Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


APPENDIX 3

Memorandum by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council

  1.  I am writing to submit written evidence to the Joint Committee on behalf of this authority.

Need for the Bill

  2.  The authority supports the Bill and has already moved to one of the model political structures set out in the draft Bill—the Cabinet with Leader model—which has been in operation since 4 February 1999.

  3.  We particularly welcome the Government's publication of a Bill in draft form and have taken the opportunity to make detailed comments, based on our local experience, to the DETR.

  4.  The White Paper "Modern Local Government — In Touch with the People", published by the DETR in July last year, included provision for a proposed new duty on local authorities to promote the social, economic and environmental well-being of local communities. The authority considers that this issue is central to the modernisation agenda and that the new duty should be included in the final form of the latest Bill.

Model Political Structures

  5.  The details relating to the Cabinet with Leader option as set out in the Draft Bill accord very closely with the new structure adopted in Barnsley.

  6.  One issue of concern is that the Draft Bill does not appear to make provision for deputies for members of the Cabinet. In our own arrangements, we have a Cabinet of nine members (including the Leader), each with a deputy. The authority considers that this is an important and necessary part of the new structure, with deputies being required to cover the unavoidable occasions when a member of the Cabinet is unable to attend a meeting and also to provide general support in the work of a Cabinet member within his or her particular portfolio. The Government should not under-estimate the considerable demands placed on "executive" members within the new forms of local governance, and the consequent need for some support.

  7.  The authority welcomes the emphasis placed in the Draft Bill and its associated consultation paper, on local flexibility within the three models. It is important that this flexibility is retained in the final form of the legislation and in any subsequent regulations issued by the Secretary of State. For example, there has to be scope for flexibility in the arrangements adopted by individual authorities to meet the requirements in the Draft Bill for "overview and scrutiny committees". In our own case, the authority has chosen to meet these requirements by means of (i) six permanent Scrutiny Commissions which, amongst other functions, scrutinise the recommendations and decisions of Cabinet and the delivery of Council services and policies generally; and (ii) policy workshops, which are convened as necessary to review or develop areas of Council policy and make recommendations to the Cabinet and Council.

Referendum Procedure and Consultation

  8.  We endorse the emphasis given in the consultation paper and Draft Bill to the importance of the process of developing a new political structure being driven by the views of local people and stakeholders. This has been, and will continue to be, central to our own change process in Barnsley. We will continue an open dialogue with local people and organisations.

  9.  There must, however, be an appreciation of the need for this consultation to be meaningful, recognising the complexity of the requirements. The process must be systematic and ongoing.

  10.  Our own consultation exercises locally have confirmed that there is, unfortunately, a significant lack of understanding of, and engagement with, local government and local democracy. It is this issue which drives the agenda for change. Against this background, however, it is questionable whether a "one off" consultation exercise based on a proposed new "constitution" for a local council will produce meaningful results.

  11.  This authority's approach has been to undertake surveys of public opinion — including focus groups — based around wide ranging issues of local governance, to identify the requirements and principles which should be central to the process of developing a new political structure and ways of working; in order to deliver the improvements in accountability and responsiveness which local people are seeking. The process of consultation, dialogue and response will be an ongoing one, including as part of the evaluation of the authority's new political structure during its first twelve months of operation.

  12.  Another point drawn from our own experience is that local people may not regard the form of executive within a proposed "constitution" as being the only, or indeed the main, issue. In Barnsley, the public and other stakeholders were, and are, concerned significantly with the mechanisms through which the Council is made more accountable and responsive to the needs and preferences of local areas within the Borough.

  13.  The Draft Bill appears to be based on the premise that all authorities are currently running traditional committee structures and have yet to commence the process of modernisation. This is very far from being the case, as experience in my own authority demonstrates. Further consideration should be given to how the consultation and other requirements of the Bill will relate to authorities who are already well advanced in the modernisation process, and can demonstrate that they have engaged effectively with local opinion. This is a particularly important issue given the exhortation in the earlier White Paper for authorities to be proactive in advance of legislation.

30 June 1999


 
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