Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by West Sussex County Council (LAG 23)

  1.  West Sussex County Council is the 11th largest local authority in England. It has a population of 750,000 people. The county council has 71 County Councillors and an overall Conservative maority of four.

  2.  On 14 April 2000 the County Council introduced a pilot scheme under existing legislation, to enable it to assess a Cabinet with Leader model and to design a structure within the parameters set by central government, to suit the needs of West Sussex. The County Council's pilot scheme comprises.

    —  a single party Cabinet of seven, including the Leader of the County Council;

    —  four overview and scrutiny committees, reflecting or combining the Cabinet portfolios as follows:


Education and the Arts
Social and Caring Services
to mirror Cabinet portfolios
     
     
Strategic Environmental and
Community Services
Resources and Information
Liaison

to combine two Cabinet portfolios each


    —  three non-executive committees, including development control and rights of way;

    —  a Governance Committee, chaired by the Chairman of the County Council, with the remit to oversee the effectiveness of the pilot scheme and to make recommendations to the County Council;

    —  a Standards Committee (including two independent members).

  3.  The County Council has recently reviewed the pilot scheme.

  4.  The County Council has also embarked on a public consultation exercise to reflect guidance under the Local Government Act 2000, with a view to submitting final proposals to the Secretary of State in May or June 2001.

  5.  The views set out below have been organised to reflect the questions in the Environment Sub-Committee's Press Notice.

  6.  Preliminary views on whether the changes in political management structures are likely to contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in local government.

  6.1  The concentration of decision-making within the hands of a small committee (the Cabinet) or individual members of the Cabinet, has made the decision making process more publicly transparent. There is increasing awareness, locally, of the responsibility of individual members of the Cabinet for decisions within their portfolio. (A recent newspaper article in respect of the Minerals Local Plan, included the banner headline "Its up to you [name]", referring to the individual member of the Cabinet responsible for taking a final decision as to whether there would or would not be a further public inquiry into local minerals issues.)

  6.2  Different members of the Cabinet have reacted in different ways. Some members of the Cabinet now share issues with other member "advisers", of the same political party, although the decision is made only by the Cabinet member.

  6.3  There is considerable doubt, however, whether the new system increases the efficiency of the decision making process. On the one hand, individual Cabinet members are able to process decisions on a weekly basis by dissemination of proposals on a (hard copy of electronic) members' bulletin, which enables all members of the County Council to see proposals and to consider asking them to be called in; this is considerably quicker than waiting ten or twelve weeks for a committee meeting.

  6.4  On the other hand the requirement to submit a "policy framework" of the 13 or so plans and strategies prescribed in Government guidance and regulations to full meetings of the County Council, has led to an additional stage in the decision-making process for some of those items, which previously would have been resolved at committee level. While the objective of imposing the policy framework (to enhance the role of full council meetings) is a laudable one, the result has been a number of dull debates on issues which to date have been neither controversial nor of great interest to either members of the County Council or the public. A better option would have been for central government to have recommended those plans or strategies from which each council could have selected for full council approval, to reflect local circumstances, rather than requiring all of them to be submitted to full council.

  6.5  An added complication is that the production of guidance or instructions from central government departments or other agencies as to the content of some of the plans, is produced very late in the day and without any regard to the process which policy framework items must go through. A recent example in West Sussex was the Youth Justice Plan; the tight critical path for the development of the plan amongst all the agencies and stakeholders concerned, involved presentation of the draft plan to elected members in early January, with a view to it being submitted to the inter-agency steering group in mid January and to the Youth Justice Board by the end of January. While that timetable just allowed a meeting of the full County Council the opportunity to consider a draft at its meeting on the 19 January, there was no opportunity (for example) for either the Cabinet or overview and scrutiny committee to consider the draft in greater detail, at an earlier stage.

7.  The impact of the new arrangements on the role of councillors, the role of local authority officers and the local electorate

  7.1  There has been a vast increase in the workload of individual Cabinet members (previously chairman of the County Council's principal committees). In effect, members of the Cabinet singly and collectively have replaced all the county council's principal committees; if members of the Cabinet collectively wish to assume ownership of the principal proposals and strategies, those members have to read a considerably greater volume of material covering all aspects of the county council's functions, than was previously the case.

  7.2  One consequence has been the tendency for some members of the Cabinet to seek regular meetings with policy "advisers" from the same political group.

  7.3  Without increased delegation to officers and a considerable improvement in the method of producing and writing reports, the workload of Cabinet members in making collective decisions will remain at a high level. During a debate on the recent review by the county council of its pilot scheme, several members of the Cabinet expressed the view that full time local politicians would be a natural consequence of the introduction of any of the new models.

  7.4  Other members of the county council have expressed a feeling of disengagement from the political and decision making processes, and a lack of opportunity to ask senior members publicly what is going on, and to account for their stewardship. An outcome of the review of the pilot scheme has been the introduction of an enhanced question time at County Council meetings, to question Cabinet members of their stewardship.

  7.5  One of the consequences of the review of the county council's pilot scheme has been the production of a member development programme for the period following county council elections in May 2001.

  7.6  The pressure on officers has increased as well. The pressure to produce succinct briefing papers on the key policy implications of a proposal, is a skill which needs to be exercised at a very senior level, essentially at chief officer or assistant chief officer level. The administrative burden on more junior staff has also been intensive, because staff have had to support.

    —  13 cycles of meetings for Cabinet and overview and scrutiny committees instead of five committee cycles, and nine or ten full council meetings instead of four every year;

    —  the need to support meetings of Cabinet members and policy advisers, and overview and scrutiny committees in pursuing their own programme of reviews of current services and policies;

    —  the need to continue to support non-executive committees and other groups and panels.

  7.7  The local electorate has expressed concern about the accessibility of documents and a lack of understanding of how the system works. An extensive distribution list of papers has been established, with papers sent electronically or by hard copy to those who wish to receive them. Papers are also now available on the County Council's website. Leaflets explaining the system have been sent to all parish and town councils and to 700 organisations throughout the county. A special edition of the County Council's newspaper has been sent to most households in the county, explaining the three models on offer under the Act.

8.  Experience of setting up overview and scrutiny committees, the role of area committees or other devolved arrangements

  8.1  The county council's overview and scrutiny committees have produced their own programme of work. Some items of work have been highly regarded by members, in terms of the interest of member involvement and the value of the outcome. Others have been less successful. Overall, however the programme of work by overview and scrutiny committees has not been adequately linked to the best value process nor to other reviews within the county council. One benefit of the pilot scheme has been that the County Council is now producing an integrated programme (the West Sussex Improvement Programme) combining best value and other reviews which members wish to undertake.

  8.2  The process of call-in has been very successful. The County Council's design principle for call-in was to ensure that it was exercised as a reserve function. Only four items have been called-in since April 2000, three of them in public and one (because of litigation with a former contractor) in confidential session. The public hearings have been extremely well received by members and the press and public; all three cases were high profile locally contentious issues.

  8.3  The County Council has introduced within the pilot scheme one area committee and is about to consider a programme for the introduction of more hand-in-hand with the community planning process. The community planning/area committee programme is likely to be of key importance in a two-tier local government area, in integrating the efforts of county and district councils in the community planning processes and in ensuring that county councils are not seen as remote from their electorates.

9.  Difficulties authorities are experiencing in implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 and views on the adequacy of the guidance and how it might be improved

  9.1  The provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 may only become operative once the County Council has made its submission to the Secretary of State in May or June 2001, in accordance with the government's timetable.

Ian Elliott

Chairman of the County Council

Mike Kendall

County Secretary

January 2001


 
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