds elections every four years, the next
elections being in May this year. It is too early therefore to
say whether the arrangements will meet one of the aims of the
legislation, to connect with the people and improve electoral
turnout. The Council's institutional stakeholders (parish councils,
the Borough/District Councils, business and the voluntary sector)
have shown great interest in the new arrangements. There is little
evidence that the same is true of the Electorate. The press has
concentrated on the substantive policy and service delivery issues
facing the Council. They have also shown particular interest in
a major Strategic Partnership for the provision of support services
that the Council is pursuing under a Best Value banner. There
has been some, but not overwhelming, interest in the public question
time at the Executive. Members of local interest groups and members
of the public have been active in giving evidence to select committees.
There has not though, with one notable exception, (an inquiry
into the impact of changing the eligibility criteria for free
school transport), generally been full public galleries at meetings
of the Select Committees and Scrutiny Committee. Interested parties
have occupied the public gallery at meetings of the Executive.
The Council's user satisfaction survey for the year 2000 showed,
of those responding to the question, that 52 per cent were very
or fairly satisfied with the way the authority runs things, while
14 per cent were fairly or very dissatisfied. It is interesting
to note that the outer extremes were both characterised by low
responses, three per cent very satisfied, two per cent very dissatisfied.
At the time of drafting this submission the Council was consulting
on the three options for future governance arrangements. (See
paragraph 22 below). While the Leader's and the Chief Executive's
correspondence contains requests from other local authorities,
academics, think tanks and others about Bedfordshire's modernisation
arrangements, the same cannot be said in respect of correspondence
from Bedfordshire residents and electors. Members in their representational
role have not reported modernisation as a major topic at surgeries
or other public events. While it has promoted the changes that
it has made, the Council's overall view is these have not excited
the public, who may think that the way politicians and bureaucrats
organise themselves internally is of little consequence to them.
It is a depressing thought that the strongest response could well
be indifference. That said, the following extract from a letter
from a witness, who as a member of the public also attended each
meeting of the Lifelong Learning Select Committee when it considered
the eligibility criteria for school transport is instructive.
The witness asked for his name not to be quoted when the Council
divided on political lines in rejecting a minority recommendation
from the Select Committee that he had supported,
"I thank you once again for the opportunity
you have given me and other members of the public to develop our
arguments and present our evidence. I hope that this may serve
as some kind of model for improved consultation in the future."
D. Overview and Scrutiny Committee and Area
Committees and Devolved Arrangements
20. The Council's arrangements for
Overview and Scrutiny are described above. The Council has received
reports and recommendations from both the Scrutiny and the Select
ScrutinyIn respect of the Scrutiny
Committee five principal issues have emerged.
The first relates to the role of
the Committee. It is not proportional and has a majority of non-administration
members. There is therefore a fine line for it to tread between
the role of scrutiny as critical friend and political opposition
Second is the issue of parity esteem
between the Executive and Scrutiny Committee in particular to
support, access to office accommodation, allowances etc.
The third issue relates to whipping,
which does not exist at the committee, but emerges at Council,
placing some members in a position where they are expected to
scrutinise outside the whip in one forum and accept it on the
same issue in another.
The fourth major issue relates to
the Scrutiny Committee members' unfamiliarity with the purpose,
processes and procedures that they need to adopt if they are to
effectively shadow the Portfolio Holders.
The fifth issue follows on from the
fourth relates to the access to officers. Senior professional
advisers to the Executive are prepared to and are expected to
answer fully Scrutiny Committee member's questions. A potential
difficulty is where these questions relate to the emergent issues
where the Executive has not yet formulated its positionanswering
questions falls short in some members' minds of being fully briefed.
In part this is a parity of esteem issue, and in part an issue
related to the professional role of officers who are employed
by and to serve the whole Council while the reality is that they
are principal professional advisers to the Executive.
Select CommitteesThe Council was
very grateful for the time that Mr Andrew Bennett, Co-Chairman
of this committee, gave to Councillors and officers of the Council
in the Autumn of 1998 when we visited the House of Commons and
received briefings from both Mr Bennett and the then Clerk to
this Select Committee. We learned a lot that day which reinforced
the activities of the pilot select committee then being trialled
in Bedfordshire. Much of what learned we have taken back, as the
committee will recognise later in this section. In their policy
development, best value and scrutiny of other public bodies work,
the Council's Select Committees have learned many lessons which
are listed below:
Start modestly, learn how to do the
Focus, spend time scoping the study,
decide what sort of study it is.
Link budgets to areas being scrutinised.
Without proper project management
and closure mechanisms studies could just roll on.
Ensure that there are proper access
portals to influence decision making when scrutinising other public
bodies (especially in relation to NHS matters and those involving
the Lord Chancellor's Department).
Provide a budget to pay the expenses
of witnesseswe have estimated about £1200 per study.
While officers may support the Select
Committees in drafting the report it is vital for officers to
recognise that it is the committee's report. This is a change
of practice in Local Government where reports were generally drafted
in the name of the principal professional adviser.
Role and Vision of the Committee
Chairman is vital, importance of securing unanimous report.
While all evidence taking and decision-making
meetings are held in the public domain we have found that there
is merit in convening informal private drafting meetings of the
whole committee where this would facilitate the production of
a unanimous report.
There is a danger than some policy
review work is seductive and comfortable, at the expense of, say,
some Best Value work which can require a harder, questioning edge.
We have found it useful to develop
a register of topics that members have an interest in and use
it to match members to studies that they will find interested
and often where they have experience or expertise.
There are issues to address about
"gatekeepers and front line reality", about access to
information and bringing previously unpublished information into
the public domain.
We have found it necessary to invest
in digital recording technology to keep an accurate record of
Members' minority interests have
been protected by the expectation of the chairman facilitating
(in some cases through formally seconding proposals) discussion
of issues raised by a member who in the normal rules of debate
would not get his/her concerns discussed.
In respect of Best Value studies
the Select Committees are appropriate vehicles for the exercise
of three of the 4Cs. Challenge, Consult and Compare, but not for
the Compete stage. Market testing and procurement are more properly
an Executive functionalbeit that the Select Committee needs
to be aware of the market place in respect of the service being
Welcome members bringing views and
perceptions from their representational role and activity.
Area Committees and other devolved arrangementsBedfordshire
is a relatively small county in geographical terms. This has conditioned
the Council's approach to existing area arrangements and will
remain an important determinant in any future development of the
County Council's area arrangements, which themselves are a part
of the current consultation round. The Council has an established
system of Community Liaison Forums and pilot Urban Community Councils.
All of the County outside of Bedford is parished. The Community
Councils are a joint venture with Bedford Borough Council. The
town of Bedford is not parished. A good proportion, but not all,
of the urban area of the Town of Bedford is covered by the Urban
Community Councils. In some but not all of the Community Liaison
Forums the district Councils of Mid-Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire
are involved. The Council's current area arrangements are consultative.
It is the Council's view that the establishment of area committee
arrangements needs to be addressed by first considering their
function. Are they consultative, as with the present arrangements?
Should they have executive powers and if so how does this impact
on the role of the Executive and the requirement for a separation
of Executive and scrutiny functions. Related to the development
of an Executive role for area committees is the need to consider
the basis on which resources could be equitably distributed, having
regard to different levels of need across the County. There is
a third, as yet relatively unexplored role, that of area committees
being a part of the Scrutiny function. In such an arrangement
the area committee could be charged with asking questions about
integrated public service delivery and how it affects the quality
of life in the area. It is believed that the Consultative and
Scrutiny roles could both be discharged by an area committee arrangement.
Area committees could also, but separately, discharge some devolved
Executive functions, especially if issues related to the participation
of district/borough councils could be satisfactorily resolved.
However, the Council does not believe that area committees could
discharge all three roles simultaneously, not least because it
would breach the spirit of the legislation.
21. E. Difficulties Authorities Have Experienced
in Implementing the Provisions of the Local Government Act 2000
(part II) and Views on the Adequacy of the Guidance and How It
Might Be Improved
A main effect to the experimental changes the
Council has made is to transfer power to elected members. The
Council has found the guidance helpful. There is however a concern
about both the volume of the guidancethere is an awful
lot to absorband about its relatively prescriptive nature.
While officers are paid to read and interpret the guidance the
greater worry is that there is too much for elected members to
be expected to digest. The Council wishes to ensure that all members
have an opportunity to influence the shape of it new constitution
before it is submitted to the Secretary of State.
Councillors' ability to make constructive input,
based on their experience of working within the new arrangements
over the last two years, their own views on the success or otherwise
of those arrangements and in the context of the statutory and
non-statutory guidance has been hampered
by their ability to get to grips
with the sheer volume of the guidance;
by the need for them, as representatives
of the Council, to avoid bias during consultationnotwithstanding
that they may, as community leaders, wish to give a personal explanation,
insight or view.
There has also been the need to produce impartial
consultation material on the merits of the three options when,
logically, there has also been a need to explain the Council's
experience with its current arrangements. We have also experience
some difficulty in:
trying to explain how a Mayoral system
would operate in a three-tier shire county, with Town Mayors,
Executive Mayors for Borough/District Councils and a Mayor for
the County Council;
addressing questions relating to
the cost of operating alternative schemes, notwithstanding that
this is not an issue which is likely to be significantly influenced
by the costs of operating the three options;
responding to resident who say that
the simplified consultation document, which meets the DETR's guidance,
does not give them sufficient detailed analysis to be let them
make an informed choice.
explaining to residents and electors
the respective roles and responsibilities of County and Borough/District
Councils. This issue has also had to be addressed in the consultative
The Council went to great lengths to try to
co-ordinate the preparation and publication of consultative material
across the four authorities in the County, ultimately unsuccessfully.
Some respondents to the Council's political management arrangements
consultation have expressed their concern at the Council advising
that further explanatory information could be accessed through
the Council's web site, notwithstanding the fact that the Bedfordshire
Library Service affords access for all to the Internet. They say
that a large majority of people do not have access to the Internet
and are therefore being excluded from accessing further information
and thereby disenfranchised. (This may not bode well for local
government achieving the Government's e-government aspirations,
while at the same time being responsive to their communities)
22. F. The Extent to Which Local Authorities
are Opting for the Directly Elected Mayor Model and the Advantages
and Disadvantages of Such a Model
The County Council has recent completed one
part of a consultation process on the three options. This process
involves a range of activities which will generate both quantitative
and qualitative data. It includes:
circulating the enclosed consultation
leaflet to every householdit sets out in summary form what
the County Council believes are the advantages and disadvantages
of each of the three options;
a MORI Community Workshop and Telephone
Survey undertaken with samples of the electorate;
the provision of leaflets and a video
(which is recommended in DETR Guidance) to Town and Parish Councils
and other stakeholder groups, together with an offer to supply
speakers at meetings; and
additional activity in respect of
hard to reach groups.
In addition, we hope to organise a democracy
debate involving the local media and academics. The consultation
activity is being undertaken within the context of considerable
coverage in the Council's own newspaper and the local press. The
level of response to the household leaflet has, so far, been pleasing.
Some 2,000 replies have been received and, although this is not
perhaps so pleasing in percentage terms, a valuable amount of
qualitative data has been supplied. The Council will decide in
April on which of the options it will be recommending to the incoming
Council in May and on which it will make its submission to the
Secretary of State. That decision will be based on the results
of various public consultation activities, whether there is a
petition for a mayoral referendum, members'experience of operating
our current arrangement and other relevant material. It is probably
true to say that most of the existing councillors would prefer
a Leader and Cabinet model for the County Council operating, as
it does, in a three tier setting.
23. G. Conclusion
The County Council has welcomed this opportunity
to make this submission to the Select Committee and to present
its views on the issues that the Committee wishes to examine in
respect of Local Authority Governance. The County Council would
also welcome the opportunity orally to amplify on the material
in this submission, if that was the wish of the Select Committee.