Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead (LAG 15)

  In May 2000, ahead of the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000, The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead embraced the need to modernise the way it worked and began piloting the Cabinet/Leader model of new local authority governance. To comply with the Act widespread public consultation is currently underway on all three models and the authority aims to send the agreed proposals to the Secretary of State in May for implementation in August 2001.

  For clarification, the Royal Borough's Cabinet currently has no executive authority and full Council makes all decisions. The main features of the pilot model in use include:

    —  A 10-member Cabinet making recommendations to the full Council;

    —  New Service User Forums which feed into the Cabinet—enabling local people to participate in the decision-making process;

    —  Five new scrutiny panels to monitor the way the Council is doing its job; and

    —  A new independent Standards Board.

EFFICIENCY, TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

  The Cabinet/Leader pilot model has only been in operation for 8 months but it is clear that already the new arrangements have delivered greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in the authority's decision-making as set out below:

  Efficiency

    —  In contrast to the previous committee system, the Cabinet tends to concentrate on matters of a strategic nature rather than detail and low-level operational matters. This enables more business to be transacted in a shorter time-span.

    —  The Cabinet meets weekly to make recommendations to more frequent meetings of the full Council—occurring at regular and easy-to-understand intervals. This allows decisions to be taken at a faster pace than before and enables the Council to be more responsive to the needs of the local community.

    —  A more effective scheme of delegation, specifying the level of powers that reside with the full Council and senior officers, has also speeded up decision-making.

    —  Cabinet Members have a new duty to consult widely on service and policy proposals during their development, i.e. before they arrive at the Cabinet. If there is broad agreement amongst all stakeholders at the policy development stage then later additional consultation can be avoided—thus saving time.

    —  To provide the Cabinet with the support it needs, a Cabinet Office has been set up with a team of three officers dedicated to providing administrative and policy backup. This enables the Cabinet to work effectively and efficiently, fast-tracking communication to individual Cabinet members and reducing red tape.

  Transparency

    —  As well as enhancing consultation generally, for the first time transparency in the policy-making process has been achieved. Over 20 new and pioneering `Service User Forums' have been created. Chaired by Lead Cabinet members they enable everyday users of Council services to work alongside interest groups and other local stakeholders to help develop policies for the future.

    —  Openness is at the heart of the Council's scrutiny function. Meeting quarterly, the scrutiny panels can include external members from key interest groups and local organisations bringing a useful outside view and alerting councillors to wider and emerging issues in the community.

    —  Openness externally is also accompanied by openess internally and a new `Staff Forum' has been created to improve communication between management and staff—reporting directly to the Cabinet on personnel and morale issues.

    —  The Full Council has also become more open. Meeting in public, with public question time and public access to all non-confidential papers, the Council gives members of all political groupings a voice in every decision. Meetings have now become the focus for borough-wide debate on the authority's services. In contrast to the committee system, for the first time all 58 councillors are fully engaged in all decisions being made.

  Accountability

    —  With the committee system it was sometimes difficult for local people to know who took decisions, who to hold to account and who to complain to when things went wrong. There has been a noticeable improvement with the new arrangements. Through a number of sensitive local issues and the way in which the local media now reports stories, Lead Cabinet members have had to become more accountable for their actions publicly. Outside, they are now often viewed as the individual that is directly responsible for a particular Council service as well as the public advocate of the Council for them.

    —  Although it is the full Council where decisions are currently taken, Lead Cabinet members rather than `committees' are now perceived as the decision-makers by key interest groups and local organisations. This can be attributed to the active role taken by Lead Cabinet members via news releases, publications and meetings with the local community.

    —  At full Council, meeting reports are now presented entirely by individual Lead Cabinet members with no public assistance from Council officers. This has helped raise their public profile and accountability.

    —  To improve accountability in the planning process, the number of Development Control committees has doubled and their geographical coverage has been halved to ensure that it is the local ward councillors, with the greatest local knowledge, that take local decisions. Also, for the first time, the applicant, objectors and parish council can address meetings, if they so wish.

IMPACT OF THE NEW STRUCTURES ON THE VARIOUS STAKEHOLDERS

  The new arrangements have had an impact on the role of councillors and council officers. Some notable points include:

    —  In their new role, Cabinet Members spend significantly more time in meetings both internally and externally and briefings with officers take place on a more frequent basis. As a result, Cabinet Members who are employed full-time have experienced some minor time allocation problems. Satisfactory responsibility allowances have been an issue.

    —  Many opposition and `back-bench' councillors feel isolated and out of touch. This is because they now attend less meetings than before and have more time to spend in the local community. A typical `back-bench' councillor attends one scrutiny panel (quarterly), an area development control panel (monthly) and the full Council (also monthly). However, to ensure that they do not feel isolated from the policy-making process they are able to be a member of one of the Cabinet's Service User Forums, if they so wish.

    —  For officers, change from the committee system to the Cabinet/Leader model was initially a challenge particularly in the forward planning of reports for Cabinet and full Council. However, a comprehensive forward planning list has helped to iron these problems out and is in the process of being refined to meeting the requirements of the Act.

    —  Through regular briefings with Lead Cabinet members, senior officers have benefited from better political and policy guidance.

  Local residents now benefit from a single point of contact, via the Cabinet Office, for any complaints or queries relating to Cabinet Members and Cabinet business. This has improved customer service and public access to Cabinet Members.

EXPERIENCES OF SETTING UP THE SCRUTINY FUNCTION

  As with many other local authorities, the setting up of the Council's scrutiny function has been one of the areas of most change. Initially a few difficulties existed, particularly with the operation and work of the scrutiny panels and as a result, it was necessary to issue special guidance to the Scrutiny Panel Chairmen. However, scrutiny has began to improve since its conception and this has been due to the willingness of officers and councillors to make it work.

VIEWS ON THE ADEQUACY OF THE GUIDANCE AND HOW IT MIGHT BE IMPROVED

  The comprehensive guidance issued by the Government has, by and large, been useful in setting up the Council's new arrangements, particularly through the use of case studies. However, the Council has been sensitive to the number of changes and revisions made to the guidance. Also, in some instances the guidance has been too prescriptive.

THE COUNCIL'S POSITION ON THE DIRECTLY-ELECTED MAYOR MODEL

  In order to comply with the Local Government Act 2000 and not pre-empt the views of the local community, the authority will not be promoting or pursuing any one local authority governance model during the forthcoming public consultation.

Christine Bateson

Deputy Leader of the Council (Community Consultation)

Janaury 2001


 
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