Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by East Staffordshire Borough Council (LAG 19)

1.  THE EAST STAFFORDSHIRE MODEL

(a)  The Background

  At the outset it is important to recognise that East Staffordshire Borough Council believes passionately in unitary local government. We submitted detailed and costed proposals to the Local Government Commission for the creation on a unitary authority as we considered this was by far the best way of delivering local government services. Alas, this view was not shared by the Local Government Commission. As a consequence the status quo prevailed and the two-tier structure continues to operate in this part of Staffordshire.

  East Staffordshire Borough Council was one of the first Local Authorities in the country to embrace the need for change. The new structure was introduced with all party support following the local elections in May 1999.

  East Staffordshire wanted to continue to be strong and effective by giving people greater opportunities and building a fairer society. By adopting the Government's agenda for the change the Authority is now better able to meet the needs of local people, business and the voluntary sector and fulfil its role in leading the community.

  This paper details the changes made in East Staffordshire Borough Council and the impact it has had on Councillors, Officers and the local electorate.

(b)  The Changes Made

  The Labour controlled Council decided to adopt the model of a Leader and Cabinet.

  The Leader has five Deputy Leaders each taking responsibility for a group of services. They also have certain corporate responsibilities included in their portfolios.

  The Cabinet, which is politically balanced, is known as the Executive Committee and comprises nine Members—the Leader (Chairman), the five Deputy Leaders and three Members of the Conservative Opposition Group. The Leader and Deputy Leaders comprise an informal inner Cabinet which meets weekly.

  There are currently five service departments, each with a Chief Officer, corresponding with the service responsibilities of the Deputy Leaders. There is extensive delegation to Deputy Leaders and Chief Officers.

  With effect from 1 April 2001 the functions currently undertaken by Neighbourhood Services will be re-distributed to other departments of the Council. Accordingly, from that date the number of service departments will reduce from five to four.

  There are five shadow Deputy Leaders from the Conservative Opposition Group for each of the service areas.

  The quasi-judicial Committees—Planning Applications, Licensing and Benefits Review Board continue to operate.

  Under the new structure much more is driven from the centre, ie Policy, Scrutiny and Best Value and Community involvement. To reflect this in the management structure the Chief Executive has three Assistant Chief Executives, one for Policy and Corporate Affairs, one for Community Affairs and one to manage the Scrutiny and Best Value system.

  There are five Scrutiny panels, one for each Deputy Leader/Department. They consist of eight backbench Members and they are politically balanced. One of the chairmen is Leader of the Conservative Opposition Group and the other four Chairmen are Labour Members. One of the Vice-chairman is also from the Opposition Group.

  The Scrutiny Panels have three distinct main roles:

    to monitor performance;

    to monitor delegated decisions;

    to carry out Best Value Service Reviews.

  The panels are supported by officers seconded to the Assistant Chief Executive (Scrutiny and Best Value).

  The following supporting papers are attached:[7]

    Appendix A—diagram showing the new structure;

    Appendix B—responsibilities of the Leader and five Deputy Leaders.

2.  THE CHANGES—PRELIMINARY VIEWS

(a)  The Executive Role

  The separation of the executive role had led to improved efficiency, transparency and accountability.

  The Executive of nine Members is able to act quickly, responsively and accurately to meet the needs and aspirations of the community. In our view the system is more transparent because it is clear to the public who is responsible the implementation of decisions. Any major policy decisions are referred to full Council for approval.

  Accountability is inherent in the system and enables people to measure the actions of the Executive against policies on which the Council was elected.

  There has been some criticism of the Executive and its role. We feel that much of this is due to the fundamental changes made to the political structure and the changing role of individual Members. Paragraph 2(c) explains how we are dealing with this at East Staffordshire.

(b)  The Leader and Five Deputy Leaders

  The creation of the five Deputy Leaders has been vital in making it clear to the public who is politically responsible for each service. The Deputy Leaders are in virtual daily contact with the five Heads of Service running the departments. This enables them to keep abreast of developments and ensures that the policy decisions of Council are properly implemented. Decisions taken by the Leader and Deputy Leaders are reported to the appropriate Scrutiny Panel on a quarterly basis.

  Each Deputy Leader submits an annual report to Council on the work of the service over the past year and plans and targets for the next twelve months.

  The Leader of the Council is primarily responsible to the Executive Committee and Council for ensuring the Deputy Leaders and Heads of Service are performing their service and corporate responsibilities efficiently.

(c)  Non Executive Members

  Nationally up to 75 per cent of Councillors are non-executive Members. It is therefore of supreme importance that the redefined role of the "backbencher" is made to work under what is reasonably permissive legislation.

  We consider that in large measure it is for each individual local Council to ensure that non-executive Members enjoy the "new, enhanced and more rewarding role" envisaged for them in the legislation. Unless local authorities take this seriously some "backbenchers" will become disenchanted as they perceive their role being diminished.

  Providing Members with the information and facilities they need to be more effective is a pre-requisite to the changing Agenda. They must have an appropriate level of support in their enhanced role as representatives and leaders of their communities.

  The benefits of streamlining the political and management structure have been considerable. Rather than attending large numbers of generally unproductive meetings, Members are able to devote more time to effective management of the Council and successful policy implementation. They are also able to work through the political structure by participating in Group meetings. In East Staffordshire we have both a Leaders Advisory Group and a Leader of the Opposition Advisory Group. These Groups give all Members the opportunity to discuss and debate issues before they are presented to the Executive Committee and, if necessary, Council. Officers attend these Meetings to present reports and then retire whilst the politicians discuss and decide how they wish to proceed.

  In addition to the foregoing, the authority produces Councillors' News Updates which are circulated to all Members. They are also included on Council Agendas to give any Member the opportunity of asking questions of the Leader or five Deputy Leaders.

  Members do, of course, have access to the Leader and Deputy Leaders at all times to gain information or to question decisions and it is important that this channel of communication is maintained.

  This Authority would endorse much of the work of the LGA Task Group on their review of the role of non-elected Members in the new structure. Their report entitled "Real Role for Members" highlights the key role for "backbenchers" in the new structure.

(d)  Local Authority Officers

  East Staffordshire has a highly efficient, imaginative and politically neutral officer service. To coincide with the new political structure the Borough Council simultaneously reorganised its officer structure. A radical approach was adopted to better equip the authority for the challenges that lie ahead.

  Officers acting with the Leader and five Deputy Leaders are given extensive delegation of executive decisions and implementation.

  The role of Officers has been enhanced by the new arrangements in that they are able to make decisions quickly—if necessary following consultation with Members—and move forward on implementation. This new streamlined approach has given Officers real opportunities to press ahead with policy implementation in a less cumbersome and certainly less unwieldy environment.

3.  THE SCRUTINY ROLE

  Scrutiny Panels have an explicit duty to review and question the decisions and performance of the Executive, the policies and direction of the Council, proposing changes and submitting policy proposals to the Executive. The Scrutiny Panels are currently engaged in a four year rolling programme of service reviews which as been agreed by the Council.

  The five panels in East Staffordshire have a crucial role in ensuring openness and accountability.

  Panels review and question the Leader, Deputy Leaders and Officers on decisions they have taken, their performance and the policies and direction of the Council.

  The Chairman of each Scrutiny Panel submits an annual report to Council on the work of the Panel. This report is submitted to the same Council Meeting as the annual report from the Deputy Leader responsible for the same service. As a result Council Meetings are now more thematic based on a subject (ie one of the Services) which aids understanding of the process.

4.  MEMBERS' ALLOWANCES

  An independent panel has review allowances currently paid to Members. With effect from 1 April 2001 the following payments will be made:


£

Basic Allowance (All Members)
2,500
Leader of the Council
10,000
Leader of the Opposition
4,000
Leader of the Minority Group
1,000
Deputy Leaders (Five)
5,000
Chairs of Scrutiny Panels (Five)
4,000
Chair of Licensing Panel
3,000
Chair of Planning Applications Committee
3,000


  These new allowances are designed to reflect the responsibilities and commitments of individual Members. They also assume that there is an element of altruism on the part of those who seek and accept appointments in Local Government.

5.  THE LOCAL ELECTORATE AND PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

  It is too early to say whether the changes will in themselves bring about a renewal of local democracy. However, in an attempt to increase voting numbers the necessary sanction has been given for the forthcoming County Council election in East Staffordshire to proceed entirely by way of a postal vote.

  Alongside the new political and management structures it is important that the necessary forums exist to promote the fullest public participation and consultation. East Staffordshire has, for over five years, developed WASPs (Ward Action Service Plans), Community Forums, Borough wide Forums, User Groups and Customer Circles. We have a positive approach to involving the public in these initiatives. It is folly to sit back, wait and expect the public to come to us.

  The WASP initiative has provided a real opportunity for the public to engage in the consultation process. Ward meetings are held at which residents are invited to feed in their views on what they would like to see happen in their areas. Priorities are formulated and these are taken into account when preparing the Council's budgets. This process together with the other consultative arrangements are precursors to the development of the Community Plan.

  The Authority is responsible for developing, in consultation with the local community, a community strategy for promoting the social, economic and environmental well-being of their area. The Community Plan is the key document setting out the Council's targets and priorities for the Plan period (2000-03).

  The Best Value Performance Plan is the vehicle for assessing delivery performance on the Community Plan strategies.

  The process we have adopted in East Staffordshire encourages more accountability and openness and enables the public to engage more easily with the political processes of the Local Authority.

6.  THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACT 2000

  The Local Government Act 2000 has generated significant change in local government. The freedom and flexibilities on offer provide local government with real opportunities for pushing ahead with the modernisation agenda.

  East Staffordshire has not experienced any difficulties in implementing the provisions of the Act. Some areas of the guidance have, however, not contributed to achieving the goals.

7.  CONCLUSIONS

    —  Overall the political changes have contributed to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in local government;

    —  The new political and Officer structure has worked well in East Staffordshire because the participants have been enthusiastic and have been given some flexibility in how it will operate;

    —  The new system of cabinet government does speed up decision taking on a day to day basis;

    —  The setting and prioritising of corporate aims and objectives is essential within the new system;

    —  New management arrangements cannot be viewed in isolation from the rest of the modernisation agenda—delegation to individuals can bring about a conservative and protectionist attitude in some areas. Conversely, it brings a new open minded approach in other areas;

    —  Despite our earnest endeavours to brief local press fully on the changes they have nevertheless found some difficulty in understanding and reporting the new system;

    —  The new system is resource intensive and puts great pressure on a small number of elected Members;

    —  All Members and Officers benefit from discussion and training relating to their new roles;

    —  It takes time and patience for "backbenchers" to get used to their new roles in Scrutiny and in Ward level representation and consultation.


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