Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by Kingston-upon-Hull City Council (LAG 13)

  I refer to your Press Notice 69/1999-2000 of 30 November. I set out below, as you asked in your e-mail, the City Council's experiences in experimenting with new forms of political management. I will try as far as possible to follow the bullet points in your Press Notice with a short preliminary paragraph on the recent history of political management at the City Council.

  The City Council introduced a Cabinet type Executive system in May 1999. The main components of this were: an Executive Cabinet of twelve members which is politically balanced; a Scrutiny function consisting of two Scrutiny Committees; seven Area Committees; and a number of Standing Committees dealing mainly with regulatory functions. I am enclosing with this letter some slides setting out our system in more detail. I apologise if this is a little informal but the slides are part of a presentation given many times within the City Council to explain the new system to staff.

  We reviewed the system quite comprehensively early in 2000; and we are carrying out another review as a result of the Local Government Act 2000. The contents of this letter are based on our conclusions from those reviews.

  I will turn now to the points set out in your Press Notice.

1.  EFFICIENCY, TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT

  I think it is worth pointing out that transparency and accountability are perhaps traditional characteristics of a democratic system whereas efficiency is rather more of a managerial measure. It is not always the case that transparency and accountability promote efficiency or vice-versa. Nonetheless, the general view within the City Council is that the new Executive system has the potential to increase all three. It concentrates day-to-day responsibility for the Council's affairs in the hands of a small number of councillors who are obliged to follow the policies generally set out by all sixty councillors in Council. Policies and decisions can be scrutinised to test their validity and usefulness. Area Committees provide the potential for delegation to a neighbourhood level and for greater participation by the electorate at that level. Regulatory functions are kept distinct from executive functions to maintain impartiality.

  Our experience is that the new system certainly leads to greater speed in decision-making because there is no long cycle of committees through which any given issue has to pass. This does not mean that speed in government is necessarily a good thing of itself. Whereas in the old system a certain amount of thinking about an issue could take place as it passed through the committee cycle, the new system requires much more thought and discussion in pre-Cabinet processes. Necessarily, this dilutes the formality of the old system.

  Anyone attending Cabinet meetings over even a short period of time could not fail to notice that it gives a much better overview of the Council's entire activities than could be had previously. This of itself makes it easier to understand what the Council does and to understand some of the reasoning behind the Cabinet's decisions. It should not be forgotten however that in most authorities political groups still meet and that, in reality, a majority group is still part of the decision-making process. While the original intention of the legislation to allow Cabinet meetings to be held in private has since been changed it does seem that the new system still leaves open the possibility of a significant dilution of the freedom of information provisions of the 1972 Act. For example, the distinction made in paragraph 7.32-7.38 of the guidance document "New Council Constitutions" (the Guidance) between discussion and decisions is unlikely to be so clear in practice.

  We have also found the clarification of roles and delegations to be at times problematic. In part this turns upon the legislative requirement for very precise schemes of delegation in local authorities. In practice, this leads to complications. The reason for this is that, while it is possible to set out general areas of responsibility quite clearly, the degree of detail apparently needed to constitute a lawful system of delegation often leads to a delegation scheme of inordinate length and intricacy. This was perhaps manageable when decisions could be taken only by a committee of the Council or an officer. However the new system foresees responsibility for executive matters as lying quite possibly with Council, Cabinet, Executive Councillors, Area Committees, and officers. It is quite easy to see how this could lead to a labyrinthine system of delegations the detail of which would be understood only by one or two people inside the Council itself.

  It has to be said also that the procedural requirements of the new legislation are very much more complicated than existed previously. The requirement to publish a forward plan - while admirable in theory—does not necessarily do justice to the practicalities of day-to-day operational decision-making. Similarly the requirement to identify key decisions is a complication. The possibility of a successful challenge of any given decision purely on procedural grounds appears to have grown as a result of the legislative complications.

2.  IMPACT OF THE ARRANGEMENTS ON THE ROLE OF COUNCILLORS/OFFICERS/THE ELECTORATE

  Our reviews have tended to make clear that the pressures on Cabinet members are very much greater than were those on committee members under the old system. Given the frequency of Cabinet meetings, the responsibilities of being an Executive Councillor, and the necessity of mastering quite wide-ranging briefs, it would seem to be more difficult now for a member of Cabinet to be in full-time employment than for a committee member under the old system.

  There has been much discussion of the possible isolation of those members who are not on the Executive. This was perhaps borne out by early experience at the City Council. Since then, in part through a fairly comprehensive programme of member development and support, the potential of the non-Executive roles has become clearer. We have also developed a software system which amounts to a small Intranet which contains all committee reports, agendas and minutes. This helps considerably to disperse information quickly through the organisation.

  It is also true to say that more informal groups have been developed, such as working groups and task groups, in order to take some of the pressure off Cabinet. These have seen at times a blurring of the distinction between the roles of officers and members. From the practical point of view they do help very much to achieve a common understanding of goals and to produce greater team effort. They can however tend to make responsibility less clear. On a task group which is chaired by a member there may be a chief officer present. The group may arrive at recommendations or advice consensually. If that then turned out to have been badly misjudged it might not be clear who was in fact responsible for the advice.

  The Press Notice also refers to the impact of the new arrangements on the local electorate. The City Council is at the moment carrying out a large consultation exercise as envisaged in legislation and guidance. We do not yet have the results of that though we hope that there will be a significant response from the City's electorate. Apart from this however it would have to be said that there is as yet no evidence of any great impact of the system on the electorate as a whole. However the system of Area Committees which are backed-up by ward forums has generated more interest at a neighbourhood level in the City Council's affairs. Ward forums exist to promote the discussion by the public of virtually any matter relevant to the City Council and our experience is that at times they have generated significant public interest.

3.  OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY COMMITTEES/AREA COMMITTEES

  The City Council sees Scrutiny as a necessary part of Executive style arrangements. Government guidance is at pains to point out its positive aspect. There has been however at the City Council some confusion over the role and operation of the Scrutiny function. In some minds this confusion continues and this has been pointed out most recently in the District Auditor's Management Letter to the Authority.

  Having now operated the Scrutiny function for over eighteen months the City Council can point to some notable successes. The committees (there are two; one for Budgets and Best Value; and the other for Operational Issues) have produced a number of reports which have been useful in reviewing policy and redistributing resources. We have found it particularly useful to have appointed a senior councillor as head of the Scrutiny function. This gives the committees status and a certain clout within the Council. Nonetheless some difficult issues remain.

  Our first review concluded that it was often quite difficult to ensure that officers and members were committed to the principles and process of the Scrutiny Committee's work: they tended to see themselves as supporting the executive. Perhaps inevitably, given the novelty of the function, there may also have been the feeling that the process was essentially negative. The problem for the committee therefore has been to ensure that it does its work thoroughly and conscientiously without shirking from difficult issues while nonetheless trying to present itself in a positive light. It seems likely that this difficulty may continue. The potential nonetheless remains for the Scrutiny function to make a considerable contribution to the Authority's work.

  Another problem that we have encountered is the difficulty of making sure that the Scrutiny Committee's work maintains a balance between impartiality and relevance. If the committee is too closely involved in the current decision-making and policy-making of the Council it risks losing its objectivity and may even become part of the decision-making machinery itself. On the other hand if it maintains too great a distance between itself and current issues, exercising only hindsight, it would risk losing its relevance. At times this can be a difficult judgement to make.

  The Guidance also makes it clear (for example at paragraph 3.52 and 3.60) that one of the roles of scrutiny committees may be to carry out enquiries into particular issues. Our experience is that there may be at the very least an overlap here with other processes or organisations. We have therefore drawn up a set of guidelines which are in the process of being adopted by the Scrutiny Committee and a copy of which I enclose with this letter.

  When the City Council introduced its new constitutional arrangements it established seven Area Committees. These have proved to be a valuable means of promoting dialogue with the electorate; pursuing local agendas; and maintaining a neighbourhood focus for service delivery. The main challenges that we identified in our review process have been: to ensure that the responsibilities of the Area Committees are distinct from those of Cabinet; to ensure that they continue to engage local people; to ensure that they represent Best Value in the delivery of services; and to ensure that they play their part in developing the Council's community leadership role. There does nonetheless seem to be an underlying tension in the government's wish to promote neighbourhoods as the real focus of truly local governance through the participation of the electorate at that level; and the intention to ensure that the responsibility for all the Council's activities rests with a small number of highly visible councillors in the Executive. This is not to say that the tension is irreconcilable but the experience of the City Council is that it is always there.

  It may also be worth mentioning that the City Council has experimented with new forms of Council Meeting. Under the old system the Council Meeting tended to be a dry recitation of Council minutes which were either approved on the nod or debated yet again after their passage through committee. Under the new Executive system the form of the meeting was changed in order to promote more issue based debate. At each Council meeting the Leader gives a short statement as do two Executive councillors in their area of responsibility. Questions can then be raised by other councillors who also have the right to give Notices of Motion on issues that they wish to discuss. The general feeling is still that the Council meetings tend to be too long and are largely for enthusiasts of political debate. We are therefore reviewing this again.

  We have also raised with the Government the problem of chairing Council Meetings. As matters stand, the law requires Council Meetings to be chaired by the Council Chair—who is the Lord Mayor in the City Council's case. The Mayoralty changes every year and not all councillors necessarily feel comfortable with chairing what can now be a high profile and contentious meeting. We have therefore suggested to the Government that the legal requirement for chairing Council meetings should be lifted in order to improve efficiency.

4.  DIFFICULTIES IN IMPLEMENTING THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACT 2000/ADEQUACY OF GUIDANCE

  The City Council is still in the process of consultation over the formal change to an Executive arrangement under the Local Government Act 2000. Strictly speaking therefore we have not yet implemented its provisions. This letter has already pointed out that the procedural requirements of the legislation are very complicated. This can hardly be seen as promoting transparency. The length of government guidance bears witness to this. For example, on the single issue of consultation there is advice not only in the main body of the the Guidance but also in an entirely separate fifty-eight page document entitled "Consultation Guidelines for English Local Authorities". It follows that the Guidance would be better if it were shorter. Much of it is trite or obvious.

5.  DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYOR MODEL

  In its consultation exercise the City Council has expressed its preference as being for a Leader and Cabinet executive arrangement. The City Council has come to no formal view about the advantages and disadvantages of the directly Elected Mayor model. Informal discussion suggests that the balance of power between Mayor and Council is a crucial issue and that there is little in legislation or Guidance to clarify it.

  One final point which could perhaps be made is that raised at the beginning of this letter about the distinction between democratic characteristics such as transparency and accountability and managerial characteristics such as efficiency. A more transparent and accountable system for local government is part of central government's programme. Another very significant part of that programme is improved efficiency through devices such as: focus groups; league tables; performance indicators; Best Value plans; service delivery plans; the inspection regime. The match between these two parts of the programme is not necessarily seamless. If an authority is seen to be failing in a particular area the sanction may be an administrative one—such as intervention by central government or through non-allocation of grant. This may be seen as bypassing the ballot box and the local democratic process. What might have been the judgement of the local electorate becomes the judgement of central government. In that sense the democratic characteristics which the new legislation is designed to promote such as transparency and accountability seem to be in service to the new managerialism rather than the other way round. Finding the right balance between these is very important for a healthy local system.

  I hope that these general observations are of help to the Sub-committee in its enquiry.

Peter Barker

Assistant Chief Executive

January 2001


 
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