Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Bedfordshire County Council (LAG 12)

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 advisers.

  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 group are,

    —  Leader.

    —  Resource Management.

    —  Environment and Sustainability.

    —  Services for Children and Young People.

    —  Services for Adults.

  The portfolios held by the Labour Group are:

    —  Community Development and Welfare

    —  New Legislation.

  The portfolio held by the Liberal Democrat Group is:

    —  Economic Development.

  4.  The Executive meets in public. It is responsible for,

    —  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-making—albeit 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 Committees covering,

    —  Resource Stewardship.

    —  Lifelong Learning (which also has Parent Governor and Diocesan representatives).

    —  Individual Well-being.

    —  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.

    —  Best Value Studies.

    —  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.  Efficiency—Measures 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 spenders—ie outside of the top decile.

  12.  Transparency—The 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.  Accountability—also 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 Councillors—The 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 holders—most 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 holders—researcher, political adviser, "PPS", "Parliamentary Under Secretary", "Minister of State" with responsibility for part of the portfolio.

  16.  Overview and Scrutiny—The 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 Councillors—The 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 Officers—The 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 representational role.

  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 blurred—the 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 Electorate—The 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 Committees.

  Scrutiny—In 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 as scrutiny.

    —  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 position—answering 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 Committees—The 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 job.

    —  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 witnesses—we 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 witness evidence.

    —  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 function—albeit that the Select Committee needs to be aware of the market place in respect of the service being examined.

    —  Welcome members bringing views and perceptions from their representational role and activity.

  Area Committees and other devolved arrangements—Bedfordshire 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 guidance—there is an awful lot to absorb—and 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 consultation—notwithstanding 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 material.

  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 household—it 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.

January 2001

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