Memorandum by D J Ashton, Leader, North
Yorkshire County Council
I have been an elected member of North Yorkshire
County Council since 1977, and Leader of the Conservative Group
since 1994. I have been Leader of the Council for two years. I
would be grateful if the Joint Committee would consider the following
arguments in its deliberations.
1. THE NEED
1.1 I do not accept that there is a need
for such a fundamental restructuring of the committee system in
all local authorities. Many authorities, including North Yorkshire
County Council, experienced significant upheaval in the mid 1990s
when unitary authorities were created within their boundaries.
In North Yorkshire County Council's case, this led to a major
reorganisation of the system. This involved a substantial reduction
in the number of committees and the number of meetings held. We
now have just four main committees: three representing our service
directorates (Education and Library Services, Social Services
and Environmental Services) and a Corporate Policy Committee.
1.2 Not only is this system more streamlined
and transparent than the old committee system, but Councillors,
Officers, the Press and the Public have only recently become fully
accustomed to it. To institute further upheaval so soon after
such a major change would, in my view, create unnecessary confusion
which would only serve to reinforce (rather than to dispel, as
the Government wishes) the view that local government is more
obsessed with its internal workings than with the delivery of
1.3 It is less than five years since our
committee system was streamlined. We no longer employ "the
traditional committee system" which the Government wishes
to see ended. In my view, authorities such as North Yorkshire
County Council, which have made significant efforts during recent
years to reform their committee systems in line with the Government's
proposals, should be allowed to retain those systems.
1.4 Moreover, several authorities, of which
North Yorkshire is one, are currently subject to Periodic Electoral
Review. It is likely that, in North Yorkshire's case, not only
will the recommendations involve major boundary changes (as a
result of changes in the size of electorates brought about by
the creation of the unitary authority in York), but also that
they will be implemented at the quadrennial elections in 2001.
This is the time at which the provisions of the Draft Bill, if
enacted in the 1999-2000 Session of Parliament, will come into
1.5 In 2001, North Yorkshire County Councillors
will not only have to deal with the pressures of the quadrennial
elections, but will also have to accustom themselves to what are
likely to be significant changes in the boundaries of their electoral
divisions and in the composition of their electorates. It would
be wrong, in my view, further to burden them at the time they
are facing such pressures, with the problems which are likely
to arise from the implementation of the Draft Bill, if enacted.
2. TURNOUT AT
2.1 I accept that in some parts of the country,
turnout at local elections is relatively low. However, in others
it is relatively high. The recent District Council elections in
North Yorkshire saw many turnouts in excess of 45 and 50 per cent.
On 10 June 1999, the day that saw a turnout of less than 20 per
cent in a parliamentary by-election and less than 25 per cent
in the European elections, a County Council by-election in North
Yorkshire recorded a 42 per cent turnout.
2.2 I do not accept that it is the case,
in areas with relatively high turnout such as North Yorkshire,
that local people feel that decisions are made at a remote level
or that their local councillor is unable effectively to represent
them, and that as a result they are unwilling to participate in
local elections, as the Command Paper suggests (Paragraph 1.19).
In many areas of the country, the institutions of local governmentparish,
district and county councilsremain a strong and integral
part of local communities and local decision-making. It is wrong
to use turnout as a justification for such radical change across
the board, as proposed in the Draft Bill.
3. THE ROLES
3.1 In my view, the structures proposed
in the Draft Bill will have adverse effects on the roles of elected
Councillors. The streamlined committee system which is currently
in place at North Yorkshire County Council obliges all members
regularly to visit County Hall in order to participate in decision-making.
However, unlike the "traditional committee system",
it does not foster an "attendance culture", nor does
it place too onerous a burden on individual members.
3.2 The power of individual members to take
part in day-to-day decision-making is one which many Councillors
value as providing a direct link between each and every elector
and the decisions which are taken at a County level. In a large,
rural authority such as North Yorkshire County Council, it would
be extremely difficult to attract Councillors from outlying areas,
many of whom have a round-trip of over three hours, to committee
meetings where no decisions were taken. Moreover, the members
of the Executive making decisions would quite often hail from
an area many miles away from that which their decision affected.
Local members would have little or no direct input into the decision-making
process (especially if Executive meetings were held in camera).
This would, I believe, weaken rather than strengthen the link
between electors and council decisions. The principle of local
advocacy and local representation, which the Government appear
to be keen to foster, would actually be damaged by the proposals.
3.3 A fundamental problem with the structures
contained in the Draft Bill is that of continuity. In the first
instance, Executives will be recruited from the Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen
of Committees who have existing day-to-day experience of management
and decision-making., However, when such members retire, there
will be no new members with experience of decision-making to take
their place. There will be a large number of members with experience
of the scrutiny function, but none with experience of the executive
function. It will be very difficult for such members to make the
transition, and this will undoubtedly affect the smooth running
of councils. Committee systems do not have this problem, as they
involve all members in the process of decision-making.
4.1 In conclusion, therefore, I would ask
the Joint Committee to recommend, in its report, that local authorities
which have already modernised their committee systems be allowed
to retain them, on a case-by-case basis, as providing an alternative
effective method of representation and decision-making in their
local areas to that proposed in the Draft Bill.
29 June 1999