Memorandum by Plymouth City Council (LGA
In accordance with the expressed wishes of Central
Government, Plymouth City Council began the process of modernising
its democratic structures well in advance of the Local Government
Act 2000, in fact following closely upon the publication of the
White Papers, and in particular "Local Leadership, Local
At an early stage a positive decision was taken
to focus upon the modernisation of democratic arrangements by
starting, as it were from the "bottom", that is in the
areas of Standards and scrutiny rather than the executive. A further
decision was taken to publish reports to every meeting of the
Council's former Policy and Resources Committee (held on an eight
weekly cycle) in order to maintain the impetus towards modernised
structures. As such, Plymouth has a catalogue of reports detailing
the progress of its preparations.
An early experiment took place in which the
Council set up Scrutiny Panels to look at pre decision, post decision
and policy implementation. By and large these early experiments
were well received and there was some good feedback. However,
difficulties were experienced in implementing and taking forward
scrutiny reports arising from these exercises.
The Council nonetheless learnt from the experience.
Proposals for the appointments of a Standards
Committee first came before the Council in 1999, finally being
implemented in June 2000. The Council has a Standards Committee
consisting of eight persons, five elected members and three independent
persons, and terms of reference which permit the independent members
only to sit when hearing complaints regarding member conduct.
Initially the work of the Standards Committee
was rather slow, mainly because the Local Government Act 2000,
Part III and associated regulations, were delayed. In this sense
the Standards Committee simply monitored the development of the
At another level, however, the work of the independent
members in considering complaints to the Standards Committee has
been brisk. Two formal complaints have been reported to the Council's
Executive Committee and a number of other complaints have been
dealt with either informally (because no action need be taken)
or have not been found to justify reports to the executive because
no breach of any code has been found to exist.
The experience has been salutary. A number of
lessons have been learnt regarding the difficulties of the complaints
process, and in particular the Monitoring Officer has experienced
first hand precisely how difficult it is to deal with such matters
in a political environment. The resource requirement of this type
of work are very substantial.
In May 2001, the Council took steps towards
the creation of a form of Executive, through the setting up of
an Executive Committee and a Social Services Committee. Alongside
this, full-blown scrutiny and Standards Committees were introduced,
along with Area Committees. All of this was established through
a trial constitution, specifically for the purpose of enabling
Officers and members to experience what full executive arrangements
might be like.
In terms of decision making, this scheme of
delegation reflecting consultation with Portfolio holders were
seen as the first step towards direct political accountability.
A delegated decision form, and format has now been established
offering transparency to the delegated decision making process.
Key decisions have been defined and forward
planning processes established which is now beginning to inform
not just the Executive decision making process but also the Senior
Management and Resource Planning elements of the democratic process.
On scrutiny, individual panels have been established
with full powers of call in and pre-decision, post decision and
policy development powers. Needless to say, in a political environment,
some initial difficulties have been experienced with the full
blown scrutiny process and adjustments had to be made to the constitution
in so far as scrutiny is concerned. Again, resource demands to
service the scrutiny process are substantial and conflict with
the resourcing of service provision.
Standards Committee exists as before.
One of the most interesting aspects of the new
constitutional experiment, however, has been the establishment
of area committees. A decision in principle was taken at the start
that no set format would be laid down for Area committees. By
and large matters were left to ward members to establish their
own format and ways of handling agendas. It is fair to say, however,
that throughout the City the Area Committees have attracted a
great deal of public interest, with up to 120 persons attending
recent area committees.
Again, additional resourcing is necessary, is
not adequately provided and places increasing pressures on existing
staff which conflict with the pressure to reduce administrative
As a part of the formal introduction of the
Local Government Act 2000, Part II, the Council carried out the
required statutory consultation in relation to what were then
the three options. Views from amongst the local population were
split, but the result of the consultation showed a significant
minority in favour of the one of the elected mayor options. Therefore,
in accordance with the statutory guidance the Council elected
to hold a referendum stating its preferred option as an elected
mayor with cabinet and a fallback option of leader with cabinet.
That referendum took place in January 2002.
The Council decided that the referendum should
be full postal and employed the assistance of the Electoral Reform
Society in order to hold the ballot. The process of the ballot
went relatively smoothly, with only one or two minor difficulties.
Turnout was approximately 42 per cent (39.6 per cent of which
were valid votes) which was higher than that of previous referenda
(with the exception of one which involved the joint general election
ballot). The count was observed by the Electoral Commission and
the result showed 59 per cent in favour of the leader with cabinet
and 41 per cent in favour of elected mayor with cabinet, with
the minority of either spoilt or ballot papers not otherwise admitted.
Overall, the cost to the authority (an additional
revenue item) was within the region of £110,000.
I hope you will understand that Plymouth has
taken a very measured approach to the introduction of new democratic
arrangements under the Local Government Act 2000. Far from approaching
a "big bang" approach, the Council has chosen to introduce
various elements of the new arrangements on an incremental basis.
But that does not mean that all has gone smoothly. By and large,
a number of members still believe that they have been distanced
from the organisation by the introduction of these new arrangements.
It is true that their involvement in area committees has offset
the lack of involvement of some of them within the executive decision
making process, and that this role coupled with scrutiny has kept
the majority of them employed in Council business. However, "change
fatigue" is very evident.