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



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-199)

ANDREW WHETNALL, PAUL ROWSELL AND PETER MURPHY

TUESDAY 23 APRIL 2002

  180. Who deals with accreditation in the rest of the country?
  (Mr Whetnall) The Government Offices have a significant role, but, the accreditation exercise that was completed at the end of February, I think the NRU put out the guidance to the Government Offices, and it was partly a self-assessment procedure; the Government Offices then had a role with particular LSPs in the accreditation exercise.

  181. And is there any co-ordination between Government Offices and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, in this respect?
  (Mr Whetnall) Certainly, yes; the design of the framework was with the NRU, and the execution with the Government Offices, and then with conversations and exchange all the way through.

  Dr Pugh: In empowering LSPs at the expense of local councils, how do you stand when the accusation is put that you are not, in fact, modernising local government at all, you are going back to an older period, when areas were run by the great and the good?

Chairman

  182. The great and the good, and the useless?
  (Mr Whetnall) One of the things about Local Strategic Partnerships is they are really very conscious that partnership activity, in one form or another, has been continuous, at least for the 30, or so, years of urban policy. So I am not sure that they were as colossally new, or that the dilemmas are as colossally new, as that portrait suggests.

Dr Pugh

  183. But you are changing things, are you not, you are shifting the balance of power within a local area?
  (Mr Whetnall) Another way of looking at it is, it is another attempt at partnership working, making sure that on these wicked issues where no single agency can produce the right result people are working together. So it is a shift towards partnership, rather than a shift from one body to others.

Chairman

  184. Do you think you are getting the right people to come forward to these partnerships? My impression is that if you have got a really successful business and they are asked to contribute someone to the partnership, they tend to send the person that they are looking to retire, rather than the most dynamic member of the company. Is that fair?
  (Mr Whetnall) Certainly, it would not be fair to some of the people I have met from the business sector who are engaged.

  Chairman: No; to some.

Mr Betts

  185. Two matters; just coming back to Louise Ellman's point, and following your last comments, that, in the past, most partnerships, yes, and there have been many of them, and many successful ones, and local government has generally freely entered into them; here, there is a direction, that this is how we should go, Local Strategic Partnerships. And just, for example, that the ruling party on the council entered into a partnership, it was a major decision, they happily go along with it; the minority party challenges it and wins the local elections, they were saying, "We don't actually accept that particular policy, we want to change." Is there a direct conflict then between the new ruling group on the council and the decision of the partnership? They will exist, from time to time; has there been any thought about it?
  (Mr Murphy) Can I just comment on that, and go back. We have a number of partnerships of the sort that you are referring to, that work at a local level, to help improvement plans work on that basis. The crime and disorder partnerships work on that basis, and in the crime and disorder partnership it goes as far as some individuals having a responsibility, to whit, the chief executive of a local authority, or two local authorities in a dual area, together with the chief constable; and that is where the resolution of the conflicts come, at the local level. And the experience to date, whether it is local transport plans, whether it is health improvement plans, whether it is crime and disorder partnerships, is that, yes, those partnerships are only as good as the people who turn up to the partnership; but the evidence suggests that the longer they are going on the better they are at resolving conflicts between the different parties, and the more experience that is gained the better they are at managing conflict within the groups at the local level, without the need to resort to a resolution of conflict at a higher level.

  186. We may come back to that, I am sure, but can I put just one other issue; is there a code of conduct for people who are members of Local Strategic Partnerships?
  (Mr Murphy) No, there is not a code.

  187. So someone who is a major landowner, who might benefit from the decision of a Local Strategic Partnership to develop particular parts of land in an area, would they be excluded from taking part in those discussions and decisions?
  (Mr Murphy) Clearly, the code of conduct for Local Strategic Partnerships on matters for the Local Strategic Partnership at the local level.

  188. So there is no guidance or direction?
  (Mr Murphy) One of the big advantages that we think that local authorities can bring to Local Strategic Partnerships, as well as a focus for those Local Partnerships for the local community, as well as democratic accountability, as well as a co-ordinating role, is, of course, local authorities do bring with them an ethical framework. And, I must say, personally, and the experience I have had back from this is the new ethical framework is finding itself easier to translate across to partnerships, they also bring an accounting structure and an open and transparent decision-making structure, that we would hope that Local Strategic Partnerships would want to adopt.

Ms King

  189. I am fairly impressed with the LSP in Tower Hamlets, the experience we have had there so far; but really I do not think that encouraging experience can get away from the fact that there is a problem with this democratic deficit, and I just wonder if the Department intends to look at this further, as a problem that will not always be able to be resolved through conflict resolution, which is what you have cited?
  (Mr Whetnall) I note your concern. I do not think we will be deaf to that issue, if it materialises strongly.

Chris Grayling

  190. Can I turn you to funding, gentlemen. What do you think has been the financial cost to local authorities of all the changes that have happened to governance in the past few years?
  (Mr Whetnall) I am afraid, we have not got a measurement for that. It is a question, I think, that has been asked at earlier ministerial appearances, and letters have followed; but we have not got anything to add for those.

Chairman

  191. Could you just give us the most up-to-date guesstimate then?
  (Mr Whetnall) If it is a modernisation, as such, and all the embracing processes, it is very difficult to do a guesstimate, is it not; it is relevant to so much that it is difficult to isolate it as a process and cost it.

  Chairman: Come on; come on, a guess?

Chris Grayling

  192. There must be a good challenge there. Is not that rather a weak answer, given the fact that the Department is actually imposing changes on local authorities? If you do not have any idea how much it is going to cost them, how will they budget for it; is that money that actually comes from other services, do they give less money to their schools or to their social services or to their housing departments, in order to pay for this? How can you impose a reform without having any sense at all of how much it is going to cost?
  (Mr Whetnall) The cost is the cost of doing things in different ways, very often; so to produce a sort of micro-analysis of that would be, I think, genuinely very difficult.

Chairman

  193. The Liberal Democrat group on the LGA has suggested 2.5 million; is that way out?
  (Mr Whetnall) Two point five million, nationally?

  194. Yes?
  (Mr Whetnall) I think, having said that we do not know, it is difficult to say whether it is way out or not.

  195. Well, the same sort of scale? You are fencing pretty well, but . . .
  (Mr Rowsell) In terms of, when the legislation on new constitution came forward as a Bill, what was stated in the financial memorandum, I recall, was that the costs of making the change, because, after all, the running costs really carry on, would be offset, or more than offset, by the benefits in terms of efficiency that could arise.

Chris Grayling

  196. How did you measure those benefits, in terms of efficiency?
  (Mr Rowsell) One of the aims of the new structures was that there would be fewer or smaller committee meetings,—

Chairman

  197. Yes, we understand that, but let us have the two sums of money on the two sides of the scale?
  (Mr Rowsell) Over the time, as I recall what we have looked at, the Local Government Association, they costed modernisation at 150 million, that was their cost, so that is rather different from the 2.5 million. When the Minister, Hilary Armstrong, last gave evidence before this Committee, or its predecessor, in the last Parliament, I recall that she said, in terms of the new constitutions, she was quite open, that, in terms of what the cost of the change would be, that was not something which, in any detailed sense, the Department had looked at, and that was quite openly said to the Committee.

  Chairman: So if I gave you the wrong figure, I was talking about the figure of 2.5 million, that is for mayoral referendums alone, so we are talking about a much bigger figure.

Chris Grayling

  198. So, if you do not have any idea how much it is actually going to cost, will you be receptive to well-structured, sensible arguments from authorities that have incurred extra costs when they come to talk to you about the financial settlements they receive?
  (Mr Whetnall) It is true that, in the calculation of distribution, some account is being taken of the core costs of being an authority that is changing, as opposed to the core costs of delivering all the different services; so, to that extent, I think, we would have to listen. We do know a bit more about the costs of conducting a referendum, a figure in my head is about 50p per member of the electorate, which could give you a cost of about, I do not know, it depends on the size of the electorate, but costs of the order of 100,000.

  199. Can I just take you on briefly to another issue, which is that, we have heard evidence this morning from a variety of councils, and they have given us a very consistent message, that under the new structure it is very hard, if not impossible, for somebody in full-time employment to be a member of a cabinet. What evidence have you got, from the work you have done about the changes, of any changes to the nature of the people who are in senior positions in local government; and is the Department aware of the issue that there is a breed of professional politician emerging in local government to the exclusion of the people who have often been in it, they are the local business people, the local public service workers, and so forth?
  (Mr Whetnall) There is certainly evidence from the census recently conducted by the IDEA that the composition of councils is not now as anybody really would prefer to see it, in terms of underrepresentation of women, underrepresentation of people with young, dependent children, and that certainly does need a lot of attention, I think. But the proposition that the new arrangements have made it worse, I think, we would want to unpack, because, on the one hand, a whole part of the policy reason for advancing the changes was that councillors are spending too much time in unproductive committee meetings, no doubt they are now spending their time in other ways, and the burdens on an executive member will be greater; but I think it is something that both councils and we have to watch as it goes along, is it not, really.

 


 
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