Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by Northamptonshire County Council (LAG 40)

NORTHAMPTONSHIRE'S EXPERIENCE WITH NEW FORMS OF POLITICAL MANAGEMENT

1.  Introduction

  1.1  Northamptonshire County Council has made significant steps forward in experimenting with appropriate democratic structures. The Labour administration proposed and implemented scrutiny arrangements in July 1998 as part of a successful bid for Best Value Pilot Status. The council reviewed these arrangements in 1999 and consulted with all elected members on future structures (3) and the proposals outlined in the government White Paper "In touch with the people" (2). In September 1999, further changes were made to structures that sought to consolidate on the success of the previous arrangements (1). These changes were to:

    —  Establish ten Area Committees.

    —  Concentrate decision-making on the existing single party Cabinet working with an Executive Committee appointed to consider the recommendations.

    —  Replace the existing service committees with seven policy monitoring and review select committees.

  1.2  Implementation has taken place since September 1999 and is now fully operational. At the heart of the change has been the introduction of ongoing member training and development to support the new roles envisaged.

  1.3  The Council has now agreed to the setting up of an independent Democracy Commission. Three Commissioners have been appointed. The Commission is undertaking consultation and public engagement and receiving evidence on political models and wider aspects of democratic renewal. The Commission will come to a judgement in March 2001 and recommend to the council on the communities and citizens preferred option. District and borough local authorities in Northamptonshire were invited to use the Commission as a way of discharging their responsibilities regarding new political constitutions. Kettering Borough Council agreed and is using the Commission for this purpose.

  1.4  This introduction provides a short summary of Northamptonshire County Council's changes to its democratic structures over a period of two to three years. In the next section, we respond to the questions asked in the information sent to us on behalf of the House of Commons Select Committee. These questions are answered under the following headings.

    —  Changes regarding transparency, accountability and efficiency.

    —  Roles of councillors and officers.

    —  Issues connected with multi-tier working.

2.  Changes regarding transparency, accountability and efficiency.

  2.1  Changes have generally assisted the council to deal with cross-cutting issues that tended to be marginalised under the previous traditional service committee system. A platform has been created for the council's priorities on community safety, social inclusion and community regeneration. This has assisted in the way the council has determined a themed approach to best value reviews and how Select Committees have scrutinised resource allocation to cross-cutting areas.

  2.2  A significant amount of business is dealt with by the Executive. As a result there is much more concentration on matters for decision and little in the way of information reporting. The consequence is a more business-like approach and planned agenda and programme. The converse of this is the significant pressure placed on individual Cabinet portfolio holders who not only need to be well-supported by officers but also by fellow elected members. There are increasing expectations on portfolio holders who can be over loaded with the considerable number of initiatives and issues from government and local communities. The relationship between the chair of the Select Committee and the portfolio holder can be supportive—but more generally provides for challenge and ideas for improvement. Portfolio holders can therefore often feel overburdened without some type of "deputy" arrangements in addition to the scrutiny "critical friend" role of the select Committee.

  2.3  Clarity on where and how decisions are made has been improved in terms of the council's management arrangements. Guidance to elected members and senior officers has assisted this clarity (4). However, communicating the new structures with external partners and the public is another matter and a pressing need at both local and national level. For our external partners there is sometimes an unrealistic expectation on what Select Committees can recommend and act on. The move to a publicly accountable Cabinet will assist in transparency and speed of decision taking with the removal of Executive Committee. It is hoped that this will help to alleviate the number of issues referred between executive and scrutiny which has led to duplication of extensive debates. It has also increased the lack of clarity for external stakeholders and local people on when and how decisions will be reached, although given our greatest critics increased opportunity to air their views. This referral pattern has generally been where issues have gathered momentum or have not been properly anticipated by the Cabinet.

  2.4  The local media have expressed some interest in the new arrangements and make regular reports. In the initial stages interest was negative. Specifically they criticised the Cabinet decision-making as secretive. An opportunity was created for a healthy dialogue in the local paper and resulted in interviews with the Leader and Cabinet and Select Committee chairs. It is hoped to capitalise on this interest in the current consultation taking place with the Democracy Commission.

3.  Roles for Councillors and Officers

  3.1  The new structures have had a significant impact on the role of councillors who have been provided with external training by the Office for Public Management, Inlogov and other expert bodies particularly to help them in their scrutiny and area roles. A regular monthly member programme has also been established and all members have individual learning plans and mentors. Training and development activities have been partially successful and attendance patchy. Some councillors still find it difficult to adopt a more active, enquiring role and continue to seek assurances and support from officers. However, there have been successfully experiences of scrutiny involving external partners giving evidence on council performance, which has led to recommendations for improvement. An example is the evidence given by the seven Crime and Disorder partnerships and the Police which resulted in a significant reallocation of resources to this important work. More recently, Select Committees have begun to investigate progress on the implementation of the Best Value Reviews from the pilot phase and the Year 1 Reviews. The Finance and Resources Select Committee has been particularly effective in examining specific budget areas and has made important recommendations to the council to improve financial control.

  3.2  With regard to Area Committees, members and officers are still finding their feet. This is due in some part to differing relationships within localities with district and borough council colleagues. This will be referred to in the section on working in the multi-tier area.

  3.3  Council officers have, in general circumstances, adapted well to the changes particularly in supporting the Executive. There are many more meetings than anticipated and officers still generally write the majority of reports. Agenda and programme setting is now much more member-led with Select Committee chairs and shadows devising their programmes through a joint planning meeting which also addresses referral of matters between the committees and other process matters. Cabinet portfolio holders report quarterly to Cabinet on progress regarding policy and performance. Interestingly, Select Committees have been reluctant to call the portfolio holder forward to account for policy implementation and performance in specific areas of concern but have rather chosen to challenge officers and external partners on their performance. An issue still be to be tackled within the council is how officer arrangements can be developed to support both scrutiny and executive functions without some delineation and separation. Some criticism has been levelled by the select committee concerning the need for dedicated resources and the additional net cost of supporting scrutiny. Issues also include specific media support for select committees and their engagement with the media. The topics investigated by Select Committees such as drugs, youth crime, school exclusions and educational achievement of black children have attracted significant interest.

4.  Issues concerned with multi-tier working

  4.1  Local authorities within Northamptonshire are at different stages in implementing new democratic processes. Some district councils have experimented with local area committees and cross-cutting fora ie for older people, young people and covering issues of equalities. Reaching consensus on implementing the area committee proposals have probably been the most difficult aspect of the council's modernising agenda. Because of lack of consensus with all local authority partners, the council chose to adopt a flexible approach allowing area committees to develop and form local partnership arrangements appropriate to circumstances and local communities. Although this has worked to some extent, it has led to some fragmentation and lack of coherence in relation to countywide structures. Where elected members and officers are enthusiastic across the partner local authorities, there has been excellent progress. This is particularly true of Kettering, where the Borough Council's local area forum has been merged with the County Council's Area Committee. Also with Corby Borough Council, where there are significant moves to create a local strategic partnership within Corby which brings together initiatives across the borough including the education action zone and SRB. Within Northampton, two of the four area committees are also examining the neighbourhood renewal strategy and how it can be used to develop partnerships at a sub-borough locality level. Bearing in mind the area committees started their lives in May 2000, this is perhaps a significant achievement. The evidence to date is that devolvement and allocation of specific budgets and decision-making on services and functions are crucial to making the area committees work, giving them some freedom to make decisions about priorities and allocate resources within the broader community planning framework.

  4.2  There are specific issues for multi-tiered, democratic decision-making on which we have questioned our Citizen's Panel. We are aware that citizens and service users remain unconcerned about who provides services as long as they have good access and right of redress. Citizens and service users also feel similarly about the democratic processes and that we engage with them in our decision-making and policy-setting processes by reaching out and in a negotiated way. The evidence we have is that our community engagement programme and area committees are going some way to improving the perception of communities and local people on how open and transparent we are and that their views change our decision-making. However, we have discovered that we still have much to do to inform people about our structures and to make them comfortable in accessing them and engaging them in the processes. A significant step taken over three years ago was to set up mechanisms where people are allowed to petition and speak at council meetings. Also, where we are making important decisions affecting a local area, we have taken the Executive Committee to the locality. For example, the Executive Committee met in Corby to discuss the proposal for a Fresh Start school at Corby and made the decision there with some 100 people attending from the Corby area. Our budget consultation programme in November 2000 was led by the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation rather than councillors with 14 events across the county for the general public, older people and young disaffected people.

5.  Conclusion

  5.1  In conclusion, we would suggest to the Select Committee that success is not so much concerned with the actual structural arrangements and how they are set up but more about the culture of the council and the spirit in which those arrangements are implemented. In this regard the way elected members are supported in their roles and how they take forward responsibilities make a significant contribution to how the council is perceived regarding its performance on the level of consultation and democratic engagement.

  5.2  We would suggest that the Select Committee should not only look at the political forms and structures and management arrangements but also look at the softer underlying reasons for success. We believe they are often found in the culture of the organisation and willingness and abilities of elected members to engage with citizens and service users, and for officers and to adopt both supportive and investigative roles, working together in an active partnership. Our elected members are now developing more enthusiasm for the scrutiny and community roles despite previous resistance. The previous traditional political structures enabled elected members to take a passive role that is not possible within the new political management structures. The new forms of political management require a different set of skills and motivation for members and officers alike. We have found this to be about cultural to encourage a cross section of elected members to come forward and further the objective of democratic renewal.

  References

  1.  Northamptonshire County Council's New Democratic Structure—proposals for implementation, County Council 15 June 1999.

  2.  Responding to the White Paper "In touch with the people" a survey of members' views February 1999.

  3.  Reviewing democratic structures—a survey of members' views May 1999.

  4.  A guide to the new decision making structures—November 1999.

Jane Tasker

Head of Strategic Policy and Innovation

February 2001


 
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