Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

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 1999—longer 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 groups—including by an informal political executive—prior 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 process—with 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. They—and the press—can (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 Council—a 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 Forums—each 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 Domestic Violence.

  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 the organisation.

  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 up—albeit 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 press—albeit, 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 authorities.

  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 Members—and to some extent Officers—to 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 Commissions.

  From the outset we have prevented this from occurring.

  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 Borough—rather 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 these officers.

  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 scrutiny process.

  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' agenda—rather 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 Forums—each covering two or three of our twenty two wards. All of the Councillors are members of these Forums—but 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 to them.

  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 be improved.

  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 camps—they 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 practice—and only then putting to a referendum whether or not to irrevocably change the way in which Barnsley is governed.

  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.

February 2001

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