Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by London Borough of Barnet (LGA 31)

1.  AN INTRODUCTION

  This briefing provides Barnet council's response to an invitation, by the inquiry of the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, for evidence into the effective working of the Local Government Act 2000.

  The council wholeheartedly supported the aspirations and requirements of the Act.

  The briefing outlines how the council has complied with the Act to introduce new decision making structures which, it believes, are greatly enhancing the effectiveness of this authority in delivering services which create opportunity for all.

  Barnet Council is committed to creating a modern and attractive borough where all residents can enjoy the highest standards of education, the best job opportunities and a real quality of life.

2.  THE LONDON BOROUGH OF BARNET

  Barnet which is situated in north London, was formed following local government reorganisation in 1965.

  It covers 8,663 Hectares, has a population of 340,000 and enjoys an ethnically diverse community living in and around the communities of Hendon, Finchley, Edgware, Golders Green, Whetstone and Barnet.

  The council currently has 60 elected members representing 20 wards. This will increase to 63 councillors representing 21 wards in the local elections of May 2002.

  There is currently a Labour and Liberal Democrat joint administration.

  The council, which employs a staff of 9,300 is the largest employer in the borough.

3.  THE COUNCIL'S DECISION MAKING STRUCTURE

  In recent years the council has undertaken a comprehensive and constructively critical review of all its decision making processes.

  While this has been in response to a range of Government initiatives—(including Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People (July 1998)—it has also been driven by the council's determination to improve its own policy making and service delivery.

  In particular the council was acutely aware that the traditional local government structures, particularly the unwieldy committee system, were inadequate to meet the demands of the 21st Century.

  The council also believed they were not conducive to the development of a truly open system of local government where all residents have the opportunity to influence both decision making and service delivery.

  As a result the council introduced, in November 1998, a radical new structure for local government, based on a leader/cabinet model—or an interim basis

4.  THE NEW LOCAL GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE IN BARNET

  In order to determine the best way forward, in the long term, Barnet council undertook a comprehensive review of the existing structure through a special member-level scrutiny commission.

  The commission met regularly between October 2000 and April 2001. It received papers and presentations from officers on the requirements of the Local Government Act 2000, considered guidance from the then DETR and heard evidence from a wide range of interested groups.

  The findings revealed a clear preference for the now established leader and cabinet executive model of local government for Barnet.

  The commission's report—to this effect—was subsequently endorsed by the council in May 2001.

  The council's new constitution was agreed at the annual council meeting later that month.

  The council's new structure is based on the cabinet and leader approach to policy making with the establishment of comprehensive, member-led scrutiny mechanisms.

THE CABINET

  The Cabinet, which formerly exercised its influence through meetings of a politically balanced policy and Implementation committee, now comprises members from the political groups which form the administration.

  It is chaired by the Leader of the council.

  The Cabinet meets formally, and in public, to exercise its decision-making functions.

  In addition, while a number of cabinet committees have been established to lead in key policy areas, executive functions are delegated to individual cabinet members and council officers.

SCRUTINY

  The council's overview and scrutiny function is now effectively delivered through seven service focused scrutiny committees and a cabinet overview and scrutiny committee, which has the power to "call-in" executive decisions.

  This power is exercised post-decision, but prior to implementation, and applies to decisions of the cabinet, cabinet committees and individual cabinet members.

  It is also able to call-in decisions of area committees and those of individual officers.

THE WHOLE COUNCIL

  The council retains responsibility for all of those functions required by legislation and a number of "local choice" functions.

  To make the process more effective, the exercise of some council functions is delegated to a small number of specific committees.

  These are the general functions committee; planning and environment committee; area planning sub-committees and area environment sub-committees and to officers.

  In addition the whole council meets, outside the very formal constraints of a council meeting, as the council policy conference.

  This gives individual councillors the opportunity to ask questions of the Cabinet and debate policy initiatives promoted by the administration, the opposition and individual non-executive members.

  It also provides an opportunity for members to make comment on the work of the cabinet.

  This provides an effective forum for debating policy initiatives in an environment free of many of the restrictions which would apply to formal meetings of the full council.

THE COUNCILLORS' ROLE

  The role of individual councillors, who are now free of the burden placed upon them by the unwieldy committee structure, has been focused to enable them to tackle community issues more effectively.

AREA FORUMS

  The council has also introduced local area forums which give residents the chance to take an active part in the policy and service delivery process.

AREA COMMITTEES

  Area committees have also been established to deal with local development control and environment issues.

THE OFFICER STRUCTURE

  Barnet council has also restructured its officer structure to ensure this is effectively aligned to the new policy making structure of the council.

5.  IMPLEMENTING THE NEW STRUCTURE

  Because Barnet council was embracing the modernisation process, in advance of the legal requirements of the Local Government Act 2000, it was able to introduce the new way of working in an efficient and effective way.

  The cultural change in Barnet, for members and officers, has been gradual rather than sudden and this has brought its rewards.

  Members and officers were able to adapt to the cabinet's new executive powers, and the more public influence the cabinet enjoys in the decision-making process.

  In addition individual councillors have recognised and embraced their role outside the executive and are developing this to excellent effect.

  To improve the system still further, the council has established a cross-party, ad hoc, committee to review its operation. Members and officers have been invited to make comment on the operation of the new constitution and suggest amendments that would improve its clarity and operation.

6.  THE CONCLUSION

  Barnet welcomed the changes imposed on local authorities by the Local Government Act 2000 because these were very much in line with its own thinking on the way to meet the challenges faced by local council's in the new century.

  As a result Barnet council has been able to introduce a new and effective way of working.

  This will be vital in it enhancing the opportunity for all its residents to enjoy living in a modern and attractive borough, with the highest standards of education, the best job opportunities and a real quality of life.


 
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