Examination of Witnesses (Questions 209-219)
CLLR DAVID WILLIAMS, CLLR PAUL SZTUMPF AND CLLR MAGGIE MARTIN
TUESDAY 7 MAY 2002
209. Welcome to the second session of the Committee's inquiry into how the Local Government Act 2000 is working. Can you identify yourselves for the record?
(Mr Sztumpf) My name is Paul Sztumpf, and I lead the Labour Group on Essex County Council.
(Ms Martin) I am Maggie Martin, and I lead the Liberal Democrat Group on Surrey County Council.
(Mr Williams) I am David Williams, and I lead the Conservative Opposition Group on the London Borough of Merton.
210. Is there anything you want to say by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight to questions? If you agree with each other, we do not need to have it repeated; if you do not, please catch my eye so that we have it firmly on the record.
(Mr Sztumpf) We are happy to go to questions.
211. Have the new arrangements led to the public being any more involved in local government than it was before?
(Ms Martin) In my opinion, it has worked precisely the opposite way round. The turn-out in our area for local elections has always been quite good, but in fact it has gone down. We now find that virtually no-one, either from the public or the press, bothers to attend any of our executive meetings or select committee meetings, or even our county council meetings.
(Mr Williams) I would agree, and our area fora are not well attended either.
(Mr Sztumpf) By and large, I agree, yes.
Sir Paul Beresford
212. How long do executive meetings last?
(Ms Martin) Public meetings last about two hours. I have to say, they are one of the most painful experiences you would ever want to endure.
213. You do not think there is a connection between that and the fact that people do not come?
(Ms Martin) Of course.
(Mr Sztumpf) Ours are shorter than that, about an hour to an hour and a half. As I put in my submission, it is really about stamping. If you have about 12 items for an hour and a half, you do not have much time to debate the items. They are large items, because that is why they are the executive.
214. Presumably, the week-to-week running of the local council, except when you get a controversial issue, is not terribly exciting, so it is not surprising you do not get large numbers of people in attendance.
(Ms Martin) I do not think that that is the reason. I think the reason is because the public meetings of our executive involve virtually no debate. The reason for that is because the debate goes on behind closed doors. Our executive meets every other Monday and on the Mondays in between they have the informal executive, which is where they meet with the officers, and the public is not invited to that. On the morning of the afternoon of the public meeting, there is what is called a call-over, which, in effect, is just another planning meeting, and I have had executive members say to me when I have complained about how boring the open meetings are, words to the effect, "ah, yes, but you do not know what goes on when we meet privately"when there is a lot of discussion, he implied.
215. Is it the same in Essex?
(Mr Sztumpf) We have had well-attended meetings, and they would tend to be for something like a school closure. But you can close a school or not close a school in about ten minutes, and either way the public do not feel very satisfied that they see what goes on. Those are the only well-attended ones.
216. Would any of you say that the new arrangements have led to an improvement in the quality of services for the public?
(Mr Williams) We have not spotted it yet.
(Mr Sztumpf) It is true to say that the day-to-day running is smoother and quicker, and maybe 60 to 70 per cent of the day-to-day running is not controversialit might be road closures or that kind of thing, and that does go smoothly and quicker than before. From that point of view, there are achievements.
217. The advantage, presumably, in that would be to the officers. Even a road closure does have some implication for the people living around it.
(Mr Sztumpf) But it is a member decision, and it is the cabinet that has made that decision.
218. But the cabinet has not taken longer than ten minutes to go into the rights and wrongs of it.
(Ms Martin) I think that is absolutely right because one of the points we made in our submission was the overload of work on ten executive members running a County, which in the past took 76 elected members to run. That arithmetic is pretty easy to do.
219. Yours is a pretty small county. How long does it take to get from one side to the other?
(Ms Martin) It is not a question of geography, it is a question of numbers. We have a million people living in Surrey, which is pretty dense. To get from one side to the other on a bad day could take you two hours. We have some of the most congested roads in the country as well. I do not think geographical size comes into it; it is complexity, and there are the added complexities and difficulties of running a two-tier system. This structure might be more suited to a unitary, although I do not know because I have never worked in one. Certainly, it is not appropriate for a two-tier system. We have just put in to place our local area committees, and there again one is wondering quite how that will work in a county that has 11 borough and district councils as well. You begin to think that the levels of tiers are becoming completely ludicrous, because we also have parish councils and town councils. Now, we have county local committees as well as the county council, and it is getting completely out of hand.