Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Councillor Merrick Cockell, Leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (LAG 47)


  The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is the smallest London Borough by area, but also the most densely populated borough.

  We have a population of 180,000 people but we are also home to a significant number of international workers. Some 30,000 tourists stay in the borough each night.

  The Royal Borough is marked by high property prices and extreme development pressures. A third of our local homes are social housing and 40 per cent of these tenants are on housing benefit. At the same time the Royal Borough is renowned for its history, architecture and a significant number of London landmarks.


  Throughout its history the Royal Borough council has enjoyed the talents of a large number of local people who have been willing to commit themselves to public service.

  The administration of the council has been characterised by a single party administration by the Conservative Party, but the minority Labour Party has made a significant and constructive contribution.

  Turnout for local elections has been comparable to other metropolitan areas. However, the context for participation in local elections needs to be understood. Our electoral roll is characterised by considerable turbulence. One quarter of those on the electoral role depart each year, to be replaced by incomers. A high proportion of these people may well be migrants of one form or another and therefore it is to be expected their initial commitment to local democratic systems will be muted.


  Both the political parties in the council believe the current system of committees to lead and oversee the council's work, has served the Royal Borough well.

  The government has claimed the new local authority government's arrangements will "increase efficiency, transparency and accountability".

  This view appears to be based on a number of assumptions that the Royal Borough does not accept, namely:

    —  the committee system is out of date and inefficient;

    —  real decisions are taken elsewhere—usually behind closed doors—and the committee system is therefore a sham;

    —  decisions are not the subject of discussion or scrutiny—either at the time or subsequently;

    —  as a result, some councillors feel excluded from the decision-making process;

    —  local people have no confidence in the system and are looking for change.

  The Royal Borough considers none of these assumptions are correct so far as its own operation of the committee system is concerned.

  All of our meetings are held in public and only those matters that are genuinely confidential are considered in private session.

  It is the council's view, unanimously, that having been democratically elected, all local councillors have the right to be intimately involved in the decision-making processes of their council and the Royal Borough remains deeply concerned about the process of marginalising the majority of councillors who will be excluded from the executive.

  Naturally this council will do everything in its power to ensure that non executive Members are provided with a satisfying role in relation to their scrutiny and community functions—but the philosophy underlying local government is that local people give up their time in order to run Municipal affairs; not just scrutinise the process.

  There are many councils, in the control of all parties, that are forward looking, efficiently run and committed to the provision of first class services.

  They did not need to be legislated against and forced to introduce structures for which there appears to be little or no demand. The Royal Borough would have entirely supported changes made to local government law in order to facilitate experiments with new forms of government. The Royal Borough remains fundamentally opposed to the imposition of new internal management arrangements on democratically elected bodies.


  The Royal Borough council does not cling to its current arrangements out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia. We believe we have solid evidence the existing system has served local people well.

Last year OFSTED completed an inspection on the local education authority and placed us within the top three local education authorities in the country. Next month the Audit Commission/Social Services Inspectorate joint review team will publish its report and we know that will be similarly positive.

  We've also recently had an inspection by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate and we are proud of our housing benefits service—an achilles heel for most metropolitan authorities—represents a first class service which delivers benefit payments accurately and promptly and guards against fraud.

  The Best Value Inspectorate have placed our first inspected review equal top with two others in a total of 34 inspections completed.

  Recently Channel 4 completed the first ever research into the effectiveness of crime and community safety partnerships and placed the Royal Borough's partnership with the Metropolitan Police first in their league table of London authorities.

  We could go on.

  These achievements have been hard won by the constant application of local politicans, informed by local knowledge, prepared to give up many hours of their time to keep in touch with the needs of local people; to encourage a vast array of community organisations to see the council as willing to listen and adapt and to spend time on developing specialist knowledge about the council functions.

  Any metropolitan authority with a full range of local authority functions remains a large and sprawling, multi-purpose body. We simply do not believe it is possible for 10 councillors, even working full-time, to develop a superior knowledge of all of these services to that which is currently held by 54 councillors.

  The assumption that the role of executive councillors will de facto become a full-time role is an assumption we believe may yet prove deleterious to the future buoyancy of local democracy.

  We are pleased to say that from both parties, we have a number of councillors who have paid employment and family responsibilities. We believe this rich mix of councillors is an essential part of representing the local community.


  We believe the government's reforms are based upon assertion rather than evidence. It is our experience, having now commenced consultation in a comprehensive way with our local community, that there is simply no public appetite for these changes and the division between executive and scrutiny roles for councillors is an academic experiment which jars with the natural expectations of local people.

  We will of course follow Parliament's will and we fully intend to do our best to ensure the local government system remains one which will ensure the talents of all our councillors are effectively harnessed for the public good.

  However, we believe it would be entirely wrong for the Committee to proceed on the basis that these reforms go with the grain of public opinion. We think they contain dangers that will deter local people from putting themselves forward, for the best reasons, for public office. We believe they will provide an excuse for the worst councils to become more secretive.

  We accept that not all councils can claim the advantages we have had in terms of the ability and willingness of local people to put themselves forward as councillors. However, we believe these reforms will fundamentally fail to deal with the arrangements for securing governors in the headlong dash for an academic experiment with governance.

February 2001

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