Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)



  140. Can I ask you what your views are on the proposals for Business Improvement Districts? Do you think they are relevant?
  (Cllr Houghton) From our perspective obviously the more local discretion there is the better. As a principle, fine, I think in reality for places like ours I do not see much of a take-up of that. We are asking business to increase rates and in certain areas it is going to be very difficult. What we are trying to do is attract business into the area and I doubt that would prove to be an incentive.
  (Cllr Thornber) We would much rather see business rates coming back to precepting authorities.

  141. What about the proposals to give voting powers to co-opted members of scrutiny committees and overview boards, non-elected members? What is your view on that?
  (Cllr Thornber) Strongly against, it is anti-democratic. I can give you some examples. I think there is a basic misunderstanding. Scrutiny committees, as such, do not have executive voting powers now. They can have an advisory vote, but that is all it is. The executive powers are vested in cabinet. If we were to look at the education committee, say in my own home county, and we give the co-opted members a voting right, we would find as an administration that was voted in that more than half of our 46 members would have to serve on that education scrutiny committee in order to maintain the proportionality. Leaving that aside, I do think it is wrong. I think it is another one of these measures that undermines local government and the democratic mandates which members have.
  (Sir Robin Wales) I take a slightly different perspective which is I think local decision, local discretion, is always to be welcomed. I am in a slightly different position, perhaps. There have been quite a few mayors and I worry enormously for the powers of mayors if they are not properly held to account through scrutiny. The more we can bring people with skills in, people who can take part in that, to work with elected members the better. It is important that there is local discretion and people should be free locally to bring in things. Many, many years ago in Newham we were bringing representatives in to vote on education and elsewhere and we thought that worked for us. I think the opportunity for people to do that, to bring in people with skills, is to be welcomed. I think anything that frees people up to look at models of things they want to do differently locally, and it may not suit everybody and that is fine, the opportunity to do this is to be welcomed.
  (Cllr Houghton) I would support the line that Robin has explained. The executive functions of the council are separate from scrutiny and the more that we can involve people in the general monitoring of the council policy then that is a step forward.

Dr Pugh

  142. The Government's proposals on capital finance, do you like them? If you do not like them, how would you like to see them changed?
  (Cllr Houghton) Are you talking about the options that have been put forward today?

  143. The options in the White Paper.
  (Cllr Houghton) Generally the options we would welcome. Obviously the issue for us—and we will not know this until we get towards the end of the year—will be which of the options the Government is likely to pick, the balance between them and the emphasis between each one of those. It is difficult at this stage to see whether the Government has got it right or not. Certainly we think there is a step forward being made, there is more openness now in what is being put forward and hopefully, local government finance is always difficult, we will get a greater understanding.

  144. You do not say a great deal in the SIGOMA submission about capital finance arrangements or against the pooling arrangements. Is that because SIGOMA authorities expect to benefit?
  (Cllr Houghton) SIGOMA authorities do expect to benefit from the system, and so we would support the proposal.

  145. Also in your submission you touched briefly on that. You make some play of the deprivation perhaps of local authorities. Is there anything in the Bill that tends to give you any hope that that will be addressed?
  (Cllr Houghton) Yes. Obviously again it depends, in terms of the options that are being put forward, how much of that the Government are going to include in the final exemplifications, but the things that we have been putting forward have been addressed—at this stage.

  146. Can I ask you about Comprehensive Performance Assessments. Do we need them, or do you think we should have them?
  (Cllr Houghton) Do we support Comprehensive Performance Assessments?


  147. How much do they cost?
  (Cllr Houghton) It is difficult, because the inspection regimes seem to be changing day to day. We would put it in the order of several hundred thousand pounds merely to manage that. Looking at our service performance improvements, that would be a worthwhile investment. If the CPA helps to rationalise the system, which is what has been promised, then I would think that is a step forward.

Dr Pugh

  148. So you have seen the awful precedent of Ofsted and you still support them?
  (Sir Robin Wales) Can I ask you a question with a specific example that supports what we are saying. We in Newham, much to our embarrassment and shame, became a failing authority on social services, for a variety of reasons I would be happy to go into, if you want. The best thing that happened to our social services was the inspection regime that came in and looked at it, which said to us, "You are failing", and we then politically can do something about it. I think the question that I would answer is, as to the cost, we are just having a CPA now and it is fairly difficult, but frankly how much will we save by having them in, listening to them, working with them and actually moving forward? You might want to ask the private sector how much they spend on reviewing services and checking all the services that they do, because it is actually very important. If you have services with hundreds of millions of pounds accruing, you need to have a check, you need to have an assessment. I am actually saying that I think the Government is seeking to move in the right direction with the Bill, having the ability to check to make sure that things are working. I have an issue that if you think an authority is improving on what they are doing, that is a good place to be in terms of giving them more freedom, though there are some issues around that. But the principle that with good performance you are going to be freed up to do things, you are going to be freed to do some of the things that you want to do, I think is such a positive thing. There may be an issue around district councils. To be fair to them, there are some difficulties perhaps for districts, but for some of the big mets and some of them in London I think it is a jolly good thing.
  (Cllr Houghton) It is really back to the question. Yes, Ofsted have not been very good for our area and so have the social services inspectorate, and that is the truth.
  (Cllr Thornber) I think we would certainly welcome the self-assessment part of CPA, forcing councils to think through what their strengths and weaknesses are, but the process is far from transparent, very subjective, bureaucratic, and it has certainly mopped up a lot of hours of very senior officers. I think that in a large county council that sum, with opportunity costs, would run into £100,000 quite easily. If you add that to the best value performance indices and best value regime, we are spending a lot of money on a lot of performance indicators—143. CPA and BVPI have been very time-consuming. There are good parts of it, but it has been a burden which has diverted officers away from frontline service work.

  149. If it goes wrong, if you get a cranky set of inspectors, would you welcome having a right of appeal? Not every Ofsted inspection, after all, was perfect.
  (Sir Robin Wales) To be fair, I think the Government recognises that and there is moderation in the system.

  150. So "Yes"?
  (Sir Robin Wales) Yes.
  (Cllr Thornber) As a natural principle, yes.

Mr Cummings

  151. Could you briefly advise the Committee how you believe the timetable for this legislation fits in with the introduction of the replacement to the Standard Spending Assessment?
  (Cllr Thornber) I am not going to be very conventional. I think it is correct that we are right rather than rapid, if you will forgive the attempt at alliteration. Therefore, I think there are so many complex issues here that really we ought to take as much time as is necessary.
  (Cllr Houghton) The Government has already delayed the introduction of the new system. Further delay will only increase uncertainty for the local authorities. The sooner we can deal with the financial side of this, the better from our perspective.
  (Sir Robin Wales) A good step, very reasonable. I thought their attitude was very good, to be honest.

  152. Are there any omissions from, or any further proposed amendments to, the draft Bill which you would like to bring to our attention?
  (Cllr Houghton) It is difficult at this stage, because the options have just been produced, so I think it is to be noted that the options have just been produced today, and we need to go through them to see if there are things in there that we do not believe ought to be there, and vice versa.


  153. Is there anything else that should have been included in the Bill generally?
  (Cllr Houghton) From our perspective, members' allowances are a running sore in local government. I know the Government have partially dealt with this in previous pieces of legislation, but the sooner we get a national framework for members' allowances, the better.
  (Sir Robin Wales) Absolutely.
  (Cllr Thornber) I would agree with that.

Mr Cummings

  154. I take it you are also referring to severance payments and pensions?
  (Sir Robin Wales) Yes.
  (Cllr Houghton) Yes, and to those aspects.


  155. Anything else? There are various bits of previous legislation that need repealing. Should they be done in this Act?
  (Cllr Houghton) I think we have enough to deal with in this present Act.
  (Sir Robin Wales) There is the original question we were asked. I think we commented on this at the beginning.

Christine Russell

  156. Can we ask them the relationship question? How do you feel that the relationship between central and local government will change if what we predict will be in the Bill will indeed be in the Bill?
  (Cllr Houghton) I think it will change for the better. I think there is a responsibility on local government, just as much as there is on central government, to make the changes work and to improve the relationship. We have the onus as local government to say that everything is not 100 per cent right. Equally, I think through the CPA and the PSA process, the PSA process in particular, we are now getting real negotiations between authorities and central government on priorities. That has been a major step forward. The promise of lighter inspections, subject to the CPA, the promise of Prudential borrowing—though there are still issues around that on the Revenue side, and we recognise that—are all welcome. If there is one thing more we could do it is the issue of specific grants which just ties us down.

Mr O'Brien

  157. I would like to put one question to you, briefly. In view of the fact that this is a consultation on legislation and there may not be another Bill on local government for another 25 years, is it not important that anything that is outstanding affecting local government should be referred to in this Bill?
  (Sir Robin Wales) I am hopeful that you are wrong on that.


  158. What would you like—a Bill every year?
  (Sir Robin Wales) No, I think it is about changing relationships. I had the misfortune to be in local government in London in the 1980s. I recall some of the things that were done then and some of the responses that were going on. It seems to me now that we have moved into a different environment, we are in a different environment now from that of the 1980s, we have moved forward. I think the Government is recognising it needs to give local authorities more power. I think the Government is a bit nervous. Okay, we would be a bit less nervous. I believe that as we do these things and people learn and feel comfortable, we will begin to look forward. So the answer would be, I would hope that by developing an ongoing relationship as we develop a better, more intense local government, then perhaps there will come a time when people will see that there are more things we can do.

  159. So you think we should continue introducing legislation, and each time there is something new the Secretary of State should introduce new legislation?
  (Sir Robin Wales) The more we can recognise that we operate in a different environment that changes, and changes all the time, I think that is the point. Things change, and I think we have to recognise the very quick changing society. The more we can recognise that and, as I say, adapt, it enables us to adapt. So I think this Bill goes a nice chunk of the way. We will probably want more, and again I think we do come back to the situation that we recognise that. People and attitudes change quite rapidly these days, and we have to be prepared. Just things like IT, for example, which I worked in. Some of the changes in that in the last decade have been absolutely enormous. When we originally were looking to devolve our housing in the 1980s we did not have anything like the ability now that you can have, with just the sheer technical capacity to do all sorts of things. So things change, and I think you need to recognise that. So I think that rather than wait to make this perfect, this is a good step down the road. Let us take that and then let us see what else we have to do.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much indeed for your evidence. Thank you.

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