Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

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.

January 2001

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