Memorandum by The East Riding of Yorkshire
Council (LAG 18)
The East Riding of Yorkshire Council is a large
unitary council covering a diverse, largely rural area of 933
square miles with no large centre of population. Since its inception
in April 1996 the council has been politically balanced, the current
Member composition being 27 Conservative, 22 Liberal Democrats,
11 Labour, six Independents and one with no affiliation. The East
Riding of Yorkshire Council adopted a new political management
structure at its annual meeting in May 2000. The decision was
made after consultation with the local community and development
work undertaken by a cross party Member Working Group. The Council
adopted a variation on the cabinet with leader model, the key
variant being that the 10 member Executive is jointly led by three
leaders and operates collective decision making without portfolio
holders. The Council has established five scrutiny and review
committees based on community aims jointly developed with local
partner agencies, Improved Health, Greater Prosperity, Reduced
Crime, Lifelong Learning, and Healthy Environment, a sixth committee
focuses on Corporate Issues. The Council does not operate Area
Committees but rather works with the 170 Parish and Town Councils
in the East Riding.
1. The contribution to greater efficiency,
transparency and accountability in Local Government made by changes
in political management structures
1.1 It is difficult at this early stage
to be sure whether the new structures lead to greater efficiency.
Members and officers are still "learning the ropes"
which at this early stage, can lead to a less efficient process.
Under the new system Executive Members need to hold a broader
expertise across the full range of council business and spend
a great deal of time consulting with colleagues who have built
up specialist expertise through the committee system.
1.2 Many of the decisions brought before
the Executive are non-contentious in nature as they were under
the old committee system. For such decisions the new structure
has speeded up the decision making process, particularly as the
Executive is meeting on a fortnightly basis. The efficiency of
managing complex or contentious issues requiring decisions has
not been significantly improved through the new structure. The
deliberative processes for complex or contentious issues under
the old committee system took time and rightly so. Under the new
system the potential timescale for complex issues is increased
as issue bounce from Executive to Scrutiny and back taking up
more Member and Officer time in the preparation of reports at
each stage in the process.
1.3 Working with an Executive can place
huge workloads on a very few key Members as they prepare for fortnightly
meetings; some Members feel this prevents adequate preparation
for decision making and leaves little time for discussion of key
issues with colleagues.
1.4 Decision making in the East Riding of
Yorkshire Council has always been transparent. The balanced nature
of the council has resulted in deliberative, inclusive decision
making with major decisions being made in public often after considerable
public debate. No single group has been able to dominate the decision
making process in the council which has resulted in the application
of the "grown up" politics of consensus. The IDeA review
of the Council in March 2000 reported, "there is a pragmatic
and successful approach to consensus leadership that fits well
with the political make-up of the authority. The leadership is
held jointly by the three main parties with rotating responsibilities
for chairing committees by spokespeople from each of the three
groups. This leads to wide member involvement in the decision
making process". Given this history, the new structure feels
less transparent with fewer Members involved and greater officer
delegation (made necessary given the volume of work taken to the
executive) then under the previous structure.
1.5 The requirement for cabinets to have
a single leader does not sit well with a balanced council like
the East Riding were the joint leaders have always worked well
together and been jointly accountable for leading the decision
making process. The Council is reluctant to change to a singe
leader which it feels will be detrimental to sound democratic
decision making in this area. This is clearly part of the Act,
which would have benefited from tailoring to the political complexion
of individual councils, which do not fit into the "single
party state" template. Equally, decision-making by individual
portfolio holding Executive Members is a non-starter in a "balanced"
environment where consensus decision-making is the norm. The new
structures fail to serve balanced councils well by forcing Members
to take a backward step from mature decision making.
2. The impact on the role of Council
2.1 Many Members feel that the new structures
are divisive within groups and across the council as a whole.
There is evidence that some Members feel "cut off" from
the decision making process and despite easy access to papers
and background information feel out of touch with key issues.
There is a greater responsibility on Executive Members to report
back to their groups to keep all Members on board and well informed.
Some non Executive Members report feeling like "the opposition",
not part of the council or there only to criticise and challenge
Executive decisions. Other Members have got their teeth into the
Overview and Scrutiny role and feel it gives them greater scope
for working with a wider range of issues.
2.2.1 Non executive Members often feel their
time is less co-ordinated and structured then before. There is
a longer and steeper learning curve for Members involved in Scrutiny
roles, particularly in setting their own agenda. Many spend longer
periods in "County Hall" attending seminars, and meetings
to find out what decisions their colleagues are making to influence
decision-makers and gather evidence.
3. The impact of local authority officers
3.1 Officers are learning to work with the
new system alongside Members. Whilst for many officers there is
little change, senior officers spending more time briefing Executive
Members on key issues. The fortnightly cycle of Executive meetings
is added pressure for Directors who may have previously only attended
specific Committee meetings. The biggest change has been in preparation
work for Scrutiny Committees, many of which are still at an early
stage of development and are unsure of their direction. Officers
are directed not to take operational issues to Scrutiny, which
can cause confusion and tension between officers and Members.
4. The impact on the local electorate
4.1 It is still too early to assess the
impact of the new structures on the electorate. The consultation
undertaken by this Council on new political structures provided
feedback on how the public viewed the efficiency of the old committee
system. A significant number of those added comments to their
preference indicating that they felt the old system worked well
and many added that they could not see why the structure should
be changed. Executive meetings are open to the public except for
items covered in Paragraphs one and four of part one of Schedule
12A of the Local Government Act 1972. There is no evidence of
any increase in attendance by the public at council meetings either
at the Executive of the Scrutiny Committees.
5. Scrutiny and Overview Committees
5.1 There is some evidence to suggest that
this Councils' Scrutiny Committee are beginning to find their
feet. It is significant that the one Scrutiny Committee, which
did not mirror a previous committee in the old structure, got
to grips with the scrutiny agenda earlier than the others. There
is still a way to go in developing Members skills and confidence
in the Scrutiny role.
5.2 Scrutiny Committees have taken time
to adapt to the "Member led" approach to their work
and officers have in some cases been equally confused and unsure
of their role. Scrutiny is dependent on each Member of the body
playing an active role in Committee, working groups and best value
panels and requires significant time commitment to be effective.
Where scrutiny has worked well, members have actively encouraged
input from a range of officers, partner agencies and other stakeholders
in their deliberations.
5.3 The use of "call in" has been
limited to date but when Scrutiny Committees find their feet it
is anticipated this will increase.
5.4 The Council made a conscious decision
not to adopt area committee structures. The nature of the East
Riding does not lend itself to natural area associations. There
are 170 parish and town councils across the East Riding providing
a localised focus for consultation and joint development.
6. The Guidance
6.1 The guidance on implementing new political
structures is comprehensive and generally easy to follow. Whilst
there is some flexibility in the application of new structures
more would have been welcome to take account of local circumstances.
For example, greater flexibility to meet the needs of balanced
councils would have been welcome. The new structures were brought
in by this Government to address single party majorities who were
operating in an undemocratic manner and do not fit easily around
balanced councils already operating with a high level of trust,
consensus and transparency.
7. Directly Elected Mayor Model
7.1 The East Riding of Yorkshire Council
considered and consulted upon all models put forward in the guidance.
From the outset Members believed that this model, a sound option
for many large urban areas was unworkable in a large, diverse
rural area like the East Riding. Feedback from consultation supported
this view with little support from the public for this model.
The electorate would be reluctant to support a mayor who would
find it impossible to represent the diverse needs of rural, urban
and coastal populations equally, reducing local accountability
and distancing many of the electorate.