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