Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by North Tyneside Council (LAG 36)


  North Tyneside Council introduced new decision-making arrangements on a pilot basis in October 1998 in response to the government's proposals for the modernisation of local authority political management structures as set out in the white paper "Modern local government—in touch with the People."

  In introducing the pilot we recognised that this would be a dynamic process which would need to change and evolve as we gained experience.

  The main characteristics of North Tyneside's current governance arrangements are:

    —  a majority group Cabinet of 10 members (including the leader and deputy leader of the Council) with responsibility for policy formulation, making recommendations to an all purpose Policy and Resources Committee;

    —  individual Cabinet Lead Member portfolios covering key cross-cutting policy themes; (Lifelong Learning, Community, e-Society, Regeneration and Social Inclusion, Health, Safer Communities, Housing, Organisational Capacity).

    —  reference groups of three members from the majority group supporting each Lead Member in policy development and review;

    —  an Overview and Scrutiny committee and six select committees shadowing each of the principal Cabinet portfolios (Life Long Learning, Regeneration and Social Inclusion, Environment and Transport, Safer Communities, Health and Organisational Capacity). Their role is primarily that of reviewing implementation of policy and service delivery in the context of driving forward Best Value;

    —  a Standards Committee which is in the process of being reviewed in light of recent DETR guidance;

    —  a move towards "themed" Council meetings;

    —  a North Tyneside Partnership Board and Policy Partnership Boards for the five key policy themes;

    —  further development of community involvement on a geographical area basis and on particular themes.

  See Appendix 1 for a diagrammatic representation of the changes.

  These changes are a further development to the radical organisational and structural changes which were introduced in North Tyneside in 1992. These created an innovative corporate management structure of six (now five) Executive Directors, each of whom has lead responsibility for designated policy areas, strategic issues, community roles and performance management. There is no Chief Executive. Day-to-day service management is organised on the basis of a number of Functions based on service clusters such as Children's Services, Care in the Community, which bring together a range of services in ways which make sense to residents.

  Taken together, the changes introduced in 1992 and the more recent changes to the Council's governance arrangements reflect our commitment to developing responsive and accountable structures for decision-making and community leadership.

  The changes to the decision-making structure arrangements introduced in 1998 were subject to an interim independent review by the Local Government Centre at Warwick Business School, at the University of Warwick in May 1999. A further final review took place at the end of 1999.

  Our response to the Select Committee is based on their independent assessment of the changes and further evaluation work that has subsequently taken place within the authority. We have framed our response to the Select Committee under the headings set out in the press notice dated 30 November 2000:

    —  Preliminary views on whether changes in political management structures are likely to contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability;

    —  The impact of the new arrangements on (a) the role of councillors, (b) the role of local authority officers and (c) the Local Electorate;

    —  Local Authority experience of setting up Overview and Scrutiny Committees, the role of area committees or other devolved arrangements;

    —  Difficulties authorities have experienced in implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 Part II and the views on the adequacy of the guidance and how it might be improved;

    —  The extent to which local authorities are opting for the directly elected mayor model and the advantages and disadvantages of such a model.

Preliminary views on whether changes in political management structures are likely to contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability

  It seems clear that the changes in political management structures made available by the Local Government Act 2000 should contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability if they are introduced with a commitment to do so by local authorities.

  Increased community involvement in decision making will inevitably create tensions. We need to develop confidence that organisations and groups will all have a place in future decision making arrangements. There is a place for everyone.

The impact of the new arrangements:

(a)  On the role of councillors

  In North Tyneside the introduction of a Cabinet has, according to the Warwick research, led to a tighter decision focus and an enhanced ability to deal with cross-cutting issues. The executive members welcome the improved contact with officers which the new arrangements have brought about.

  The introduction of the Cabinet and Lead Member responsibilities, together with the introduction of reference groups, has led to issues of the time demand on executive councillors.

  The Cabinet model has also led to concerns about limited information and communication about Cabinet proceedings and a perception of distance from non-executive members. As it is a single party Cabinet these views are shared by opposition members. Opposition members do though recognise that Cabinet is a good, business-like way of working.

  Because of these feelings of exclusion there is evidence that non-executive members of all parties have sought to extend the role of select committees into the area of policy development which was not their original remit. In this regard the recent DETR guidance on the extended role of Overview and Scrutiny in relation to policy development and support is to be welcomed. As the council develops its new constitution it will be seeking to maximise the opportunities for all members to contribute to policy in the belief that by doing so this will lead to a more inclusive and effective council.

  The council has set up a partnership board with leaders from the community, business world and local colleges. This body, North Tyneside Partnership Board has recently become North Tyneside's Local Strategic Partnership (LSP). It is supported by five other partnership boards which reflect the key policy themes of the authority. These partnership boards are based on the belief that inclusion is important. They enable stakeholders to be brought more directly into the Council's decision-making process.

  Taken together the partnership boards have enabled members to exercise their community leadership role on issues of shared concern with external partner agencies.

(b)  On the role of local authority officers

  The change of political management structures are reflected in change of officer support arrangements. These include a separation of staff supporting executive members from those supporting overview and scrutiny. On one side there has been the creation of a Cabinet office, and on the other, members involved in overview and scrutiny functions are supported by a separate staff grouping of Best Value, Research and Scrutiny staff. Quasi-judicial and representational roles also have dedicated staff support.

  For officers outside of the centre, it must be acknowledged that understanding of the new roles and relationships between officers and members has been difficult, with some concerns about the clarity of routes for formal decision-making. Training for officers on the new code of conduct and the Council's revised constitution is planned later in the year.

(c)  On the Local Electorate

  The Council has, through "themed" council meetings and the adoption of question time at councils from the public, tried to become more open in its workings and has also sought to involve community representatives in the work on partnership boards. It acknowledges though that further work on the community involvement front is needed as it moves forward in developing and implementing its new constitution.

  In relation to Partnership Board working the Council has encountered some difficulties faced by smaller community and voluntary partners in keeping up with the paperwork of partnership working. Whilst there has been considerable appreciation of the greater openness of Partnership Boards in comparison with the previous committee structure, reflected in the Partnership Boards' willingness to engage directly with groups of residents such as young people, this appreciation of openness was combined with some concerns about the democratic accountability of Partnership Boards and the limited accessibility of the new structures to community representatives. This is something that the council needs to address as part of its development of the new constitution. The North Tyneside Partnership Board has recently been agreed as our Local Strategic Partnership (LSP). It has embraced the opportunity of providing leadership in further developing our local community strategy. A major "visioning" event to start this process is planned later in the year.

Local Authority experience of setting up Overview and Scrutiny Committees, the role of area committees or other devolved arrangements

  The Warwick research, which was a snapshot in time, identified mixed messages about select committees. Whilst they have made an active start towards more rigorous scrutiny, some members and officers feel that they have sometimes been over-zealous in their approaches with a greater need for a learning and problem solving approach to scrutiny being adopted. Since the Warwick report the Council has begun to address these issues.

  There have also been concerns about role clarity for select committees which will be addressed as part of the development of the new constitution in that, to a certain extent, select committees have begun to adopt a policy development role which was not part of their original remit. This may reflect the concerns about exclusion for non-executive members and their wish to use select committees as a role for the way of influencing wider developments within the authority.

  In terms of training needs, whilst training has been provided for members on overview and scrutiny, it is recognised that further work could be done to create the right tone and approach for working in this area with which members were previously unfamiliar. More positively, many members feel that select committees have enabled them to "get around more" and discuss key issues with officers, something which has been of benefit.

  In relation to scrutiny, of particular note was the successful select committee report on mental health services in North Tyneside. This select committee has built on North Tyneside's earlier Health Issues committee and will continue to play an important part in enabling the Council to exercise its NHS scrutiny role under the NHS Plan.

  As part of the development of its new constitution the Council is committed to extending the membership of select committees to include external experts to provide additional specialist expertise where this is deemed to be of value.

  In terms of area committees the local authority has taken a very "bottom-up" approach in this area, with a number of pilot exercises taking place in various localities throughout the authority. It is, however, too soon to evaluate their effectiveness, although they are seen as an important element of future working within the authority within the new constitution.

Difficulties authorities have experienced in implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 Part II and the views on the adequacy of the guidance and how it might be improved

  The council has set up an all-party Local Government Act Task Group which is developing its new constitution. To-date the Task Group has not encountered any particular difficulties in developing its thoughts on drafting the new constitution for North Tyneside Council. In fact, the guidance to date, and in particular the draft modular constitution, has been very much welcomed by the Task Group.

The extent to which local authorities are opting for the directly elected mayor model and the advantages and disadvantages of such a model

  North Tyneside Council has not expressed a preference for any particular model as it is in the process of undertaking widespread consultation amongst residents and other interested parties. It has, however, commissioned independent research on the pros and cons of the three models to inform its consultation exercises with the public in a non-biased way.

January 2001

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