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

Supplementary memorandum by Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (LGA 22(c))


Q525.  Please provide us with an example of good practice in overview and scrutiny

  Perhaps the best way of getting a feel for the effectiveness of scrutiny is to ask individual councils. I attach a table indicating some places and issues where we understand that scrutiny has added value. It is based on informal understanding and reporting, and not meant to be at all comprehensive. If the Committee wants to examine a single example more closely, you might want to consider a Kent County Council scrutiny committee's work on modernisation of hospital services in East Kent. I attach a copy of a letter from East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust to the County Council suggesting this was a well-prepared exercise with a constructive outcome.

Q532.  Please provide us with an example of an occasion where a council decision has been revised or policy changed as a result of overview and scrutiny

  In addition to the examples mentioned in the table, we understand that a further example of a council changing its decision is provided by Doncaster Borough Council, where the cabinet changed a proposed course of action in the light of scrutiny and debate.

  In September 2001 the executive was proposing to close a residential unit within a special school. This was in line with a previous decision for the Council to cease maintaining residential facilities for pupils with moderate learning difficulties. In November 2001 the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee identified this proposal as an issue from the Forward Plan and referred it to the Lifelong Learning Scrutiny Sub-Committee for further investigation. At a November meeting of the sub-Committee members considered the report and took evidence from Education officers. In a December meeting, the Committee took further evidence from Education and Social Services officers as well as from the head of the school. At its January meeting the Committee debated the evidence and considered possible options. The sub-Committee found that a corporate approach to the issue of residential care for children with special needs was needed, with a more integrated approach between Education and Social Services. The Committee recommended reversing the original closure decision, as a reflection of a need to adopt this more joined-up approach. The executive agreed and the original decision was reversed.

Q539.  Please clarify:

    (a)  whether local authorities will be given total flexibility over the definition of a key decision in future or whether the Government has decided to leave the current (March 2002) definition in place and not to give further guidance on "significant" expenditure;

    (b)  whether the two-stage test will be removed; and

    (c)  whether the guidance set out in paragraph 7.15-7.22 (inclusive) in New Council Constitutions: A Guidance Pack will be removed or changed in the foreseeable future

  There are no immediate plans to amend these paragraphs, to remove the two-stage test or give further guidance on the meaning of "significant" expenditure. As announced to the House on 8 February 2001 and 21 March 2002, there are plans to review the operation of the access to information arrangements, including the operation of key decisions. The review is planned for this summer with findings to be promulgated in November. The review may lead to changes in guidance if a good case is made, or an unacceptable degree of variation in practice, not justified in relation to local circumstances, becomes apparent.

  It is worth emphasising that local authorities have the flexibility to decide what constitutes a key decision within the broad definition as it stands. Further statutory guidance, for example on how "significant" expenditure should be defined, would tend to reduce flexibility, and it is always open to scrutiny committees or others to challenge practice they think falls short of reasonable openness and opportunity for debate. We intend to work with local authorities to develop and promote best practice on defining key decisions.

Q201.  Please provide us with a note on the costs of implementing the 2000 Act

  Research teams will examine and compile data on costs of specific aspects of the 2000 Act policies through the evaluations on which I have already sent papers. These evaluations will cover new council constitutions (eg overview and scrutiny and delegation of functions) and local strategic partnerships (eg developing community strategies and new partnership structures). However it would be wrong to suggest that the evaluations can isolate every potential element of costs resulting from the 2000 Act, nor will the studies be able to trace and attribute every increase or decrease in general efficiency arising from the reforms and build it into a national estimate. An overall cost-benefit analysis of the reforms is therefore unlikely to flow from this work, although it may be possible to identify examples of councils whose approach is particularly cost effective or offers good returns in terms of more effective deployment of resources, or increased focus and effectiveness in service delivery.


  Another issue on which you may welcome a technical note is the availability of alternative arrangements as the fallback option in any future mayoral referendums (Qns 458-466).

  As established by section 31 of the Act, alternative arrangements are only available as an option for district councils in the area of a county council, where the district's population on 30 June 1999 was less than 85,000 (as estimated by the Registrar General).

  For local authorities other than these small shire districts, the only route to alternative arrangements when new constitutions were adopted was if they were specified as the fallback in a mayoral referendum which resulted in a "No" vote. This was possible under s25 and s27 of the Act, although only Brighton and Hove took that course.

  Once councils have implemented a new constitution under s25, the rules as to future changes to those arrangements are governed by regulations made under sections 30 and 33 of the Act. For England, these are the Local Authorities (Changing Executive Arrangements and Alternative Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2002 (SI 2001/1003). As before the possibilities are different for small districts, which have the option of moving between executive and alternative arrangements if they so decide. But so far as other councils are concerned, if they have already moved to a new constitution and decide to revisit (perhaps because of a petition) the mayoral option, they may only specify as the consequence of a "No" vote retention of the executive arrangements they are operating at the time of the referendum.

  In summary, therefore, the legislation provides that now new constitutions are—or shortly will be—in place, only small shire district councils may move away from executive arrangements and back to a committee system.

A D Whetnall

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