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


APPENDIX 47

Memorandum by South Somerset District Council

  1.  I have been asked by my Council to submit written evidence to you on their behalf in respect of the effect on decentralised decision-making of the Bill's proposal for an executive/scrutiny split. The evidence will also refer to the allocation of duties between executives and councils.

  2.  Our particular concerns relate to the future of our structure of generic area committees and of the Joint Partnership Committee which we have formed with Somerset County Council.

AREA COMMITTEES

  3.  Since 1991 South Somerset District Council has had four area committees, each comprising all the members elected to represent wards within the area. They are supported by decentralised budgets and area staff teams based in area offices, and make decisions on behalf of local people. In the White Paper "In Touch with the People", such approaches were supported because they bring government closer to the people, not only through their geographic dimension but also through their mutli-purpose functions. Ours is one of a growing number of authorities delivering local government in this way.

  4.  Our experience of decentralised structures has shown us that there are real benefits to be gained in terms of efficiency, transparency, accountability and trust. Local ownership has led to greater public interest and involvement in the committees' activities and better opportunities to identify and meet local priorities. We have found that, in comparison with the traditional committee structure we had before 1991, we are now providing stronger leadership for local communities, a more powerful representative role for all councillors and higher standards throughout the Council.

  5.  The area structure has strengthened our links with Parish and Town Councils, of which we have more than 100 in South Somerset, and we have been able to delegate to them many of our powers relating to planning applications, registration and licensing and to provide a more local focus to meet their needs.

  6.  Although supporting the principles of the Bill (underscored in the LGA Response, paragraph 8), we are concerned that the effect of the executive/scrutiny split will mean that the decision-making powers of area committees will be severely limited. Furthermore, it seems likely that the members would have to relinquish attendance at the all-important area committees in order to sit on a scrutiny committee, to the detriment of their opportunity to represent their electors through the area structure.

  7.  Immediately after the May 1999 elections our district, in common with many others, adopted the "cabinet and leader" model of working, with the four area committees relinquishing to the Council (and a district executive) those decisions which impact on more than one area or which depart from agreed policies. Six non-decision-making strategy groups generate and develop council-wide strategies. Each member sits on the Council, an area committee and one of the strategy groups.

JOINT PARTNERSHIP COMMITTEE

  8.  Surveys have revealed frequent public confusion about which tier of local government is responsible for which services. In an attempt to bridge that gap, South Somerset District Council and Somerset County Council set up a Joint Partnership Committee in Autumn 1998. Early indications are that the committee is improving the links between the two authorities to the benefit of the people they serve. The Committee, comprising eight members of each authority, has a community focus and co-ordinates work on the Crime and Disorder Strategy, a joint community plan, best value strategy and other significant initiatives. In due course, it is hoped that the committee will have a budget and decision-making powers.

  9.  Our concern is that the development of the Partnership Committee will be constrained if the executive function has to be split from the scrutiny role.

SEEING IS BELIEVING

  10.  Members of the Committee would be very welcome to visit one of our area committees or the Joint Partnership Committee to see for themselves how the principles of the Bill can be delivered in practice by structures other than the three models prescribed. Yeovil is only 100 miles west of London.

  11.  Other witnesses (ie Professor John Stewart and Professor Gerry Stoker) are aware of our area structure and may have referred to it in their evidence on 24 June. I shall be happy to add to this in oral evidence if the Committee feels it to be appropriate.

28 June 1999


 
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Prepared 11 August 1999