Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Watford Borough Council (LAG 35)



  Since 1998 when the Government published the White Paper "Modern Local Government—In Touch with the People" Watford Borough Council has been committed to holding a referendum to let residents decide whether they would wish to see an elected mayor with cabinet in Watford.


  The policy commitment to a referendum has been the subject of extensive consultation to test this out and determine the preferred option. The Council undertook a programme of quantitative and qualitative consultation prior to the Bill being granted Royal Assent, which involved a MORI poll, a leaflet and questionnaire to all households, a community workshop facilitated by MORI of 30 randomly selected and demographically representative people, and four community consultation events around the town. (This process was cited as an example of good practice in the government's consultation guidelines). The results indicated that overall people supported a referendum and a cabinet arrangement.

  This exhaustive process was completed in July 2000, prior to the passing of the Local Government Act, when then introduced the "fourth option" for Councils with a population under 85,000. Watford falls into this category and so without warning the Council had to plan and arrange further consultation on all four options now available. This has been done via another leaflet and survey to all households, and four specific focus groups.

  This places the Council in the position of having to find additional resource (financial and staffing) for the second round of consultation, as well as having to go back to residents to explain that four options are now available, one of which whilst not being the status quo, was close to it, when the theme of the Council's earlier consultation had been "no change is not an option"!

  Overall, the Council believes that the resources necessary to carry out genuine and inclusive consultation are considerable and this has been difficult for a "small" district authority.


  In developing proposals for its preferred option, the Council took the view that it was important to involve all Councillors so they could explore and develop their own roles. Over the space of six months five workshops were facilitated for Members of all political groups to give them the opportunity to develop proposals on a consensus basis where possible. This had resulted in a draft new constitution for the Council which includes a description of how the cabinet will operate, the principles of overview and scrutiny arrangements, and proposals for area committees.

  In its approach, the Council has been keen to ensure that all councillors have a full role to play. Area committees are seen as key to re-connecting councillors (and officers) with the communities they serve. The Council would like them to have devolved budgets and responsibilities, linked to the development of a "local action plan", these action plans containing aspirations and priorities for the year ahead. Plans for all areas across the Borough will come together to influence the budget and policy setting by the executive and full Council. Locality Managers (officers working to co-ordinate and facilitate local service provision—potentially broader than just Borough Council services) will work with Members to deliver the local action plans.

  The Council sees an important role for scrutiny, and its constitutional proposals contain the requirement that the executive will accept the reports of scrutiny hearings reviewing and developing service provision, unless it sets out reasons to the full Council why it will not be adopting some or all of the recommendations.

  The Council has experimented with scrutiny committees to develop:

    —  policies around telecommunications masts;

    —  the district plan;

    —  the new constitution.

  The experience leads the Council to believe that effective scrutiny of "big issues" will require a lot of member time and officer support, as the detailed knowledge required cannot be quickly acquired. Members have found the opportunity to look in depth at issues, calling in experts where appropriate, and hearing community views directly, can be a very useful experience. This requires new skills in both Members and officers; meetings outside the Town Hall in a new environment can help in breaking out of the pattern of party politics in committee meetings. There has been a remarkable degree of political agreement in the reports produced by the scrutiny investigations, but the Council does have the provision for minority reports to be produced as a result of a scrutiny hearing.

  The Council uses the phrase "parity of esteem" to denote that it considers that all elements of the new political structure will be equally resourced and supported.


  The guidance produced by the Government has been helpful, and the earlier draft versions have enabled comments to be made to shape the final guidance.

  However it has been quite a task to read all versions of the documents to identify differences—could italics have been used to highlight changes from the earlier drafts?

  Also, delay in issuing some of the regulations is of concern—the Council is considering holding a referendum in May/June 2001, but at the time of writing this submission, the regulations are not published—and the detail in them, for example, will postal referendums be allowed?—could be crucial in the decision-making around the most advantageous time for the referendum to be held. The Council appreciates that the civil servants are aiming to produce the regulations as quickly as possible, but delays do make it difficult for those authorities wishing to move ahead in this area.


  Following the results of the consultation, it is likely that an elected mayor and cabinet will be adopted as the preferred model by the Council in late February. If this is the position taken, the underlying reasons for the choice will be around the benefits the model will bring to the town in terms of visible and accountable leadership. Watford is a small town with "big issues". It is on the south west fringe of Hertfordshire, within the Eastern Region administrative arrangements, yet it is on the edge of London. Watford is also in a two tier system, needing to develop partnerships and get its voice heard.

  The elected mayor model does engage the local community; the responses to our consultation have shown that using innovative and eye-catching measures results in a higher response rate than that achieved by neighbouring authorities.


  As a "small" shire district authority which has enthusiastically supported the modernisation of local government, the Council has found that the requirements and timing of the legislation has not always assisted in the implementation of new political structures. Administratively and resource wise the pressures have been high. Politically, the leadership from key councillors has been crucial and the delays and changes in the Act and guidance have made this a challenging process for the politicians to lead.

Sarah Fowler

Democratic Services Manager

February 2001

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