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


APPENDIX 61

Memorandum by Cambridgeshire County Council

1.  BRIEF BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON CAMBRIDGESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL

  The County Council serves a population of some 550,000 people. Apart from the residents of Cambridge City, the population lives mainly in market towns and villages. It is the fastest growing County in England and faces very strong development pressures in the Cambridge sub-region. The north of the County however is an area very dependent upon agriculture and faces problems of rural deprivation. There are five district councils in Cambridgeshire.

  The County Council of 59 Members is currently Conservative controlled:

  Conservative—33 members

  Liberal Democrat—16 members

  Labour—10 members

  The political groups are not spread evenly across the five district council areas. For example, Labour membership is concentrated in the City area and Conservative representation dominates in the north and west of the County. Thus a single party executive would leave major geographical areas of the county feeling they had no direct representation on the main decision taking forum.

  The Council has a history of being a hung Council. During the last two Administrations, a number of protocols (formal and informal) were developed to cope with "power-sharing" and access to information in a balanced Council. Many of these still remain and the Members across all three political groups pride themselves on being able to distinguish items that are party political and those that are not and act appropriately. Councillors across all parties are concerned that the strict distinction between the executive and scrutiny roles will politicise all decisions.

  The Committee system was overhauled some two years ago with the intention of making it slim and efficient (see section 4 below). There is consensus across all Members that the system works well. The Council conducts an annual survey of Members with regard to their training and development needs, member support systems and satisfaction with their role within and on behalf of the Council. This obviously includes the operation of the internal political management system. However, the Council is also conscious of the need to listen to the views of the community when evaluating alternative internal political management arrangements.

2.  MODERNISATION AGENDA

  The County Council has embraced the "modernisation agenda". For example:

    —  Use of Citizens' Panel and other extensive consultative mechanisms.

    —  Extensive development of Best Value programme. A full 5-year programme is now in operation. In addition the Council is participating as a pilot site with the Audit Commission on Best Value Inspection of Trading Standards and Libraries.

    —  First Local Performance Plan shortly to be published. Audit Commission using CCC as trial site for inspection regime for LPPs.

    —  Extensive investment in partnership activities and community planning and sponsorship of EAZ, Sure Start bids etc.

    —  Use of an independent panel to review Members Allowances arrangements.

    —  Introduction of new whistleblowing procedures for staff.

  The Council has agreed to establish a Standards Panel (which will become a Committee upon enactment of the Bill). The Panel will have two independent members (holding the balance of power) and all the functions in the draft Bill.

  It can be seen that all the actions described in the "PostScript" to the White Paper have already been actioned in Cambridgeshire.

  However, the Council is not convinced about the internal political management arrangements. This is a view shared by all three political groups (and indeed all individual members). The Government's three models have been extensively debated already—after publication of last year's Consultation Document and again since the White Paper. However further discussion is planned including:  

    —  Special seminar for the Council in June.

    —  Further evaluation of the three models in the Cambridgeshire context.

    —  Full development of one of the models (probably Leader and Cabinet) to test against present system (which will also be scrutinised and updated as necessary).

    —  Consultation with relevant stakeholders outside the Council.

 3.  CONCERNS ABOUT PROPOSALS IN DRAFT BILL

  County Councillors have very strong reservations about all three models described in the White Paper for the following reasons:

    —  A Cabinet or Mayor system, by definition, will concentrate power in a few hands which runs contrary to the principles of involvement, accountability and transparency.

    —  The present Committee system if appropriately organised and serviced can be very effective, efficient and open. The systems of Cabinet and Scrutiny Committees, on the other hand, can lead to convoluted decision processes and delays.

    —  The proposed division of functions between the executive and representational roles is unnecessary and to an extent artificial. It does not sit well with community planning and local decision making. Nor has the relationship with the political group system been explored in the White Paper/Draft Bill.

    —  The Government's executive models would do nothing to encourage high quality candidates to stand for local election.

    —  There are some apparent inconsistencies with the Department of Health's exortations to ALL Councillors to accept their direct public parenting responsibilities. Similarly the executive models run counter to the enhanced involvement of Councillors in partnership activities eg Education and Care Partnerships.

    —  The models would be ineffective in a hung council situation. The Bill as currently drafted gives no way back from the executive models even when the circumstances within the Council change significantly.

  Some preliminary thought has been given to how an Executive Cabinet system might operate in Cambridgeshire. (NB an Advisory Cabinet system is already in place). An executive Cabinet could be either:

    —  A singe party Cabinet—in which case is likely to be less open and more confrontational than the present inclusive arrangements.

    —  A multi-party Cabinet (non-coalition)—in which case it is difficult to envisage how decision making will improve.

  The Cabinet (or Mayor) model may be appropriate for some councils, but should not be prescribed for all authorities. Cambridgeshire County Council believes its present system is appropriate to our local circumstances.

4.  BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF PRESENT SYSTEM

  The present internal political management arrangements can be summarised as:

    (a)  Small Committees with minimal sub-committee structure. One stop decision making.

    (b)  Effective advisory structure which encourages cross-party and joint officer/member working.

    (c )  Scrutiny (performance management) intrinsic part of system.

    (d)  Devolved arrangements for some local functions.

    (e)  Delegation of operational decisions to officers.

  Council meets 4 times a year—extensive delegations to Committees.

  Only three Programmes Committees—meeting six times a year; 14 members on each. No sub-committees.

  Policy Committee with 15 members—meeting six times a year. Just one sub-committee.

  Four Performance (scrutiny) Panels.

  Strong supporting advisory structure—including:

    (i)  Cross party briefings

    (ii)  Service Advisory Groups—officer chaired working groups with members to discuss emerging policy issues.

    (iii)  Provision for Select Panels on a task and finish basis.

  Area Joint Committees with District Councils to deal with local environmental and transport matters.

  Single Party Cabinet acting in an advisory capacity but giving clear and accountable leadership on major budgetary and policy issues.

  The present arrangements are not claimed as perfect and need frequent fine-tuning. For example the Council has commissioned consultants to develop an Action Learning programme with members on the performance management/scrutiny role. It will soon be considering refinements to enhance cross-service and partnership working.

  The most important attributes, which Members across all groups wish to preserve, are those of inclusiveness and transparency; ie the involvement and participation of all members of the Council in the key decisions affecting their constituents through an open and transparent decision making process. They fear these will be lost.

  The Bill as currently drafted appears to make it extremely difficult for the local electorate to opt for retention of the present arrangements if this is their preference.


 
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Prepared 11 August 1999