Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by North Yorkshire County Council Liberal Democrat Group (LGA 26)

ROLE OF THE OPPOSITION AND EXECUTIVE

  As the largest opposition group our observations of the new structures are coloured by our position in the system which North Yorkshire County Council has been operating since September 2000.

  While the Executive can and do make many decisions in a slightly quicker way than under the committee system there are many negative points to the new system of decision making. We always had given many delegated powers to our committees and decisions were in many cases speedy and uncontroversial. With the Executive system the debates in the Executive are not robust as all the views are from one side of the political spectrum. This is not democracy, local people have expected differing points of view to be articulated so that good sound decisions could be made. The new structures have diminished this capacity. Debates at full Council do not fulfil this role as the debates are more structured and it is usually too late to make change, the Conservative group are whipped and follow the views of the Executive. Whatever the Executive decides goes.

  Backbenchers from all groups feel cut off from the Executive and struggle to keep up with changes they play no part in, debates now tend to be only on principles and not on detail. The officers no longer have wide member input and the discipline of having to justify their views to opposition members. The Executive itself seems unwilling to listen to the views of others and the views of Scrutiny Committees, this may be the fault of our system but there is a strong temptation for all executives to behave in this way.

SCRUTINY AND OVERVIEW

  Many members find it unsatisfactory but as yet the procedures are still developing. Many members see no point to it at all at the moment. There has been very little policy input and the Executive seems disinterested in our views. We would like to see some statutory guidelines as to the number of Scrutiny Chairs which are offered to the opposition, the administration has made sure that they have chairs to the most important services which rather makes a mockery of impartiality and effective scrutiny.

  We are finding that the relationship between officers and scrutiny committees has as yet not developed, officers are often finding the different emphasis by members on questioning rather than them producing reports difficult to cope with. There are still too few staff dedicated to the scrutiny role and until there is an increase scrutiny will remain a very poor relation to the Executive. Senior officers are naturally developing very close working relationships with their executive member which in turn makes their relationship with the scrutiny committee difficult.

  Members like to be given a clear task and scrutiny often does not provide a clear role with a defined outcome leaving members feeling dissatisfied and that their time has been wasted. The committee system did allow all councillors an opportunity to participate and take part in decision making which even if they were on the wrong side of the result left them feeling that they had participated.

  The county council services are so large and complicated that it is not possible to look at just one small area of the service.

  The overview side of scrutiny has not been used to great effect as yet.

  There have been several "call in" of executive decisions but again the Executive appeared to dismiss the views of the committees.

  While it is obvious that at this time backbenchers are unhappy with their role they do need to be more proactive and find new ways of working.

BACKBENCHERS

  They feel cut off and have little to add to council decisions and have much less participation than before. How are new members expected to develop an interest and knowledge through the new system, the old committee system allowed knowledge to be accrued over time.

  Backbenchers in North Yorkshire have always worked hard in their communities and in the rural areas most work closely with their parish councils to see that services are delivered to their communities and also to represent their views.

  All too often under the new structures backbenchers feel they are being lectured at and dictated to by the Executive.

  We have experienced problems with the issuing of press releases by backbenchers and we are developing new protocols to allow free speech.

BEST VALUE

  Best Value is being enjoyed by many members who have found that it allows members to meet middle tier officers and talk about services in detail. They also feel that they are making constructive comments, which actually leads to a change in the way services are delivered to the public.

  Best Value is effective in achieving change but it is time consuming and costly. Too often few savings are identified and many service improvements are suggested which leads to difficult budget decisions. The role of members is developing slowly and a more streamlined approach is emerging. Officers have found Best Value difficult and also they have found it hard to understand the role of members in the process.

OFFICER—MEMBER RELATIONSHIP

  Officers need to develop new ways of working with the new structures and how they work with all members. The new structures are not going to allow middle ranking officers a chance to have an input into the democratic structures which in future years could lead to a gap in their knowledge and their personal development.

AREA COMMITTEES

  Potentially these are a very useful contact with the public in a large geographical county such as ours. Members are finding that they can be used to debate local issues and as public participation is encouraged it also makes the council and decision making seem more relevant. There are too few delegated powers as yet but hopefully they will be trusted in future to deliver more decisions.

ALLOWANCES

  The system of members' allowances varies greatly from County to County and it would be an improvement if there was a standardised national scheme as has been agreed by the Welsh Assembly for all Welsh councils. Although the attendance allowance system was bureaucratic and seen as a poor system encouraging the culture of meetings the fixed allowance is seen as unfair to those councillors who give more time to their duties. For example members who sit on appeals panels give hours of time for which now they receive no more than those who do little more than attend two meetings a month. The legal position of allowing payments for substitute members also needs addressing. For the first time I have witnessed members refusing to cover tasks which once they did willingly as they feel they are working more than their fair share. In North Yorkshire the Police Authority has agreed a new scheme of allowances, which means that Police Authority members are being paid more than a county councillor, when this used to be just one committee of the county council. The Independent Panels are struggling with a difficult task and national guidance would at least set a base in the whole system. We do still feel that members could be paid units for the work they agree to undertake so that those able and willing to do more will feel valued. Councillors are always sensitive to voting for pay rises for themselves and a national scheme would remove this embarrassment. The present rates in North Yorkshire will not encourage new, younger recruits; we still have far too many white male post middle-aged councillors diminishing our local democracy.

  We also believe that all councillors should be allowed to opt into council pension schemes as being a councillor often leads to a career standstill and a loss in potential pension.

BETTER DECISION-MAKING

  Decision-making is speedier but it is not democratic when many County Councillors are cut out of the decision-making process. Local government has always been close to the people allowing active representation by local councillors on local issues. This is becoming increasingly difficult under the Executive system.

  The old system was often protracted and had too much paper but to achieve change there are no short cuts to democracy if change is to be achieved successfully.


 
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