Memorandum by Harrogate Borough Council
1.1 Following the invitation by the Government
to consider the effectiveness of the Local Government Act 2000,
this Council wishes to submit its views.
1.2 The Council has tried to make the paper
as balanced as it can. Where it has identified weaknesses, it
has set out where action has been, or could be, taken to improve
2.1 Speed of Decision Making:
2.1.1 It is plain that decision making is
quicker under the new arrangements and, to that extent, more efficient.
Cabinet meetings do not last as long as committees. Individual
Members make decisions fairly quickly at their decision making
2.1.2 The new framework is therefore more
reactive and less cumbersome.
2.2.1 Individual decision making does enhance
the accountability of individual Members. It is easier to identify
who made a decision when an individual Member is involved.
2.2.2 As far as the Cabinet is concerned,
it is also plain who the Executive is and where the power lies
and, therefore, there is a degree of enhanced accountability at
2.3.1 There is transparency of Cabinet decision
making, in the sense that decisions are always made in public
in this Council.
3.1 Members Feel Disenfranchised:
3.1.1 There is a clear and marked loss of
interest among back-bench Members. The new system is not regarded
as inclusive, and there is very little opportunity for Opposition
Members to change minds (as opposed to making debating points)
in Council meetings.
3.1.2 Apart from the Planning Committee
and in some limited cases in the General Purposes and Regulatory
Committees, back-bench Members are not part of the decision making
machinery and minds cannot be changed during a debate, as was
often the case in the past (since many issues were not intrinsically
3.1.3 This Council has endeavoured to address
this issue by completely re-casting its overview and scrutiny
system (Scrutiny Commissions), and there is evidence that the
new mechanism is working better.
3.1.4 It also seems to be the case that
back-bench Members increasingly suffer from an acute lack of knowledge
on a number of issues, which may be particularly marked when Members
are canvassing and endeavouring to address issues raised by members
of the public. It is now the case that, in order to find out information,
Members now have to seek it by scrutinising and scanning not just
the Cabinet meetings, but also the meetings of individual decision
makers, and have to make more strenuous efforts to be fully informed,
which was not the case in the committee system where most major
issues were identified on service committee agendas and were thoroughly
ventilated in discussion. Some Members have suggested that this
lack of awareness as to current issues and the service background
actually impedes the development of their community role since
the electorate expect Members to be expert in most, if not all,
areas of Council activity.
3.2 Pre-Decision Call In
3.2.1 This does not seem to be working at
all. Some issues have been scrutinised after the event, but no
single attempt has been made to call in an issue before the event.
3.2.2 There are probably several reasons
for that, but it may be because, whatever the views of a Scrutiny
Commission, the issue must be remitted to Cabinet where Opposition
Members have no right to debate these issues.
3.2.3 Back-bench Members of the Majority
Group may be reluctant to be seen to challenge a Cabinet decision
for obvious reasons.
3.3 Timely Decision Making Informed by Debate
3.3.1 There is a serious lack of opportunity
for timely debate and the consideration of alternative views before
decision making. Under the committee system, decisions were debated
in the presence of the press and public and on the basis of recommendations
by professional officers which could be challenged by opposition
groups at the time the decisions were made.
3.3.2 The opportunity for informed and public
debate has been lost. The new system does not generate policy
debate in a public forum. All this was predictable and has resulted
in a serious loss of press interest in local government at the
time the Government would wish to see it increased.
3.3.3 This Council has tried to address
this issue by encouraging more debate. The Cabinet have shown
themselves willing to submit issues to the Scrutiny Commissions
and they have shown themselves willing to undertake investigations.
3.4 External Scrutiny
3.4.1 This is shrouded in doubt in two-tier
Authorities. It would appear that the County Council has been
given the power of compulsion over the various Health Care Trusts
and Health Authorities and that the scrutiny of the Police has
been given to the Police Authority. The lack of a real role on
these issues for district councils is significant, particularly
in the light of the duty imposed on districts in relation to community
3.4.2 Resources: Scrutiny has tended
not to be well-resourced. Local government officers often do not
have the expertise to challenge external bodies, such as statutory
undertakers, and local authorities have not found it easy to provide
the resources necessary to carry out meaningful research.
3.4.3 This Council has addressed this by
appointing an additional Scrutiny Officer but there are real limitations
on the impact one Officer can have.
3.5.1 Cabinet Meetings: Cabinet meetings
in public, which were eventually supported by the Government,
do not seem at all effective.
3.5.2 The Government originally envisaged
that "political" advice would be given in private, then
changed it to require that "key decisions" be made in
3.5.3 The Cabinet, in an effort to be transparent,
decided to have its debates in public, but in fact it is very
difficult for Cabinet Members to "debate" an issue when
the local press might be present looking for signs of dissension.
That was of course immaterial when the dissension came from Opposition
Groups, but single party Cabinets need to be seen to accept shared
responsibility (the Government has never allowed the press to
cover its meetings).
3.5.4 Collective (Shared) Responsibility:
While having its advantages, it also means that Opposition Members
cannot serve in the Cabinet unless there is a formal coalition
with an agreed programme.
3.5.5 This Council endeavoured to be inclusive,
by including an Opposition Member, but he quite rightly felt he
had to resign once the Government insisted on the concept of collective
3.6 Individual Decision Making: The
obvious weakness is that no "debate" takes place in
respect of those decisions.
3.7 Key Decisions
3.7.1 This framework simply does not work.
The Government's definition of "key decision" is ineffectual
since it does not require "important" decisions to be
identified. What is important, is often a difference in an approach
to policy, which would produce different outcomes for different
3.7.2 Furthermore, the definition of a "key
decision" is imprecise and the final onus is on the decision
taker. This means that there is likely to be inconsistency within,
let alone between, local authorities even if they were inclined
to introduce another layer of bureaucracy to try to guarantee
some uniformity of approach.
3.7.3 The Government requires authorities
to consider different key decision financial thresholds for every
single service or function. This would require the Council to
have probably a hundred different financial thresholds, which
would be unworkable. It also requires authorities to seek to align
their thresholds with those of adjacent authorities in the same
tier, ie in our case with other shire districts. Yet, generally
speaking, the purchase of service equipment or works costs the
same wherever you are, for example, the purchase cost of a vehicle
in Leeds is likely to be the same as in York, Northallerton or
Harrogate, so this makes no sense. We supplied our key decision
information to our neighbours but have heard nothing from them.
3.7.4 Key decisions must be pre-notified
in the forward plan which must be advertised. This Council has
complied with all the criteria laid down. Copies of the new forward
plan are available each month in thirteen different locations
across the District. The one at the Council Offices has been inspected
on three occasions in over 12 months, and two of these were by
the same person.
3.7.5 The key decision framework is not
working, could not work and should be scrapped since it is of
absolutely no interest to anyone. The Government consulted on
this issue last June but has not yet reported back.
3.8 The Appointment of Chief Officers:
The Government's insistence on appointment by the full Council
is in direct contravention of employment law. It is clear that
Industrial Tribunals expect appointments to be made by the interviewing
bodies. The possibility that the Council could reject an appointment
or, worse, substitute an alternative appointment to that of the
interviewing body, seems to me to be putting any local authority
on very dangerous ground.
3.9 The Group System: The Group meeting
remains the focus of back-bench influence in any Majority Group,
which merely reinforces the Group system as opposed to undermining
it, which was the Government's original intention.
4. OTHER ISSUES
4.1 Policy: It is very difficult
to define "policy". Yet the Executive is supposed only
to act within policy. This was never an issue under the committee
system when due authorities could be given. The Government's answer
to this now seems to be that something is only "policy"
if it is included in a particular set of policy documents (the
policy framework), which ignores the kind of policy guidelines
set by most Councils over many years.
4.2 Budget: What is budget? It is
sometimes not clear cut whether something is within budget or
not. For instance, is the use of underspends in the current year
the use of expenditure within budget?
4.3 Officer Issues: Officers have
to develop a way to service fairly both Scrutiny and the Cabinet.
Civil servants are only responsible to the Government; Officers
are responsible to both sides. That can put some Officers in difficulties
when they have privately advised Cabinet Members on an issue and
are then called to the Scrutiny Committee.
4.4 Confusion Caused by Two Tiers:
Quite apart from the uncertainties associated with the scrutiny
function as mentioned above, there are issues of service delivery,
for example, where there is a duplication or confusion of roles
where the scrutiny function is less effective because services
are split between the tiers.
4.5 Confusion about Planning Roles:
This Authority has had serious difficulty in trying to resolve
the confusion caused by the Government when it made Forward Planning
an Executive requirement and Development Control a committee requirement.
The public have had difficulties in understanding the difference
between the role of the Chairman of the Planning Committee and
Planning Cabinet Member and, indeed, Members have often been unsure
whether to ask a question of one, or the other, or both. Similar
considerations apply to the Environmental Health Cabinet Member
and the Chairman of the Regulatory Committee.
4.6 Bureaucracy: Far from resulting
in less bureaucracy, this Council has actually had more meetings
(an increase of almost 100 per cent) as a consequence of having
to develop scrutiny roles, which has often involved consideration
of issues both at Cabinet and in Scrutiny, and sometimes in more
than one Scrutiny Committee. This will be increased further as
the various scrutiny panels and sub-groups begin work. Moreover,
the new system is hide-bound by regulations on how everything
should be dealt with. There is only one Act but something like
17 sets of regulations, not to mention directions and over 300
pages of guidance, and all of it keeps being amended or revised
4.7 Concentration of Power: While
this Council has a number of checks and safeguards in its Constitution,
it is inevitable that new political frameworks concentrate power
in relatively few hands. That is more true perhaps of mayoralties
and city managers than of Cabinet systems, but essentially the
system does not involve decision making by elected representatives
of the entire community, as was the case on major issues under
the committee system, particularly where decisions were required
to be endorsed by the full Council.
4.8 Poor Links between Officers and Members
4.8.1 It has always been the case in local
government that as Officers developed their careers through the
committee system, whether working through sub-committees or service
committees, they gradually came to know and understand the political
process, and that also built understanding between Officers and
Members. That process is now breaking down. Officers have missed
their exposure to Members, particularly back-bench Members, through
committees. Many Members no longer have the same connections with
Officers that often allowed them to resolve an issue in an informal
way, simply by knowing who to approach.
4.8.2 This Council has tried to address
some of these issues by redefining its scrutiny role to emphasise
service links between Members and Officers directly engaged in
4.9 Lack of Expertise
4.9.1 Previously, Members gained experience
and got to know and understand service delivery through prolonged
exposure to service committees. The new system only really encourages
that expertise to develop amongst Cabinet Members. All Members
do want to operate scrutiny responsibly and as a constructive
role. However, the lack of expertise (which will be exacerbated
after the elections) makes this aim more difficult to achieve
and there is a great danger that detailed knowledge too will be
found in only a few hands.
4.9.2 This Council has therefore refined
its original scrutiny arrangements in order to let Scrutiny Commissions
take responsibility for individual services, in order to develop
that expertise, but it does not develop the same comprehensive
understanding that working with a service committee and professional
5.1 Paragraph 11 of the New Model Code of
Conduct (and its predecessor in Regulation 45 of the Local Authorities
(Executive and Alternative Arrangement) (Modification of Enactments
and Other Provisions) (England) Order 2001 has been drafted too
5.2 The principle that a scrutineer should
not scrutinise his own decision is fully accepted, but the wording
of paragraph 11 goes much further than is necessary to safeguard
5.3 Paragraph 11 requires a Member of the
Scrutiny Committee to declare that he has a prejudicial interest
where the matter under consideration by Scrutiny relates to a
decision made, or action taken by another Committee of the authority
of which he is a member. The problem experienced by my authority
essentially revolves around what is meant by "action taken"
by another Committee. The following examples hopefully illustrate
5.3.1 One of the Council's Scrutiny Committees
wish to scrutinise the Council's planning processes and procedures.
The majority (80 per cent +) of the Council's Scrutiny Committees
are also members of one or other of the Council's Planning Committees
(three Area Planning Sub-Committees and one parent Planning Committee).
All those Committees apply the Council's processes and procedures
when they determine applications for planning permission. The
Council's solicitor reached the view (confirmed by correspondence
with the DTLR) that all the Members of Scrutiny Committee who
were also Members of one of the Council's Planning Committees
had to declare a prejudicial interest on this matter because the
Planning Committees of which they were Members had applied the
processes and procedures and this was "action taken"
that related to the subject of scrutiny.
5.3.2 A proposal has been made that a Scrutiny
Committee should act as an advisory consultee in relation to any
proposals to change or make new planning policy. However, the
same problem has been encountered, due to the large proportion
of Members of the Scrutiny Committee who are also Members of one
or other of the Council's Planning Committees. All the Planning
Committees apply the Council's planning policy and this is to
be regarded as "action taken" with the result that those
members with dual membership are obliged to declare a prejudicial
interest and not take part. This has created much administrative
inconvenience, and seems to have the effect of excluding a large
number of Members from the scrutiny process for no obvious purpose.
It is submitted that the rule would make much more sense if it
was simply applied to decisions taken (ie only Members who decided
on the form of the Council's Planning processes and procedures
or the wording of the Council's Planning policy would have a prejudicial
interest and those who simply applied the same would not be caught).
6.1 The Council hopes that the Urban Affairs
Sub-Committee can make recommendations to deal with some of the
perceived weaknesses inherent in the new political framework.
Harrogate Borough Council