Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LAG 39)

  1.  The Borough Council developed its thinking on an executive cabinet and scrutiny system in the latter part of 1997, at the time of the Hunt Bill. The new system was introduced in June 1998, following Borough elections, and has operated since that date. There has been some subsequent modification to strengthen the scrutiny function, but few other changes. The Council therefore has two and a half years experience of a "modernised" political management system. These new arrangements were designed to meet the aims for pilot schemes set out in the Hunt Bill, while remaining within the legal framework of the 1972 Local Government Act.

  2.  In terms of evidence to the committee, the Council would wish to reiterate points previously made in written and oral submissions to the LGA hearings (chaired by Lord Hunt in early 1999) (1) and to the Joint Committee on the Draft (Organisation and Standards) Bill in mid 1999 (2).

  3.  The success of new models depends ultimately on the calibre of those that work within them, rather than the structures themselves. While some progress has been made at national level in the last two years on councillor development, support and training, it remains too early to say whether the next round of elections in all tiers of local government will succeed in drawing in a new generation of high calibre councillors, well equipped to undertake both executive and scrutiny roles.

  4.  As compared with the role and status of local government in other European countries, there remains a very long way to go in the UK in terms of achieving any real shift in public thinking, interest, and involvement, in the institutions of local government. This remains the fundamental obstacle to reform, as it impacts on the calibre of those willing to work in local councils (both Members and Officers), and how the public respond to efforts by councils to develop a community leadership role.

  5.  While Part 1 of the Local Government Act 2000 has brought a clearer definition of the role of local government, along with the new power of well-being, there is no real sign as yet of this development impacting on public perceptions. This requires a clearer lead from central government and local authorities, as well as continued reform in areas such as local government finance and the modernisation of electoral systems.

  6.  In the meantime, there is a real danger that continued public debate and dissection of the minutiae of alternative systems of political management is becoming a disincentive, rather than a spur to the process of reform. Evidence of consultation exercises on alternative models suggests that the public, not unreasonably, are disinterested in much of the detail. They are rightly more concerned about outcomes, and in having councils that deliver efficient and cost-effective public services on the ground. Effective community leadership, that will articulate and resolve competing public interests and bring real change to local areas, may be seen as a bonus and an ideal, but one as yet achieved in few parts of the country.

  7.  LBHF therefore continues to support the concept that visible and accountable political leadership is essential to reinvigorated local government. It believes the executive/scrutiny model is well suited to unitary urban authorities. But the variants between a directly elected mayor, a "strong" indirectly elected leader, or a high calibre executive cabinet are not the real issue for the public.

  8.  The Council's view is that no one is yet in a position to reach meaningful conclusions as to whether new forms of political management will deliver the desired outcomes. It is simply too early to say. The evidence of the Commons committee stages on the LGA 2000 suggests that any serious debate has long become distorted by party politics and issue-based lobbying, much of which may again be played out before the Environment Sub-committee.

  9.  The Council would therefore wish to confine the evidence of its own experience to more objective, external measures. As an inner London authority, operating under an indirectly elected executive mayor and cabinet, and with a rapidly developing and effective scrutiny system, the Council has in the past two years.

    —  Received a very favourable OFSTED report (June 2000), which commented on the new Council's political management systems in the following terms. "The changes have been received with almost universal approval from headteachers, governors, opposition spokesperson and officers spoken to during the inspection. The scrutiny panel is seen as enabling much more rigorous and detailed discussions of educational matters than previously and with less political point scoring." (3)

    —  Received an equally favourable review by the Improvement and Development Agency (March 2000) which commented "The new political structure has shifted direct accountability for decisions to the Mayor and his Deputies, a responsibility that they acknowledge and commit to seriously and enthusiastically. In addition other non-executive and opposition members display a real commitment to ensuring the new system is successful and to working together constructively to make it a success." (4)

    —  Been designated by DETR as a "well above average" housing authority, for the fourth year in succession.

    —  Received uniformly satisfactory annual management letters from the District Auditor for several years, commending the authority's financial management and the contribution that effective political management has made to this.

    —  Been similarly commended by the District Auditor for its first annual Local Performance Plan (April 2000).

    —  Remained a cohesive public service organisation, providing the vast majority of its services through its own competent and committed workforce, despite the current huge problems of retaining and recruiting staff in Inner London.

    —  Worked closely with the Police, Health Services and other agencies in tackling problems of social exclusion, crime and disorder and public health.

    —  Worked closely with the business community and major developers in reducing unemployment, extending affordable housing, renewing town centres, and regenerating the area.

    —  Developed its community leadership role, established a Borough Partnership, and drawn up a multi-agency community strategy for the next decade.

    —  Sought to consult and involve local people in all that it does.

  10.  The Council would therefore want its systems of political management to be judged firstly by the quality of services it delivers to local people. And secondly by their contribution to leadership and governance in an area of London marked by major social divides, and where competing public interests can often be stark, contentious, and difficult to resolve through the democratic process. The Council considers its new political management system to have contributed to achieving these goals. But it is by no means the over-riding factor in the local authority's success and effectiveness.

  11.  In answer to the first of the five issues set down by the Environment Sub-Committee, the Council's response would therefore be that:

    —  new models have some "efficiency gains" over traditional committee structures (although there are unlikely to be significant resource savings, if effective checks and balances are operated within the scrutiny function)

    —  much greater transparency is achieved through systems in which the realities of political decision-making processes are matched in the formal structures (as compared with the mismatch under traditional committee structures)

    —  accountability and visibility of political leadership, and of "scrutineers", is significantly greater in new structures. This has been one of the most apparent changes at H&F in the past two and a half years.

  12.  On the role of councillors, LBHF would again stress the need for wider public understanding that the role is demanding and requires very substantial time commitment for executive members and leading scrutiny members, in unitary authorities with large budgets. Training, development, and allowance systems need to reflect this. The impact of executive models on officers remains an issue insufficiently addressed at national level (see paras 22, 23 of previous evidence to Joint Committee). The codes and protocols introduced at LBHF in 1998, coupled with longstanding good relationships between councillors and officers, have proved sufficiently robust to weather any tensions to date.

  13.  The Council's experience of setting up scrutiny committees is set out in an annual report prepared by the chairs of the Council's Scrutiny Panels in May 2000 (5). The scrutiny process is considered to have developed well over the last 18 months. LBHF, being a geographically small borough, has no particular experience to offer of area committees or other devolved arrangements.

  14.  The main difficulty in implementing the provisions of LGA (part II) has been late modifications made to the Act in its final stages in Parliament, and the subsequent delays in issuing of final Guidance and Regulations by DETR (particularly on the operation of Executives and access to information). Although now issued, these parts of the regulatory framework will prove difficult and complex to administer, and to interpret on a day to day basis.

  15.  As previously stated (evidence to Joint Select Committee paras 6-9), the Council believes that the distinction between a directly mayor, and an indirectly elected mayor or "strong" leader, to be a fine one in the mind of the public. The early attempts in 1997-98 to focus debate on local government around the directly elected mayor model has (in the Council's view) been something of a distraction from the more fundamental aspects of reform.

References

  1.  Written evidence to LGA Hearing on Political Leadership and Ethics 1999.

  2.  Memorandum of evidence to Joint Committee on the Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill published in HL paper 101-11 July 1999.

  3.  OFSTED report on the Hammersmith and Fulham LEA (OFSTED June 2000, and published on IDeA website and at lbhf.gov.uk).

  4.  IDeA review of LB Hammersmith and Fulham March 2000 (published on IDeA website and at lbhf.gov.uk).

  5.  Annual report on LBHF scrutiny system (LBHF Council Meeting 24 May 2000).


 
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