Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Liberal Democrats on Surrey County Council (LGA 03)


  It is apparent that there is considerable variation throughout the country in how local authorities have implemented political management changes following this act. Given that there were choices for both the public and local authorities, improvements (or otherwise) in democratic accountability and efficiency no doubt vary according to how these changes have been applied.

  There may well be differences that also result, in part, according to the political balance of councils. Councils with no overall political control enjoyed by one party may tend to have different outcomes from those where a single party has a comfortable majority.

  This assessment of the consequences of the 2000 Act for Surrey County Council is made from a point of view of a relatively small opposition party of 13 Members, out of a total of 76, and where the majority party has 51.

  A pilot scheme, on the model of a Leader and a collective Cabinet, plus 4 Scrutiny Committees ran from October 2000 through to elections in June 2001. There were also Best Value Review Committees and various Advisory Committees. After the elections, the constitution was altered to create six Select Committees, as during the pilot there had been duplication between the Scrutiny Committees and Advisory Committees, which were therefore, in effect, amalgamated.

  Local Committees are due to operate from April 2002. Until they have been operating for a reasonable length of time, it will not be possible to know what real powers they will enjoy, particularly with respect to the promotion of well-being.

  Central political management changes have been in effect for 16 months.


  There has been a dramatic reduction in the degree of democratic accountability. The main reasons for this are:

  1.  Decisions taken by an Executive of 10, meeting "officially" once a fortnight for 2 to 3 hours, cannot possibly be seen to be thorough in deliberations. "Unofficial" and "informal" Executive meetings have been invented to try to overcome time constraints, but are governed by no formal democratic processes.

  2.  All decisions are eventually "reported" to a full Council meeting, but there is no effective calling to account as questions need not be answered and debate is demonstrably pointless. Members in Council can comment adversely about Executive decisions but cannot formally record opposition by voting.

  3.  Petitions and questions from the public and non-Executive Members to both Executive and full Council involve procedures which dilute the effectiveness of such actions. The value of questioning Executive Members in Council is constrained by their unwillingness or perhaps inability to answer questions without officer advice such as was readily available in service committees.

  4.  The capacity for scrutiny, either through anticipation of a pending decision, or through a "call-in" procedure is, to date, ineffective, following a substantial loss of access to relevant information by non-Executive Members and the public. Time limits also prevent effective use of scrutiny.

  5.  Although full Council meetings are held slightly more frequently there has been very little say over policy, and certainly much less than before the changes were made.

  6.  The work of an Executive portfolio holder is virtually full-time, and tends to exclude the participation of people who have full time employment or other commitments, or are less well-off.

  Evidence of these failures are apparent in a drop in attendance by both press and public at decision making meetings, and in the demographic profile of the Executive and Council.


  There has also been a dramatic drop in the efficiency of decision making. This is evidenced by:

  1.  Preparations of major statutory plans requiring the agreement of full Council and national government departmental approval have had to be submitted to government before approval by either Executive or Council, owing to inter alia Executive overload. This seldom happened under previous arrangements

  2.  The time required to be devoted to business by Executive Members tends to lead to responsibility being taken by those who have that time, rather than the best abilities.

  3.  It is clear that with a single Executive Member being responsible for decisions covering a whole portfolio or service, sometimes that Member will not be good enough or will not have time, whereas with decisions being taken by committees such weaker Members are less vulnerable. A committee taking a decision is also less in awe of an officer.

  4.  It has been apparent that Executive Members have frequently made proposals for decisions without understanding the papers or background prepared for them. There have rarely been any deviations from or additions to officer recommendations at any Executive meeting.

  5.  Following from these observations, it has become apparent that senior officers have become far more powerful in almost every department, if not all. This is becoming known as "officer creep".

  6.  Because Select (scrutiny) Committees may only "advise", there has been no bite and no effective opposition to what the Executive proposes or decides.

  The most dramatic evidence so far for this lack of efficiency and loss of democratic process occurred during the setting of this year's budget and Council Tax. Because of the process there was no effective debate, no scrutiny and, in effect, no opposition.


  1.  There has been a reduction in the individual Member's understanding of the political consequences of Council's decisions.

  2.  There is has been a lessening of political debate, exchange of ideas and creation of solutions to service needs, by Members of all political parties.

  3.  There is a reduction in involvement by ALL Members except Executive Members, leading to loss of motivation and questions as to whether it is worthwhile to continue in such public service.

  4.  There is now little contact and mutual knowledge of skills and interests between Members and lead officers. Most people's talents are now being wasted, while others have responsibilities beyond their capacities.

  5.  Since the demise of Service Committees there is no forum for Members to acquire in-depth knowledge of services and there is a question-mark over the development of an informed Executive of the future.

  6.  There has been a marked lowering of morale.


  There was no evidence that Surrey County Council required changes to improve the ethics or behaviour of its Members or Officers. To date, neither deterioration nor improvement of standards has been demonstrated. However, the "fettering" of Members, especially in some planning circumstances has been both confusing and resented.


  To opposition Members, these powers have not been made manifest. It is noted that a new language is being introduced into Council papers, much of which is meaningless and which creates suspicions that there is little depth to some of the changes being encouraged or introduced.

  The freeing of local government to form partnerships, to trade services more freely and to devolve some decision-making to local communities are generally welcome and will probably, eventually, improve services. However, restrictions on what can be done within the main service areas of education, social services, highways and transport, public protection and services to young people, not least by financial constraints, make all the improvements consequent to the powers to promote well-being very marginal, and at the cost of a distinct decline in accountability.


  It is understood that the Act intended to achieve a number of worthwhile objectives: to improve democratic interest and accountability; to prevent corruption; to speed decision-making; to involve more people and enterprises in governance and service provision through partnerships; and so on.

  However, although it is early days in the new circumstances, our conclusion so far is that most of these objectives have not been met, will not be met, and in some key areas there is a net loss.

  We do not believe this negative outcome to be the direct result of how the majority party here in Surrey has chosen to implement political management changes. All parties were consulted, and by and large the outcome achieved broad agreement, within the guidelines set by the government.

  Rather it is the concentration of decision-making in the hands of so few, and the lack of "bite" in all other processes, including scrutiny, which has lowered the effectiveness of the Council. We have understood that it was intended that the Council and Scrutiny Committees, together with the Best Value regime, would set broad policy and hold Executive Members to account.

  On paper our new constitution would seem to allow all of this. Nevertheless, the Council is too powerless, and the scrutiny system too fettered to fulfil these intentions in practice.

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