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


Memorandum by Epsom and Ewell Borough Council

  The Borough Council shares with the Government much of its vision for modernising local government. Epsom and Ewell is an associate best value pilot authority, we have a very strong reputation for winning and retaining Charter Marks for our services. Before the Government published this Command Paper and its Draft Bill, the Council had agreed to introduce a new decision making structure. We are committed to the modernising agenda.

  However the Council is concerned that the Government is wrongly generalising that the performance, reputation and arrangements of some Councils is the basis for making laws that must apply to all.

  We appreciate that this Government is determined to ensure that it is not frustrated by some local authorities which it perceives do not share its key objectives, and are not positioned to implement the national agenda on which that Government has been elected.

  However, the Council urges the Government not to apply such a broad brush of central direction that it alienates or frustrates those Councils that share its objectives for services that are more citizen orientated and closer to and more responsive to local community needs.


  Epsom and Ewell agrees that the traditional Committee system is not effective in producing speedy decisions necessary in a modern world. The Council has scrapped such a system and replaced all service Committees with just three Commissions, focused on Social, Leisure and Development issues.

  We agree that the local community of residents, business and the voluntary sector should be more closely involved with their Council. Not only must they be better informed and consulted, but also more involved in policy development, service review and decision taking. Under each of our three Commissions we have introduced a set of Boards comprising both Councillors and representatives of the local community and partner organisations. There is a Board for each key service area, and this is the focus where we will engage with our community.

  The Council agrees that the Community should expect the highest standards of conduct and that a local Standards Committee, with an independent element of membership, is an important mechanism to ensure that the highest standards are maintained. We have established a Standards Committee.

  However we part company with the Government's approach on decision making structures in one respect. Whilst it is recognised that there are parts of local government where the responsibility for decision making is opaque, where key policy decisions are effectively made in private that has never applied in this Council.

  The Borough Council does not favour the elected Mayor or the executive Cabinet options that the Government prefers. It is determined to build on its long local tradition of open and accountable community government by retaining Policy and Resources to make policy decisions in public, following debate and analysis by a politically balanced group of Councillors.

  However, the Council recognises that there is a vital role for a Cabinet of members to work together to ensure that the Council's policies are effectively implemented, that the organisation is efficiently managed, and that Best Value is at the heart of the Council's arrangements. Our Cabinet will also have a "think tank" role, with the support of a Strategy Group representing key local stakeholders, to advise the Council on the development and review of the long term, strategic framework for Epsom and Ewell. Our Cabinet will not be taking executive decisions in private, behind closed doors.

  We agree with Government that there is a need for effective scrutiny of the Council's operations, to ensure that Best Value and continuous improvement arrangements are in place and delivering change. There also needs to be closer scrutiny to ensure the proper execution of the arrangements for delegation of decision making, and a wider review of the effectiveness of the Council's and other agencies' policies in meeting the needs and aspirations of the community. We have established a Scrutiny Committee.

  In summary, we endorse the spirit and much of the detail of the Government's approach, but we cannot agree to place policy/executive decision making behind closed doors in an executive Cabinet.


  The Draft Bill provides the opportunity for the Secretary of State to recognise other models of decision making structure than the three set out in the Draft Bill. The Council will seek to convince the Secretary of State that our local model of a new structure is one that should be recognised.

  We intend to put our structure to our local community. However if the current Draft Bill doesn't change we would regret that the Government, despite its earlier expressions of intent, will have fallen into the centralising and detailed prescription modes of the previous Government. Is it really necessary to prescribe the maximum size of Cabinet, the minimum size of a Scrutiny Committee and other very detailed provisions that deny appropriate local flexibility?

  We are seeking from the Government an Act that recognises and celebrates the diversity of local government, that champions best practice, within the broad principles and objectives that have been set down in the modernising agenda.

  We are heartened by the constructive relationship that the Government has set about creating with the LGA, and we are content to leave the LGA to represent our views on the detailed provisions within the Draft Bill.

  A copy of the briefing document that we have produced for our new Councillors in the May election is enclosed for your information. We hope that the Government will produce an Act that recognises that our local new structure is one that should be recognised as a valid local solution that meets the Government's objectives for better and modern local government, and most importantly open government.


1.   Introduction

  1.1  The Council recognised in 1998 that it needed to change its decision making structure, and appointed a Structures Working Party to develop proposals which are now being implemented in the new Council. The objectives that the Working Party had were:

    —  To involve the community more in decision making.

    —  To simplify the Committee structure.

    —  To establish a better link between the structure and the Council's Vision, Mission and Guiding Principles.

    —  To base the structure on the issues important to the community, rather than the traditional professional and departmental boundaries.

    —  To establish a clear responsibility for decision making where strategic policies can be developed and implemented.

  1.2  The Government had just produced its White Paper on modernising local government, which expressed its preference for decision making arrangements based either on elected Mayors, or Executive Cabinets. Whilst the Council took note of that, it was determined to develop a new arrangement that suited the needs of this Borough and built upon its strengths.

2.   So what is the Government's agenda?

  2.1  The Government bases its thinking on the following views:

    —  "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".

  2.2  Whilst this may be true for some Councils, it is not true of this Council, and the Working Party and Policy and Resources Committee have been determined to ensure that the policy decisions of the Council remain open, rather than taken into an executive cabinet that meets in private. The Whitehall model of the Cabinet executive structure is rejected. A Policy and Resources Committee with 13 Councillors, representing each ward of the Borough, is the focus of our new structure.

3.   What sort of structure did the Council have last year?

  3.1  For the first six months or so there are bound to be references to the old committees and groups, but as everyone becomes more familiar with the new structure, references to the old arrangements will disappear.

  3.2  There were 132 scheduled meetings in the last year, and in fact 145 took place. This represented a heavy load for Members and Officers. It was reaching the point where it was extremely difficult to find a free evening in the week. Many Members and Officers found themselves in meetings at the Town Hall three or more nights a week. Everyone recognised that this could not be sustained in the long term.

4.   Outline of the new Structure

  4.1  The number of meetings during the year has been reduced to 85, with about 24 additional meetings in the year for Cabinet members, assuming it meets fortnightly. However, there could be some further meetings in the transitional period.

  4.2  The core of the new structure is Policy and Resources, composed of 13 Councillors, representing each Ward, where these decisions will be made in public, in a politically balanced body where all Wards can be represented. We will have a Cabinet, composed of the Chairmen of Commissions (see paragraph 4.3 below), and two other Councillors appointed by the Council. Its role will be to advice P&R on the policies it should be considering, and then to ensure that the policies decided in P&R and full Council are properly implemented.

  4.3  The provision of services to the community will be controlled by three new Commissions. These too will be made up of 13 Councillors, one from each Ward. The Commissions will be the forums for Members to debate new policies, allocate resources to service and cost centres, and monitor overall performance of those services. To ensure that they can focus on policy issues, more detailed decisions will be delegated to Officers, but with extra safeguards to ensure consultation with local Members and the Commission Chairmen, and the facility to "call in" potential decisions that may be sensitive or important.

  4.4  One of the most important objectives for the new structure is to increase consultation with and the involvement of groups and organisations in the community. Under each Commission, you will see a number of Boards for key service areas. These are made up of between six and 10 Councillors, who do not necessarily have to be members of the parent Commission.

  4.5  Beginning in the autumn cycle, representatives of appropriate external groups and organisations with which the Council works in partnership or which represent parts of the community, will be invited to join as members of these Boards. Some may become permanent members, others may only work with a Board for a short term on a particular project.

  4.6  Whilst the Residential Amenities Board and Licensing Board will start out their life as decision making bodies, all other Boards will begin as consultative bodies who will advise the Commissions. However, it is proposed that as time passes and relationships and confidence are established, decision making powers may be passed to other Boards as well.

  4.7  In our new structure there are two new committees, one for Scrutiny and one for Standards. The Scrutiny Committee, composed of 13 Members none of whom may be in the Cabinet or Policy and Resources, will be responsible for scrutinising the overall performance of the Council. It is also proposed that it will have a role to scrutinise the work of outside organisations who have a major input into the social, environmental and economic life of the Borough. The Scrutiny Committee will also be responsible for ensuring that decisions are made in accordance with agreed procedures, and importantly, for reviewing the effectiveness of the implementation of Council policies to ensure that they are achieving the Council's overall objectives.

  4.8  The Standards Committee will not come into being formally until about six months into the new structure. It will include an external representative, and be responsible for overseeing the arrangements to ensure that the Council and its Councillors conduct themselves in accordance with the Council's Code of Conduct, and also advising individual members on issues of registering and declaring interests, etc.

5.   So what might the Government think of our new structure?

  5.1  Just before the Council agreed the structure on 13 April, the Government published its draft bill on structure for local government. It confirmed its commitment to the elected Mayor or Executive Cabinet models of decision making. However, it did recognise that other models may be possible and it might approve some by making regulations under the new Act. We have already begun to lay the foundations for presenting a case to say that our local model should be so approved. It is not clear at this stage how successful we might be.

  5.2  The Government has also provided another mechanism where a local structure can be retained if a Council conducts a local referendum to put the Government's preferences before the community, but the community votes to retain the existing structure.

  5.3  It is unlikely that the Government will get the new Act on the statute book before early 2000, and we could have a local referendum as early as 2001.

  5.4  It will be a real challenge to interest the community in the detail of the Council's decision making structure. Local residents are normally only interested in the outcome of it, in terms of the quality and range of Council services, and some local contentious matters which are usually development related. We have already written to the Secretaries of local RA's and political groups to outline the new structure, and asked them for their support in developing and implementing a plan which will retain decisions being made in public, in politically balanced meetings, rather than behind closed doors in an environment based on the Whitehall model of Cabinet government.

6.   It is all about change

  6.1  You are joining the Council at the point of the most radical change in the structure since its inauguration back in the 1930's. It is probably easier for you as new Councillors, because you will not have to unlearn old ways and values developed over many decades.

  6.2  It will be challenging for all Councillors because it is going to take time to implement the new arrangements. There will be a lot of fine tuning. There will be occasions when something arises that we haven't planned for, and we will have to change the arrangements to meet those circumstances. Sometimes there will be frustrations for everyone, Members and Officers, but if we work as a team, as we did in developing the new structure, we will fulfil those objectives that are set out in the introduction in paragraph 1.1 above.

21 May 1999

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Prepared 11 August 1999