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

Memorandum by Cumbria County Council (LGA 33)



  The County Council consulted widely on the options for changing the decision-making processes in line with the requirements of the Local Government Act 2000.

  The expectation was that the new system of decision-making would:

    —  be more efficient;

    —  be more transparent;

    —  be more accountable;

    —  be more representative;

    —  encourage wider community involvement in the Council; and

    —  provide better quality services.


  After the consultation exercises it was agreed that the County Council would adopt the model of Leader and Cabinet. This system has been in place since the County Council elections in June 2001. We are currently undertaking (through a cross party working group) a review of the Constitution. The group will report to Council on its recommendations for improvement in late May 2002.



  The Cabinet meets fortnightly and this does enable decisions to be made quickly. However, this is constrained by the requirements to publish key decisions in advance and the current definition of a key decision. It is also constrained by a Policy Framework much of which was agreed under the old system and therefore not designed to enable a modern cabinet style of decision-making. This constraint will disappear as Policy Framework documents are updated and renewed. The other constraint is the significant absence of delegation to individual cabinet members and officers in the new Constitution. This means most decisions have had to be made by Cabinet.

  This has also meant considerable commitment from the Leader and Cabinet who have found that the new system requires the equivalent of full-time work. It has put considerable work pressure on the few whilst successfully managing to exclude the majority of councillors, much to their chagrin.

Transparency and Accountability

  The Leader, the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Members are clearly identified as being responsible for specific areas of the Council. Their responsibility for decision making is clear and explicit within their published portfolios. Cabinet and Local Committees have also had to account to scrutiny for decisions that have been called in. All meetings of the Cabinet and Scrutiny are held in public unless they are considering exempt information.

  Who made decisions was not quite so clear under the old system when decisions were made by Committees.

Reflecting Local Opinion

  The logic of the new decision-making system was that it would allow "backbench" Members the time to concentrate on community leadership and act as advocates and brokers in their communities. This would in turn enable them to better reflect local opinion.

  The backbench members have a key role:

    —  in scrutiny of the executive;

    —  in local decision-making through Local Committees (on a limited range of devolved responsibilities and with a limited devolved budget, much of which concentrates on local highways matters);

    —  in community planning in a limited way through a range of local mechanisms—LSPs, Neighbourhood Forums, Neighbourhood Renewal etc; and

    —  in policy development through Scrutiny, Consultative Forums of communities of interest and in Full Council.

  However, it is not clear how they can effectively represent local opinion in the new decision-making system in a systematic way that influences and informs policy development and decision-making. Many are seriously concerned about this and feel, to a significant extent, that they have been effectively disenfranchised.

  The demands of the decision-making systems also make it difficult for Leader and Cabinet to fulfil their community leadership roles and responsibilities owing to workload pressures.

  We have had County Council Area Committees, based on District Council boundaries, since 1996. Under the new system they have continued as County Council Local Committees and continue to have devolved executive responsibilities for a range of services and budgets. They also have some non-executive responsibilities for community planning with other tiers of local government. Local Committees can raise local issues at Full Council on behalf of the communities they represent.

  The County Council is also involved in strategic Partnerships. In Cumbria there is a Cumbria-wide Strategic Partnership and four Local Strategic Partnerships. As required in the Government's guidance the local authorities have led on the development of these partnerships but are significantly in the minority on membership. For example, the Cumbria Strategic Partnership has 40 plus members of which seven are local authority Members. The County Council understands the need to work in partnership with others in the "wicked issues" and the need for joined-up thinking and action. The concern is about the "democratic deficit". As such partnerships start to develop community strategies that set the vision for Cumbria in 10-15 years where is the democratic accountability? How do we ensure they truly reflect local opinion? Our assumption is that this is the role of the elected members on the partnership who have a democratic mandate to represent the views of local communities but if we are in a minority how can we ensure this happens?

Involving the Public

  This is a key area of concern which the Constitution Review Group is currently addressing. Public involvement at Cabinet and at Council is minimal and if it happens at all it is issue based. More positively, a Public Participation Scheme operates at Local Committee level, there is an extensive network of Neighbourhood Forums, and there are broadly based Consultative Forums on which views are sought across the whole range of the Council's activities. The current administration is committed, however, to extending public participation further and in new and imaginative ways.

  Local Committees have experimented with different methods of public participation. Some rotate their meetings around the local area; others leaflet local communities and give communities an opportunity to raise local concerns; and all have promoted the public participation schemes through mailshots to communities.

Provide Better Quality Services

  The Leader and Cabinet are closely involved with the Officers in the decision-making that should lead to better quality services. However, a weakness in the new system is how the intelligence about services gathered by all the Members feeds in and influences decision-making. The mechanism on policy development would be through consultation by the Executive with Scrutiny. Scrutiny would also be able to call in the decisions made by the Executive on implementing policies. However, this would not necessarily pick up all the intelligence held by all Members. Many backbench Members feel extremely limited in how they can influence and inform decision-making by the new system. The present administration wishes to ensure, and is seeking to ensure, that appropriate mechanisms are put in place to enable all members to contribute positively to the new system. How this might work in practice, however, is difficult to determine.

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Prepared 12 September 2002