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


APPENDIX 39

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 FOR AND TIMING OF RESTRUCTURING

  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 public services.

  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 force.

  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 LOCAL ELECTIONS

  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 government—parish, district and county councils—remain 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 OF COUNCILLORS

  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.  CONCLUSION

  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


  


 
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