Memorandum by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough
Council (LAG 43)
Preliminary Views On Whether The Changes In
Political Management Structures Are Likely To Contribute To Greater
Efficiency, Transparency And Accountability In Local Government
Barnsley has been operating its transitional
political management arrangements since February 1999longer
than most other local authorities. This places us in a strong
position to comment about the impact of modernisation on the decision
making process. In order to get over the extent of the change
we will need to explain what existed prior to the introduction
of the modernised system.
Our political management arrangements were similar
to most other large metropolitan authorities. Services were the
responsibility of committees. In practice, there was extensive
pre-consideration of decisions within the political groupsincluding
by an informal political executiveprior to them being formally
taken by the Committees. As an organisation, we seemed to work
on the presumption that decision making should be a closed processwith
information only emerging after the options had been considered.
The lack of clarity was compounded by the fact
that the political management arrangements were unwieldy. The
fact that proposals had to go through an elaborate, process of
consideration by the political groups, followed by formal endorsement
by the Committee system (we had fourteen in total, each with its
own sub-committees), before they could be adopted, was time consuming
and caused many unnecessary delays.
Since the new political management arrangements
were introduced, the decision making process within the Council
has become a lot more streamlined and efficient. The Cabinet meets
every week. It either takes decisions, which can then be implemented
immediately, or makes recommendations to the Council, which in
turn meets monthly.
It has also become easier for the public to
understand who takes decisions. Instead of new initiatives apparently
coming from a range of separate committees, all decisions are
taken by the Cabinet or the full Council. The ethos of the whole
decision making process has been turned on its head. Instead of
trying to stop the public from finding out about what is going
on until after decisions have been taken, we now encourage them
to know what is being considered. All of our Cabinet meetings
are held in public. Theyand the presscan (and do)
see exactly what is being considered and what is decided. Barnsley
Council now has a genuinely transparent decisions making process.
The new political management arrangements are
also a lot more accountable than their predecessors. This is because
all Cabinet decisions and recommendations to the Council can be
called in by our Overview and Scrutiny Commissions. The Cabinet
spokepersons have to justify what they have done, and what they
propose to do, to their colleagues. If they do not convince them
then the Commissions, can, and do, force them to think again.
The Overview and Scrutiny Commissions have also
provided a useful review mechanism to gauge our performance on
broad aspects of policy. They have done this by launching in-depth
investigations. They are able to then feed their findings in to
the Cabinet. This mechanism did not exist under the old system.
It has helped to provide the `fresh thinking' and new ideas which
have helped to improve the way in which the Council is run.
What we have achieved through modernisation, other
Councils could also achieve.
The Impact of the New Arrangements on (a) the
Role of Councillors (b) the Role of Local Authority Officers and
(c) the Local Electorate
One of the major successes of Barnsley's transitional
political management structures has been to clarify the different
roles played by Councillors (decision making, representative and
scrutiny) and to give Elected Members the opportunity to carry
out these roles more effectively.
To begin with, our nine strong Cabinet now carries
out the executive or `decision making' function within the organisation.
For the first time, we now have a single focus for the political
management of the Councila focus which did not exist under
the old committee system. The introduction of the Cabinet model
has also produced a major culture change. The old, dearly held,
legal fiction that all Members were equally responsible for decision
taking has been abandoned. Instead, they have had to accept that
this function has always been carried out, in reality, by a small
group of senior Councillors, and that the real task is to make
sure that they are held properly to account for these decisions.
Although, the vast majority of Members do not
take decisions, they have equally important roles to play; especially
in terms of representing their communities. The modernised political
management arrangements have greatly improved the way in which
our Councillors undertake this `representative' function.
The main platform which they have for carrying
out this representative function is the network of Area Forumseach
covering two or three of our twenty-two wards. They can use them
to articulate local wants and needs; to be, in effect, the voice
of their communities. As you would expect, the individual members
have done this in different ways. But as a general rule they have
tended to concentrate on `advocacy'fighting the corner
for their areas in terms of council services and the services
provided by other organisations. For instance one of the Forums'
has recently taken a stand on possible changes to the ambulance
service which might adversely affect their local communities,
but could actually lead to improvements for the Borough as a whole.
Finally, our Overview and Scrutiny Commissions
also give Councillors an opportunity to scrutinise the policies
and practices of the Council and other agencies. In addition to
looking at specific decisions and recommendations, the Members
can use these commissions to investigate policies in depth and
draw up their own reports on where there are `gaps' and what needs
to be done to make things better. To date, they have carried out
in-depth investigations on Road Safety, the Countryside, the future
of the Magistrates Courts, the Policy Aspects of Licensing, Caring
for Carers, the use of IT by elected members, the way in which
the Council has responded to the Crime & Disorder Act and
The new political management arrangements have
had a significant impact on the work of the officer corps. Under
the old structures, the Chairs and Vice Chairs of Committees built
up a close relationship with `their' Chief Officers. They often
developed a common agenda for the services, independent of the
Chairs of other Committees or the Leader of the Council. This
has now changed. Chief Officers do not have the close, exclusive
relationship which existed in the past, and they certainly do
not manage their services without reference to other parts of
Prior to the introduction of the modernised
management arrangements Barnsley experienced, in common with most
other large metropolitan authorities, increasing detachment from
the political process by local people. This was reflected in the
very low electoral turnouts, which at one point dipped to only
19per cent. Similarly, a disturbing number of seats were being
won in uncontested elections. We do not claim to have transformed
the situation. But we have stabilised it, and begun to re-engage
with our residents.
At the most basic level, turnouts at municipal
elections are going upalbeit only gradually. At the last
election, they reached 23per cent. All the seats are now also
contested. But in many ways, a more significant development has
been the engagement we have achieved as a result of the Area Forums.
The public are both allowed to attend and participate in these
meetings. They have proved to be very popular. Attendances at
them are healthy and getting healthier.
The other parts of the new structure have had
a more indirect impact on the electorate. For instance, the reporting
of Cabinet business in the local press has helped our residents
to understand how and why decisions are made. Journalists attend
each of our Cabinet meeting and they write a considerable number
of column inches (not always favourable) about what was discussed.
The Cabinet receives far more press coverage than the old committee
system ever achieved.
The Scrutiny Commissions have probably had the
least impact as a `process' on the public. Comparatively few of
our residents understand what they are. However, far more people
know about the specific investigations which they have carried
out and issues that they have raised. These investigations have
been extensively reported in the pressalbeit, they are
usually attributed simply to Town Hall `Think Tanks'.
Local Authorities' Experience of Setting up
Overview and Scrutiny Committees and the Role of Area Committees
and Other Devolved Arrangements
Barnsley Council was one of the first local
authorities to embrace Overview and Scrutiny Commissions. Since
they were established, we have gained a reputation as national
leaders and have provided the model for scrutiny used by other
Because Barnsley led the field in establishing
Overview and Scrutiny Commissions, the Council had to learn by
trial and error. After two years in operation, a number of key
lessons have emerged from our experience.
First of all, it is important to guard against
Overview and Scrutiny Commissions becoming `Committees in Exile'or
in other words allowing them to fall back into the old decision
making role which Committees (formally at least) had. We found
that there was a natural tendency (especially in the early days)
for both Membersand to some extent Officersto treat
them as if they were still committees. A practical instance of
this was that Members requested, and senior officers frequently
offered, to submit reports on specific management issues to the
From the outset we have prevented this from
On a broad strategic level, we have ensured
that they do not become committees in exile by asking our six
Overview and Scrutiny Commissions to work `thematically'. In other
words, to look at the work of the Council and other agencies in
terms of how they contribute to achieving broad themes, such as
Lifelong learning, Public Protection or the regeneration of the
Boroughrather then the management of these services, per
se. By and large, we have been successful. The Commissions have
shown great independance in the way in which they do this. They
are genuinely free to determine their own agendas within their
remit. This is a crucial difference from what went before.
Our Overview and Scrutiny Commissions also operate
in a non partisan way. There is no political whip in Scrutiny.
Rather, political parties do not consider policy issues until
after the Cabinet and the Commissions have met, in public, and
reached their conclusions. Again, this is a crucial difference
from what went before and shows how open our political management
arrangements have become.
On a more prosaic level, we have prevented them
mimicking committees by not allowing anyone but the Commission
Adviser to actually report to them. Each of the Commissions has
its own dedicated senior officer (PO6) to support it. These officers
have proved invaluable to the success of our overview and scrutiny
process. Indeed, we do not think that the Overview and Scrutiny
Commissions would have been as effective without the input of
The second lesson we have learned from our experience
is that Overview and Scrutiny Commissions work best when they
reach out to the wider community and get them involved in the
For example, one of the Commissions got together
those who run and use the licensed `entertainment industry' to
try and sort out anti-social behaviour in and around pubs and
clubs. 23 witnesses were interviewed about what they think needs
to be done. Using this evidence, the Commission Members then put
forward a package of recommendations to help sort them out. Without
the external witnesses they simply could not have done this.
Other ways we have tried to get the public involved
has been to co-opt on to the Commissions members of the public.
These co-optees either have expert knowledge, which would be helpful
in understanding the issues under debate, for instance teachers,
or represent particular parts of the community, such as members
of Tenants and Residents Associations.
The third lesson which we have learned from
the Scrutiny Process is the importance of ensuring that the members
feel that it is genuinely `their' agendarather than something
which is being imposed upon them. The way in which we have ensured
that this happens is by each of the Scrutiny Commission's agreeing
their own work programmes at the start of each municipal year.
These work programmes identify the key proactive issues which
the members want to look at, who they are going to take evidence
from and how they want to process their findings. In other words,
do they want to submit high profile reports to the Cabinet concentrating
on broad policy development issues, or do they want to submit
instead more technical performance monitoring reports on specific
Council services, and the services provided by other agencies.
The other main lesson we have learned is the
need to ensure that Overview and Scrutiny Commissions take a balanced
approach to their work. They should not concentrate exclusively
on proactive investigations at the expense of detailed consideration
of Cabinet decisions, or vice versa. The members of the Commissions
want to do both. But sometimes they can find it difficult to achieve
this goal with the time and resources available to them.
The principal way in which we have engaged with
the wider community has been through the `Area Forums'. We have
established a network of nine Forumseach covering two or
three of our twenty two wards. All of the Councillors are members
of these Forumsbut a third of the membership also consists
of local residents who are co-opted on to them. Although the Area
Forums are, strictly speaking `Council meetings held in public',
they have, in practice evolved into `sounding boards' by which
local people can have their say about issues which are important
The Area Forums led the way in terms of our
local community planning process. Special meetings were held in
schools, community halls, libraries etc at which people were asked
to help decide what were the big issues for their communities.
At the end of the exercise well over 5000 issues had been raised
by local people through the Area Forums. The feedback we got from
our residents was that they greatly appreciated this opportunity
to suggest what ought to be done.
Difficulties authorities have experienced in
implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 (Part
II) and views on the adequacy of the guidance and how it might
Barnsley Council has had no real difficulties
in implementing Part II of the Act and we have already carried
out an extensive consultation exercise on our new constitution.
As part of this consultation exercise each household in the Borough
was asked to express their views on which of the options they
thought would be best for Barnsley. In addition, our residents
were also given the opportunity to comment on the options at a
series of special meetings held in local communities. Finally,
we also consulted our `Citizens Panel' and a local residents workshop,
overseen by outside independent experts to find out what was wanted.
The only issue which has caused us difficulties
is the failure of the Act to provide for Cabinet `deputies'. At
the moment, under our transitional arrangements, we have a nine
strong Cabinet. But each of the portfolio holders also has a deputy.
The principal role of these deputies is to provide the Cabinet
spokesperson with support and advice. In a sense, they act as
a `sounding board' who they can turn to and bounce ideas off.
Furthermore, although they are not in the Cabinet they can, and
do, deputise for them at our weekly Cabinet meetings. In this
sense, they play an absolutely vital role in reducing the pressure
of work on the portfolio holders. For instance, there have been
times when Cabinet Portfolio holders have simply not had the time
to attend our Overview and Scrutiny Commissions to answer questions
about specific Cabinet decisions, the direction of Council policy
or the performance of our services. Fortunately, the Cabinet deputies
have been able to stand in for them on these occasions.
But the main advantage which we have gained
from having deputies is that these post holders provide a bridge
between the executive side and back-bench or `community councillors'
This is because they have a foot in both campsthey are
both backbenchers and members of the executive at the same time.
Thus, they can communicate to the Cabinet the concerns of their
back bench colleagues, whilst at the same time telling these colleagues
from a position of knowledge, and relative independence, why certain
decisions or courses of action where necessary. In a sense, we
have found that they have been able to play the role of `honest
brokers' in our transitional political management arrangements.
As a general rule, we have been satisfied with
the guidance on implementing the Act issued by the DETR. However,
ideally we would have liked to have seen more on possible alternatives
to formal Cabinet deputies, which would enable some sort of advice/support
role to continue and for a group of members to continue to operate
as a bridge between the executive side and community councillors.
The extent to which local authorities are opting
for the directly elected mayor model and the advantages, disadvantages
of this model.
Barnsley Council carried out a comprehensive
consultation exercise on its future constitution. This exercise
sought to get people's views on which of the three options would
be the best for the Borough. At the end of the consultation exercise
the overwhelming message which came back to us was that the people
of Barnsley do not want a directly elected mayor. There appeared
to be several reasons for this.
First of all, quite a few of the people who
we consulted were concerned that if we had a directly elected
mayor there would be no `recall' mechanism for them. In other
words, if they thought that were doing an atrocious job then there
would be nothing they could do to get rid of them until the next
election. Even those who took the view that the public should
not have the right to recall the mayor were concerned that the
Council itself would not be able to do anything. There was a feeling
that if local members at least had some sort of power to force
the mayor to have his or her mandate confirmed (by, say, moving
a vote of no confidence) then the option might be more acceptable.
The second, and related reason, was danger of
extremism. There was a fear, which seemed to be shared by many
of our respondents, that an elected mayor who could not be held
to account between elections might simply get out of hand. Although
most people accepted that this was unlikely, they thought that
there would be at least a danger that elected mayors could develop
extreme political agendas after they had taken power and that
there would be nothing which the Public, or the Council, could
do to stop them.
The third reason why our residents came out
against the elected mayor model was that they felt it was too
permanent. There was a sense that before agreeing to such a fundamental
change to the way in which their Borough was governed they would
have liked a `pilot' arrangement to be tried out first. There
may well have been a lot more support for electing a provisional
mayor for, say, two years in order to see how this sort of constitution
worked in practiceand only then putting to a referendum
whether or not to irrevocably change the way in which Barnsley
Finally, our consultation exercise revealed
practically no support for the third model, the Mayor and Council
Manager. Most of those who gave their views told us that it was
simply undemocratic. They made it clear in a variety of ways that
although they may not be very interested in local politics, they
still greatly appreciate the fact that those who take the decisions
are accountable to them through the ballot box. In some ways the
prospect of a council manager, working with a mayor who in turn
could not be controlled, was seen as a fundamental breach in the
`contract' which currently exists between the electorate and those
who govern on their behalf.