Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by Mr Alan Clarke, Northumberland County Council (LAG 32)

  Northumberland County Council set up new political management structures in May 1999. The system adopted was recognised as an interim arrangement essentially comprising a single party Cabinet of 10 Members, four Scrutiny Committees and a Ratification Committee. Provision was also made for the establishment of area partnership forums based on District Council boundaries. From the outset there was an expectation that the Authority was not going to "get it right" first time and significant changes were made to the system in May 2000 following an independent review by INLOGOV. The changes included reducing the number of Scrutiny Committees from four to two and the establishment of two Policy Boards, constituted as formal Committees of the council. It was also acknowledged that it was essential to build up and provide greater support for the representational role of non-executive Councillors and to ensure that the personal development needs of all Councillors were identified and appropriate training provided.

  In summary we feel there have been a number of positive outcomes from the new system. It has—

    (i)  Given a clear focus and direction to decision-making and policy development.

    (ii)  Enhanced accountability by highlighting those responsible for policy and decisions.

    (iii)  Illustrated the potential for speedier decisions when the new arrangements are fully in place.

    (iv)  Improved opportunities for deliberation and debate between the parties.

    (v)  Provided a framework which will positively support the development of the Council's community leadership role.

  But notwithstanding the on-going development of the new arrangements, important issues have still to be resolved—

    (i)  Although some recent improvements have been made, many non-executive Members continue to feel isolated and distanced from the overall policy and decision-making process and from the Council itself.

    (ii)  There has been a concentration on developing and resourcing the Executive, whilst only limited support has been provided so far for Scrutiny and the representative role of Councillors.

    (iii)  The Executive must work more corporately and Members of the Executive must develop a greater understanding of, and commitment to, their new role and responsibilities.

    (iv)  Scrutiny processes must be enhanced to enable the Executive to be effectively held to account.

    (v)  The new arrangements are bureaucratic and there has been a tendency for Members to establish a "comfort zone" by reverting, where possible, to traditional ways of working.

  Although the system has delivered important outcomes in terms of greater transparency and enhanced accountability, it is too early to suggest that the changes have led to better or more efficient services. It is generally considered that such benefits will only become apparent when the new system is fully "bedded-in" as part of the wider modernisation process. In this context, it is imperative that there is a profound change in political culture. There is a pressing need for members to refocus away from the Council Chamber towards their communities. Our experience has shown that whilst members are at ease with their traditional constituency role the new role of community leader will take time to develop. Training and the provision of adequate support are clearly important to this process and to this end we have appointed a specialist Members Training Officer. But real change will only be achieved if there is a significant attitudinal shift on the part of members. In this respect the role and operation of the party group, and particularly the pressures it places on individual members to "tow the party line" can inhibit member activity at a local level. For this reason the County Council strongly supports the removal of the Group Whip in Scrutiny and in relation to local issues where the group line conflicts with the views of the community.

  The following notes briefly outline the main strengths and weaknesses of our system:

  The Cabinet is one of the better developed parts of our system. This is hardly surprising since it is the area which has received most attention. The Executive arrangements are felt to have produced a clear point of accountability for political decisions and have resulted in quicker decisions being made than under the previous arrangements. Members consider these to be positive results of the new system. In particular, the main strength is a more effective despatch of business, especially from the decision being made to the implementation stage. This is felt to be an advantage in dealings with partnership organisations and especially the private sector.

  Portfolio holders generally feel their strategic involvement, both corporately and for their area responsibility, has increased significantly. They are now more able to take a wider view and look at Council business in a way that was not possible under previous arrangements. Although this is not the case for all Portfolio holders, the point to be made is that there is a clear potential for them to develop their strategic function.

  Conversely, some non-executive members feel that too much emphasis has been placed on getting the Cabinet "right" and putting resources into it, with insufficient attention being given to the Scrutiny function. Moreover, whilst considerable attention has been given to structure, much less has been given to the processes for conducting Scrutiny. The imbalance between the perceived power of the Cabinet and the relative powerlessness of the Scrutiny function is a continuing cause of concern. This needs to be addressed by the County Council, including the application of higher levels of professional support.

  Whilst some Cabinet members are beginning to work more corporately, or at least beginning to take a more corporate view, there is still a long way to go yet. Too many, too often, are still taking a service perspective first and a corporate view second, rather than the other way around. Moreover, some Cabinet members are getting involved in management decisions rather than concentrating on policy issues.

  It is important the cycle of Cabinet meetings is not too tight as this can result in Cabinet overload. We have found that monthly meetings is the optimum frequency and has the beneficial side effect of discouraging too many operational matters being placed on the agenda. A clear and effective scheme of delegation to officers and members is crucial if the Cabinet is to focus on strategic matters. Cabinet members must be willing to take responsibility for operational decisions and ensure such matters are not taken before Cabinet. The concept of personal responsibility is key to the new arrangements and will take some time to become an accepted part of the members' culture.

  The smooth running of Cabinet is greatly facilitated by the Cabinet Secretary and officer support provided through the Cabinet office. The Cabinet Secretary is a member of the Majority Group and a co-opted, non-voting member of Cabinet. Her role is to co-ordinate Cabinet business, to provide support and advice to Cabinet members on corporate matters, and to provide an interface between the Cabinet and Scrutiny Committees. The Cabinet Office comprises a small group of staff providing policy, administrative and secretarial support to a Cabinet Secretary, Cabinet Members and the Cabinet collectively.

  Under our interim arrangements we have made provision for Cabinet Deputies. Deputies provide essential support for Cabinet members and substitute for them when necessary. The position of Deputy also represents an excellent training ground for future Cabinet members. The County Council is disappointed that the Government will not allow Deputies as part of a formal Executive arrangement.

CHAIRS' GROUP

  Agendas for Scrutiny Committees are complied by the Chairs' Group. This comprises the Chairmen of the Scrutiny Committees and Policy Boards and the Cabinet Secretary. The Group has the power to "call in" any issue to Scrutiny and its decisions must be unanimous. It meets in private and is informal. This helps the Group to work less adversarially on party political lines and is clearly enabling the development of a different set of relationships by allowing leading members from different groups to meet each other in a less adversarial setting. One Scrutiny Chair has stated that "it takes us beyond the trench warfare and enables us to reach more points of consensus by trying to talk through issues". This process gives Opposition members of the Chairs' Group a wider sense of ownership. This sense of ownership has increased by Vice-Chairs of Scrutiny Committees being invited to Chairs' Group and "they know what is going on".

SCRUTINY COMMITTEES

  Our decision to reduce the number of Scrutiny Committees from four to two has resulted in more focused debate, with much less duplication than was previously the case. The Committees are Chaired by the Opposition, with a Majority Group member as Vice-Chair. Generally, it is felt that the system of having the Chair and Vice-Chair of Scrutiny from different Parties is a strength as it has increased cross Party co-operation. Where those Scrutiny Chairs and Vice-Chairs have been pro-active they have been seen as increasing the quality of debate and members have been better informed on issues. This is particularly the case where a Scrutiny Chair has viewed his role as one of influence and contributing to the wider policy debate. In particular, where a Chair of Scrutiny has recognised that they have to bring new skills and a different way of working to the table, then they are seen as more successful. This potential strength is illustrated by a quote from one Scrutiny Chair "my role as Chair of Scrutiny is a persuader. I cannot do this by shouting at people or forcing an agenda through as quick as possible; I do it by diplomacy and argument." The Scrutiny arrangements have presented members with real potential to influence Council decisions, particularly those in Minority Parties. Majority Party members also share the view that Scrutiny enhances the opportunity to influence policy. However, they are still more inclined to work through the Party Group than a public Scrutiny Committee, although there is a clear understanding that the Group Whip does not operate in Scrutiny. Inevitably, the influence of the Party Group will decline as members adapt to new ways of working and recognise the demands placed upon them by the new system.

  Education and Social Services co-optees are enthusiastic about the Scrutiny arrangements which have provided them with opportunities to seek explanations for policy developments beyond that provided by the previous system. It is felt that Councillors are more willing under the new arrangements to question and criticise policy and decisions and that members no longer made "set aside little political speeches" or tried to "score party political points" as they had in the past. Scrutiny has opened up the decision making process and changed the nature and texture of meetings away from political theatre and into a more positive approach to the business at hand. The co-optees see the new system as a considerable improvement which has enabled the Council to engage in a wider and more participative dialogue with the wider community. The Committees have not been provided with dedicated officer support, but may call upon any officer for assistance. To date this has not resulted in any major conflict of interest situations for officers, although clearly the potential for this exists. The emphasis placed by the Cabinet on openness and consensus has led to the development of a trusting relationship with Scrutiny, which in turn has reduced the pressure for separate staffing structures.

  The recent establishment of Policy Boards has been highly successful and welcomed by members. The Boards allow non-executive members to retain an involvement in strategic matters and to have an effective input on policy issues before they are considered by Cabinet. Portfolio holders are required to follow the advice of the Boards or to explain why they feel such advice is inappropriate.

THE COUNCIL

  The Council is one structure which Members have identified as having lost a lot of its relevance. Much of the dissatisfaction over the role of the Council stems from the loss of formal opportunity to publicly address an issue. In reality, Councillors were not making a great deal of difference to a report or recommendation under the old system but had the opportunity to make a public input and to be seen to have an input and have that input noted in the local papers. Clarity over the role and powers of the Council is crucial. Retention of powers to approve the budget and policy framework will help to deliver such clarity and focus the Council on more strategic matters. The continuing recognition of Council as the ultimate decision making body is particularly important to non-executive members many of whom fear executive delegation will deprive them of opportunities to influence decisions. Equally important to members is the ceremony and formality which, traditionally, surrounds Council meetings and which adds significantly to the status of being a Councillor. It would be unfortunate to lose these traditions totally in a move to modernise how the Council works. Nevertheless, there is scope to enhance the role of the Council, particularly by adopting a more deliberative approach to business in an arena where constructive debate between Political Parties can take place. There is thus limited support for the idea of public question time at Council meetings, as many questions are likely to be of parochial rather than county wide interest. It is felt however, that such an approach might work well at meetings of local Area Committees or Partnership Forums.

  Our system is starting to function as intended but there is still a long way to go. From the outset, we recognised that any new system needed to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate necessary change in the light of experience. It also needs time to "bed in" and for Members and Officers to adapt to new ways of working. Some non-executive members who have not adapted are highly critical of the new arrangements and feel less involved in the business of the Authority and excluded from decision making. Others take a more positive view and feel that spending more time on constituency matters has brought benefits. Ultimately the acid test for executive arrangements will be the extent to which a sufficient effective and rewarding role can be developed for non-executive members and executive members are willing to embrace their role as strategic decision-makers.

Alan Clarke

Chief Executive


 
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