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


APPENDIX 19

Memorandum by Epsom and Ewell Borough Council

1.  EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1.1  The Borough Council shares with the Government much of its vision for modernising local government. Before the Command Paper, "Local Leadership, Local Choice" and the Draft Bill were published, the Council had already agreed to introduce a new decision making structure immediately following this May's local elections.

  1.2  The key objectives of the new structure are:

    —  To involve the community more in decision-making.

    —  A simpler structure that produces quicker decisions.

    —  More effective scrutiny of performance.

    —  Maintenance of the highest standards of conduct.

  1.3  We do not agree with the Government that these objectives can be met by taking policy and executive decision making behind closed doors, whether by a directly elected Mayor or an executive Cabinet meeting in private. The Council is committed to policy being decided by a politically balanced group of Councillors that meets in public. We are committed to openness.

  1.4  Ministers stress the importance of flexibility in the development of new decision making arrangements, and the Draft Bill provides the Secretary of State with the power to make regulations that will recognise variations on the Government's preferred structural models. We want to see a provision in the Bill that recognises new structures such as ours, which embrace the Government's wider objectives, but retain the fundamental principle of open debate on decisions.

2.  THE SORT OF COUNCIL WE ARE

  2.1  Epsom and Ewell Borough Council is relatively small. It has a population of approximately 70,000, and is a small urban area on the southwest fringes of London. It has had the same boundaries since it received its Charter in the 1930's, and since that date Residents' Association Councillors have been in overall control. The current allocation of seats is 27 RA Councillors, nine Liberal Democrats and three Labour Councillors. This is a unique tradition in local government.

  2.2  The Council has an established track record as an innovative authority that is committed to providing quality services, and being at the leading edge of best practice in its management arrangements.

  2.3  It has a performance management system that has been a model for other Councils, in this country and sometimes abroad. It has retained Charter Marks for the second term for its Land Charges and Environmental Health Services. It conducts a biennial residents' survey, and has an established Residents' Panel (the Epsom and Ewell Exchange) that is regularly surveyed for community views on service developments and assessing needs. We also take roadshows and community meetings out into the Borough, so that local Councillors can listen to the community in the shopping centre, in the Church Hall, outside the Library, etc.

  2.4  The Council is an Associate Best Value Pilot for the fundamental review of all of its services, and is working with Surrey County Council, which is a Best Value Pilot, for assessing community needs and delivery of services, using Epsom and Ewell as a trial area.

  2.5  The Council is committed to being at the leading edge of the modernising agenda—continuous improvement is central to its Vision and Mission.

3.  OUR NEW DECISION MAKING STRUCTURE

  3.1  A chart of our new structure that was implemented in May 1999 is attached as an Annexe.

  3.2  We agree that the traditional service committee structure based on professional and departmental boundaries is out of date. We have replaced those committees with three new Commissions, focused on the community's prime concern about social, leisure and development issues. These Commissions are politically balanced and each of the 13 Wards is represented. Their prime role is policy and budget setting.

  3.3  We agree that the traditional structure does not always deliver speedy decisions necessary in the modern world. Greater delegation to Officers, within a policy framework set by Members, is integral to our structure.

  3.4  We agree that the local community of residents, businesses and the voluntary sector must be more closely involved with the Council. Under each of our three Commissions, we have introduced a set of Boards of Councillors and community/partner organisation representatives. This is the focus for community involvement in policy development and service review.

  3.5  We agree that Councillors need more support and the time to develop their Ward and representational roles. Our new structure has reduced the number of evening Committee meetings from 145 last year, to 85 in the current year (with the exception of fortnightly Cabinet meetings for six of the 39 Councillors).

  3.6  We have introduced a job description for the role of Councillor. We are currently engaged in a skills and training audit, to develop a training programme to help Councillors to be more effective in all aspects of this job description.

  3.7  We agree that there must be more effective scrutiny arrangements to provide the opportunity for backbench Members of the majority RA Group, and the opposition parties, to review the effectiveness of the Council's policies in supporting the Council's Vision, Mission and Guiding Principles, and the delivery of best value services. We have established a Scrutiny Committee reporting directly to the Council.

  3.8  We agree that we must maintain the highest standard of conduct of Members and Officers. Members of a new Standards Committee are currently reviewing how the Council should appoint an independent person from the community to join them. We believe that this new Committee will be more effective if it is given the task of investigating, at first instance, complaints about the conduct of Members. It will, as presently proposed, be extremely limited in its remit.

  3.9  We agree that there must be a think tank role, where the Council works with the key local public and private sector partners to develop and maintain a community plan. We have established a Borough Strategy Group, and have started discussions with our partners on how best to develop the community plan. This process would be considerably assisted if provision was now made in the Bill for local authorities to have a general power to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area.

4.  THE PIVOTAL ROLES OF POLICY & RESOURCES AND CABINET

  4.1  At this point we do disagree with the Government's approach. We have retained the executive corporate policy making role in an open and politically balanced Policy and Resources Committee.

  4.2  We have established a Cabinet of six leading Members of the majority RA group, who meet fortnightly with the Chief Officers. The Cabinet is responsible for:

    —  Ensuring the effective implementation of policy.

    —  Recommending policy to Policy and Resources.

    —  Securing the effective management of the Council's resources.

    —  Co-ordinating the work of the Commissions to secure a speedy and corporate decision making process.

 5  WHY WE DISAGREE WITH THE DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYOR OR EXECUTIVE CABINET MODELS

  5.1  The following are quotes from the Government's "Local Leadership, Local Choice" command paper:

    —  "the greatest weakness of the Committee system is that ...... major decisions are in reality often taken outside of it".

    —  "there is evidence of .... a concentration of decision making powers in small groups outside the formal arenas".

    —  "the traditional committee system, designed to provide an open and public framework for decision taking, has grown into an opaque system with the real action off stage".

  5.2  Whilst this may be true for some Councils, it is not true of this Council. Openness of debate in decision taking is at the core of what the Council stands for. This value if shared by RA, Liberal Democrat, and Labour Groups, and we urge the Government to protect this value.

  5.3  We understand the Government's determination to identify the individuals who must be accountable for decision taking, but we reject the suggestion that structures which currently combine openness and effectiveness should be driven out.

  5.4  The model we are currently piloting has its roots in the unique independent political history of this Borough, but we are clear from discussion with other small/medium size Councils that it is more relevant to them than the Government models which derive solely from a large authority, highly politicised tradition.

6  WHAT ARE WE SEEKING FROM GOVERNMENT?

  6.1  We are seeking a provision in the Bill that recognises structures, such as ours, that build on the best and valued traditions of open and transparent local government. We agree that local people should be consulted on the sort of decision making structure that their Council should operate, and we will, using our new structure, involve and consult the community in its continued evolution.

  6.2  We are prepared to put our new structure to the test of a referendum, but we want it to be there as an equal option with the Government's current preferred models. We want it recognised as a valid and effective local mechanism for the delivery of the Government's objectives for better and modern local government.

  6.3  Finally, we refer to one more practical difficulty of the current and proposed regime. We have established Boards that will have external representatives joining them. However the Draft Bill does not give us the opportunity to give these community and partner organisations a vote in the decision making. There are many complex issues involved in taking this further step of direct involvement, but we want to see the Government making legislative provision for it now.

7  CONCLUSION

  7.1  We urge this Joint Committee to include in its comments that the Draft Bill should recognise:

    (a)  The improved Committee Structure model as an equal alternative to the three options currently identified. In this alternative the Head of the Paid Service would need to remain the executive, and it would be for the Council to determine (under Clause 3(1)(b)) which functions should be delegated and which reserved to Councillors.

    (b)  The need for local authorities to have a general power to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of its area.

    (c)  The need to extend voting rights within the Council structure to representatives of community organisations and service partners.

    (d)  The advantage of local Standards Committees having the role of investigating, at first instance, complaints into the conduct of Councillors.

5 July 1999

NEW COUNCIL STRUCTURE EFFECTIVE MAY 1999


 
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Prepared 11 August 1999