Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)



  120. Will the turnout in this year's local government elections be seen as part of the evaluation? Perhaps Mr Rowsell would like to come in here?
  (Mr Rowsell) On the evaluation study, looking at the new constitutions, concepts such as electoral turnouts will be part of the benchmark, and over a five-year period the study will be looking at how these change.

  121. Starting when, when does the five-year period start?
  (Mr Rowsell) Starting now, and subsequently.

  122. So, if the turnout this year, say, was lower than last year, that would not be seen as a failing in the Act?
  (Mr Rowsell) At the moment, in terms of the new constitutions, it would be hard to see this particularly being affected by the new constitutions, because, at the moment, only around half the local authorities have actually adopted their new constitutions. It is very early days, at the moment; something like 55 per cent have adopted their new constitutions. In 2002, the remainder will, most of whom will adopt their new constitutions in the period between now and the end of June.

  123. Does the evaluation include any outcomes of selected local authorities who have changed, and comparing how they, individually, operated before and after?
  (Mr Rowsell) This particular study will involve looking at in-depth studies in around 40 local authorities, plus wider censuses of local authorities, within the wider studies on community leadership, say.
  (Mr Whetnall) I just want to add that some of the best value performance indicators are also relevant, and they will track, over time, as you mentioned public perception and public satisfaction; the scale of measurement of public satisfaction, attempted through best value, is quite large, I think about 500,000 people contributing to the sample. And now we have had a result for year one of best value, the changes will be measured over time for each authority.

Christine Russell

  124. Can I ask you, gentlemen, if the Department is aware of just how disengaged many, many backbench councillors feel, up and down the country, or, to use the double-speak, from Liverpool, we have just heard, front-line councillors, I think they were described as, but are you aware of the level of disillusionment; and, if you are, what are you planning to do about it?
  (Mr Whetnall) Certainly, we come across reports that people feel that they had one role and now they have got a different role, and they are not yet sure that they are as satisfied with their new role as they were with their old; we hear that directly from members, from time to time, and from chief executives. So we are quite aware that this is a very significant change for people, and that confidence in the new tasks may take time to build; but also there are positive reports of where it is going well.


  125. Are you confident that they have got new tasks to perform?
  (Mr Whetnall) The backbench members, well, yes; the combination of the words in the legislation `scrutiny' and `overview' is quite significant, and in some cases there is a significant extension of scrutiny, say, on the Health Service front, or in the context of Local Strategic Partnerships, I think there is a lot of new opportunities to be constructive about.

Mr Betts

  126. One council wrote to us and said, as well as an Act, and there is only one Act, there are 17 sets of regulations, numerous directions, 300 pages of guidance and all of this keeps being amended and revised and reissued. Is this not overprescription by a substantial degree?
  (Mr Whetnall) Some of the revision and reissuing is part of the feedback, we hope, and there are examples where it is being redone, because we—

  127. So you are looking for feedback?
  (Mr Whetnall) Yes.

  128. But is it an overwhelming feedback, we have got just far too much guidance and regulation?
  (Mr Whetnall) I have actually come into contact more with chief executives than others, perhaps directly, and there are certainly some who would say, Guidance not required; a period of silence would be appreciated. But there are others who want to ask questions and want help with the interpretation of what is a fairly complex piece of legislation, and they have been very involved in the networks that have helped us put it together. There is a choice between sort of silence and being overample in the provision of guidance.

  129. So we take very complex legislation and then we hook people into a system, which means that they have to have even more complex guidance to understand it? That is a rhetorical question. The three of you today are responsible, in the end, for producing this guidance, or, at least, if you do not write it yourselves, you are responsible for overseeing the work of people who do; have any of you actually had any experience of working in local government, or being an elected councillor?
  (Mr Whetnall) I worked for a council briefly, but as a teacher, so that does not count, but perhaps we should ask Peter too, because he has got more extensive experience.
  (Mr Murphy) All of my experience, prior to coming into the Department in November 2000, was in local authorities. I was employed in a number of local authorities for over 20 years, culminating in being a chief executive of a small rural authority in Leicestershire.

  130. What about the rest of your senior staff; did you make any attempt to employ people directly from local government, or second people, or second any of your staff out to local government? Does that go on, on a regular basis?
  (Mr Whetnall) A very conscious attempt is made, yes. The Modernisation Team that Peter is a member of was exactly to do that, to recruit people who had more direct experience, and therefore probably more street-cred., out there, and to ask them both to work in regions and build communications networks but also to help us directly with the construction of policy; and there are about 12 members of that Team at present. But also I think significant numbers of people working in the Department are either from a local government background or have had secondments out, including, one of my divisional managers who has just gone off to work for Kensington and Chelsea for a period; so there is an accelerating rate of interchange, I think.


  131. The only trouble with that Team is that it was established after the Act had been passed, was it not; so, in a sense, you would have to make sense of the Act and make regulations under the Act, rather than actually say the Act was a mess and it should not have been as complex?
  (Mr Whetnall) It was established after the 1999 Act, during the course of the 2000 Act, and it has helped on a lot of the guidance and implementation.
  (Mr Rowsell) And, if I may add, we have had people seconded specifically to help us with the regulations, drawing up these regulations.

  132. I understand that, but what I was after was whether really the problem was the regulations, or whether the problem was the Act, which demanded such complex regulations?
  (Mr Rowsell) I think the issue is that the Act goes to the heart of the existing legislative structure of local government, because it bites straight into the complex functions of local authorities and makes the divide between executive functions and functions which are not matters for the executive.

Ms King

  133. I wonder if you could tell me if you think the right balance has been struck between functions which are a matter for the executive and functions which are a matter for the full council?
  (Mr Rowsell) The underlying approach is that the full council sets the policy framework and the budget on a proposal from the executive, and that, within that framework, all other functions are for the executive, with the exception, and it is an important exception, that, what we might term, quasi-judicial functions, where there is a response to a particular application or request from a member of the public for a licence, or a consent, say, those functions are not for the executive.

  134. They are quite small-range, are they not; so do you not think there is a problem with balancing the very heavy burden on the executive and the sense of disenfranchisement, which we were talking about a minute ago, with the backbenchers?
  (Mr Rowsell) The executive's role is to deliver and implement the policy framework and budget of the council; it is a heavy task, indeed. But as to the role of, what you describe, the backbench members, on their overview and scrutiny committee, they, too, have an important input into policy formulation, into working with the executive in bringing forward proposals. So that it is not the case that the executive does everything and the overview and scrutiny committees are there simply to check up on the executive; they have a role to be proactive, to come forward with recommendations, to be involved in the policy formulation as well.

  135. I would come back to you on that, but I do not think we have got time. I would ask you if you could explain to me how you would explain to a member of the public which councillor is responsible for planning?
  (Mr Rowsell) Planning itself is something which covers a range of activities, ranging from, what I suspect the public think of planning, the planning application to issues of the development plan and the wider plans for the area. And I think my attempt at the description of who does what would be, in terms of the development plan for the area, that is a matter for the executive. There will probably be a person on the executive, a cabinet member, if that is the structure, who is responsible for coming forward with those proposals to the council, and it is for the council to set that broad framework. In terms of the planning application, which I suspect most members of the public see as planning, they want their application to extend their house, there, it is quite simple, in one sense, that it is not an executive function, it is not a matter for the executive. If I make an application to extend my house, that is a matter which is considered by the planning committee of the council, as has always been the case.


  136. Yes, but you have taken just a simple example, have you not; what happens when the council is trying to provide planning permission for itself, the council is making the application? Now then, who is the person that the general public should lobby, is it the council, to persuade them not to put the application forward, is it the overview panel, which is going to look at the planning application, or do they actually have a quiet word with the power person in the council, who fixed it for them?
  (Mr Rowsell) The structure, I would suggest, is actually clearer than perhaps it used to be under the old committee structure, where, indeed, there was a lot of confusion about when local authorities are giving themselves planning permission; because, in this structure, the way one would see it working would be, say, the decision was to build a school, or something,—

  137. Let us just take something like an incinerator?
  (Mr Rowsell) Or an incinerator; slightly more controversial, perhaps, an incinerator. It is the executive's decision to implement the policy in relation to waste disposal, so the executive is making a planning application; the decision on that planning application is a decision of the planning committee, a committee which meets in public and which decides planning applications, to the extent this is a planning application, from anyone else as well as the council. So, here, there is a divide; the executive is responsible for implementing waste disposal, a planning committee, meeting in public, taking decisions in public, grants, or rejects, planning applications.

  138. And a party political group would never consider something like that?
  (Mr Rowsell) I would have thought that experience would show that party political groups always consider issues such as this, as always has been the case.

Ms King

  139. Why is not best value a function of overview and scrutiny committees; why is it not always a function?
  (Mr Whetnall) I think there are ways of bringing overview and scrutiny committees into the Best Value review; there are ways, depending on how you structured your best value review programme, of combining, I would have thought, quite well with enquiries to do with what it is like to live on benefit, or to be a tenant, but the executive will also have a responsibility for bringing forward proposals in the light of that scrutiny.


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