Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Leader and Deputy Leader of Somerset County Council (LGA 08)


  With regard to the local authority's duty to promote economic, social and environmental well-being, there is a feeling that this Act has produced a more "joined-up" approach to items on the agenda. Where there were items that were high on the public's agenda which appeared to be low on the Council's priorities, this gap has been bridged in respect of issues such as purchasing locally produced food and energy production and usage. This is very positive in that the Council is being seen to deliver its objectives.


  The new arrangements with respect to Executives, including elected Mayors and the Cabinet model have been less well received. Far from making the process more transparent, this has proved less flexible. Having to state what will be discussed at the Executive three months in advance has proved a hindrance. For example, it eliminates the flexibility to debate something urgent at little notice, if the public need three months advanced warning.

  The view of this Council is that people are more concerned with things that touch their everyday lives, such as their children's schooling or their elderly relative's care and are not at all interested in the structure of local government. This structure seems to have led to a worse understanding of the process, rather than a better one.


  Looking at provisions relating to the conduct of councillors and officers; these are quite simply "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut". This Council has always been run very professionally and the integrity of its members has been of the highest standard. The Code of Conduct and Ethical Framework are deemed excessive to handle the very isolated instances of misconduct that may occur. Similarly, a National Code is not welcomed as it would lack flexibility.


  The use of the rolling register and postal voting during Local Authority elections has been a good thing. This Council didn't pilot E-voting but suspects that it's not inconvenience that stops people voting but rather a lack of engagement with the political process. Local government would flourish if left to find its own ways of working; and increased local awareness and interest would surely follow.

  With regard to the frequency of elections, if elections are held too often the electorate will become even more disinterested and confused. Also, it restricts the time that members have to implement policies and see them through unencumbered by the pressures of worrying about campaigning for votes. The present four-yearly cycle enables them to put in place long term strategic plans, rather than having to concentrate on immediate, short-term results.


  Using the independent panel was considered a useful mechanism with regard to Members' allowances.


  The Liberal Democrats are pleased that the bill encourages authorities to work in partnership with others for the benefit of the community, which was previously limited.

  Also, following intervention and pressure by the Liberal Democrats, it is reassuring to note that the Executive must meet in public and publish papers at least three days in advance of its meetings, very much in line with Liberal Democrat beliefs about accountability and open government, resulting in public decision making.

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Prepared 22 April 2002