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


APPENDIX 79

Memorandum by Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council

SECTION 1: LOCAL GOVERNANCE SUMMARY

  Rochdale Council welcomes the Government's proposals to enhance the community leadership role of Local Authorities. However, we have concerns about several aspects of those proposals, in particular:

  1.  The legislation needs to recognise that the key responsibilities of the Executive may not be same for all Councils.

  2.  Councils should be free to determine whether the Executive is politically balanced or one party and the maximum size of the Executive should be increased if it is to be politically balanced.

  3.  Meetings of the Executive should be held in public (except in relation to exempt items).

  4.  Maximum flexibility needs to be available to Councils in determining its proposals for the scrutiny function.

A.  CONTEXT

1.   Historical Background

  Rochdale MBC was formed in 1974 as a result of the amalgamation of the County Borough of Rochdale, the two Borough Councils of Middleton and Heywood and the three Urban District Councils of Littleborough, Milnrow and Wardle. The separate identity of the local communities living within those historic local government units is extremely marked, and has a much greater significance in the Borough than in other, outwardly similar metropolitan district areas.

2.   Devolution

  Reflecting those strong feelings of commitment to local communities all political parties on the Council have been working for the last 10 years on the development of a devolved decision taking structure for the Council. In 1992 four Township Committees were established (Heywood, Middleton, Rochdale and Pennines). Each one comprises all the Councillors representing wards in the Township. Two Townships are Labour controlled, one is Liberal Democrat controlled, and in one there is no overall control with Councillors from three political parties. The overall approach to maximising public involvement via Townships and devolving power is called "Community Partnership". The Township Committees have been a great success. Gradually more and more decision taking powers have been devolved to them (for example 90 per cent of all planning applications are determined at Township level).

   Township Open Forums are held at the start of each meeting and regularly attract significant numbers of the public who ask questions, raise issues or just listen. Public involvement in the Townships is extensive and achieved by individuals and groups taking part in Township Working Groups dealing with particular issues (eg Environment, Children and Young People, Housing). There is also good local media interest.

  Recently Township Committees have begun to take a leading role in proposing of bids for capital and revenue spending, taking over this role from service committees of the Council.

  At Township level Members of the Council have started to participate in service review monitoring, which will ultimately form part of the Council's Best Value framework.

  It can be seen therefore that in this Borough the role of a Councillor as a Township representative is regarded as fundamentally important.

 3.   Political Balance

  Since 1974 the Authority has experienced a change of political control on seven occasions. Administrations have been:
Controlling Party Years
Labour1974-76
Conservative1976-79
Conservative/Liberal Democrat1979-80
Labour1980-82
Conservative/Liberal Democrat1982-86
Labour1986-92
Liberal Democrat/Conservative1992-96
Labour1996-99


  In this context it has been important for the political parties on the Council to adopt a process of decision taking which is (relative to other "similar" authorities) more open and participative particularly in relation to key priorities such as Regeneration and developing Community Partnership.

  There are clear political and policy differences between the political parties but as far as possible a shared vision is pursued, focused around the Council's six corporate challenges. This enables the authority to present a unified face to important outside bodies and partners within the Borough which is essential to its credibility and to secure access to external funds.

4.   Changing Political Management Framework

  Prior to the publication of the White Paper "Modern Local Government" the Council was already progressing a change to its structure. Service committees had been substantially reduced in size and it was intended to move towards making Township Committees the focal point of the Council with service committees being discontinued.

  This process has been overtaken by the White Paper and a new structure has been developed with involvement and support of all political parties, which will be introduced in May 1999. This new framework blends the devolved Township framework with the modernising aspects of the Government's proposals. Hence it involves a small Executive (10 members), a Policy Committee, Township Committees and a series of Policy and Review Panels in which all Members of the Council are enabled to play a role in both the development of policy and the review of performance. It should be noted that the option of an Elected Mayor for Rochdale Borough has not found favour with any political party and would be unlikely to be popular with the Borough's residents because a substantial proportion of them have a very limited affinity to "Rochdale" as an entity, preferring to regard themselves as citizens of their Township. Appendix 1 indicates the form of our new framework together with a note as to the responsibilities of each part of the structure.

  The reason for this submission to the LGA hearings in relation to the consultation paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice" is our concern that the Government's proposals for legislation may not allow us sufficient flexibility to pursue our modernising and devolving agenda which is uniquely tailored to our Borough.

B.  POINTS OF CONCERN1.   Executive to Lead on Policy Development

  The consultation paper emphasises the lead role of the Executive in the preparation of plans and strategies. Whilst it is obvious that the Executive should play a co-ordinating role in developing plans and strategies, Rochdale MBC is concerned that all Members of the Council should have an important role in leading their development. Under our structure all Members will participate in a Policy and Review Panel for one of nine cross-cutting policy areas (eg Regeneration, Social Inclusion). Each of these Panels will be politically balanced.

  Members will bring a wide perspective to these Panels by virtue of their Township representative role, thus consolidating the bond of trust between the community and those who represent them.

  A "Lead Member" will Chair each Panel, who may or may not be a member of the Executive. These Panels will be responsible for developing plans and strategies in consultation with interested groups and residents of the Borough. We find it difficult to believe that an Executive of only 10 Members (with in our case at least four opposition Members) could possibly handle being the "lead" of all the Council's plans and strategies. If consultation and involvement of partners and public is to be real and meaningful a much greater level of Councillor involvement will be essential.

2.   Executive to be the focus for forming Partnerships

  Again, our concern is that this crucial area of work is identified as the exclusive responsibility of the Executive. This would be an impossibility in Rochdale MBC with (currently) six controlling group Executive Members. This role could not be successfully achieved given the large number of successful and developing partnerships in which we are involved. Our structure enables the Policy and Review Panels to take this lead role, with the "Lead Member" (Chair) taking a particular responsibility. The Panels will include, in many cases, representatives of partner organisations.

Conclusion

  We are keen to ensure that legislation does not prevent this Council adopting this sort of approach. There needs to be a recognition that it may not be appropriate for the Executive to operate in a similar way, with exactly the same responsibilities, in every Council.

3.   Political Balance on the Executive

  The consultation paper indicates that the Executive "would not normally reflect the political balance of the authority but be formed by the majority party".

  In this authority Members may wish to continue the arrangements determined for 1999-2000 which is to have a politically balanced Executive. As explained in Section A of this paper, the successful operation of a Council which changes control from time to time may well require different arrangements for those with a permanently dominant party. Although the Council has not yet decided whether it would prefer a politically balanced or one party Executive once the legislation is in place, it would definitely wish the option to be available to reflect the different circumstances which can occur in an authority like this one.

  It should also be noted that, with a politically balanced Executive the restriction on its size (nine in Rochdale's case) may cause difficulties.

Conclusion

  Councils should be free to determine whether the Executive is politically balanced or one party and the maximum size should be increased where an Executive is politically balanced.

4.   Open Government—Proposal that the Executive should be held in private

  The consultation paper appears to suggest that the Executive will be held in private. This appears to be contrary to the growing expectation of openness and transparency in the decision taking process.

  The paper suggests that all the factual and background papers and officers' advice would be public information which makes the proposal for a closed meeting rather strange. Paragraph 3.61 suggests that the Executive "must be able to determine its political view on an issue and weigh that in private against the other relevant factors in the decision" but does not explain why that is so. Certainly in this Borough secret meetings of the Executive would be regarded by the press, our partners and the public as rather inconsistent with our stated policy (and practice) of involving them as much as possible in decision taking.

Conclusion

  This Council believes that the Executive should be held in public (except in relation to the usual exempt items).

5.   Requirement for Overview and Scrutiny Committees

  The consultation paper suggests that there will be a requirement for "overview and scrutiny Committee(s)". As explained above, our new structure which involves political balance on all committees and panels and involves all Members of the Council on a Policy and Review Panel and a Township Committee makes the need for formal scrutiny much less obvious. Both the Policy and Review Panels and Township Committees will be scrutinising performance as part of their remit.

  One possibility would be for us to make the Policy and Review Panels the "overview and scrutiny" committees. However, the consultation paper proposes that members of the Executive would be unable to participate in "overview and scrutiny" committees. This would therefore prevent leading Members from being involved in the Policy and Review Panels.

  There is a limit to the number of experienced Councillors, with time available, to take part in Council activity. Strict demarcation will make the new proposals unworkable.

Conclusion

  Maximum flexibility needs to be available to Councils in determining its proposals for the scrutiny function.

6.   Finally

  The Central Government model of backbencher, select committee and executive/cabinet cannot successfully be applied, in all cases, directly to Local Government with its varied geography, political differences and local circumstances. In Rochdale we believe we have bridged the democratic gap inherent in the separation of roles model, by ensuring that all Councillors have a Township Committee role as well as a Policy and Review one, with the opportunity to have an Executive role.

  As far as local people and communities are concerned this is what makes for openness, transparency and clarity in the democratic process.

SECTION 2: THE ETHICAL FRAMEWORK

  1.  With regard to the Government's proposals to establish a new regulatory framework, the intention to provide clarity and consistency of the rules and responsibilities of Councillors is welcomed. The full implications of the proposals will only become clear when the proposed National Code and the legislation for the new offence of Misuse of Public Office are published.

  2.  It is important that the welcomed abolition of surcharge, which is linked to the introduction of this new offence, happens as soon as possible.

  3.  It is also important that there is a national Code of Conduct for Councillors and employees. This will ensure national consistency and enable both Members and Officers to be given consistent advice.

  4.  It is noted that the Council's Standards Committee must have at least three Members, one of whom should be independent of the Council. Not more than one should be an Executive member. This could prevent, however, leading members of the minority parties being represented on the Standards Committee. It is therefore, suggested that the Standards Committee should include a representative of all parties of the Council.

  5.  The Standards Board will have an important role. It is important that investigations are carried out under the rules of natural justice and the rights of those under investigation protected. The relationship between the Standards Board, the District Audit, the Police and the Ombudsman also needs to be made clear in relation to complaints about Members of the Council.

  6.  The Government is also requested to ensure that the rules and procedures relating to Standards Committees and Standards Boards are kept simple, and are not costly to administer. It would be a great pity if significant sums of public money were to be devoted to a complex new ethical standards framework, the result of which would probably be to incur large legal costs for those involved in the process. In effect, the framework established should be proportional to the problem which is not large.

2 June 1999


 
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Prepared 11 August 1999