Memorandum by South Somerset District
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on
the draft Billthe possibility of contributing to the debate
has been very welcomed by our Authority.
We are very supportive of the principles that
underpin the draft Bill, the preceding White Paper and other documents
which outlined the coming Agenda. We might articulate these principles
Community Leadershipthe prime
function of modern Local Government.
Local Choiceinvolving local
people in meeting local needs.
to local communities.
Democratic Renewal and Involvementthe
involvement of local people in decisions that affect their lives.
Openness and Transparencylocal
people should know who is taking decisions and why and why those
decisions were made.
Councils who embrace the modernisation Agenda
might be characterised by:
Services that meet the standards
of quality and value required by local people.
Efficiency. Better decisions taken
speedily in a less resource intensive way.
Powerful Roles for all councillors
to formulate policy, represent local ward concerns, champion their
area and influence executive decisions affecting that area.
Local Ownership of structures to
deliver the functions required by local people.
Trust that local people have in their
authority because of its high standards of conduct combined with
The concern we have about the draft Bill is
that it approaches the modernisation Agenda from the direction
of structures which might meet the guiding principles rather than
relying on Local Government to deliver on these principles with
structures which satisfy local needs. At South Somerset, we feel
that the clinical separation of the executive from a scrutiny
role will not necessarily deliver the principles as well as we
could by making small improvements to our existing, more innovative,
The establishment of three off the peg models
from which we have to choose the best fit somewhat undermines
the title of the paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice".
The assumption throughout the Bill is that all Councils have a
traditional structure. Whilst this may be true in many cases there
is an increasing number of Councils who have experimented successfully
with non-traditional initiatives that takes them at least as far
towards meeting some of the principles outlined above as those
envisaged by the Bill.
South Somerset District Council is, we believe,
such a case.
South Somerset is one of the significant number
of authorities delivering Local Government through decentralised
arrangements. In our case, since 1991, we have had generic area
committees which have made decisions on behalf of local people
and which have been supported by decentralised budgets and area
staff teams in area offices. Corporate cohesion is ensured by
a district-wide Executive Committee on the Cabinet model. The
White Paper "In Touch with the People" seems to support
decentralised approaches because they bring government closer
to the people, not only through their geographic dimension but
also through their multi purpose functions.
Our experience of these structures has shown
that they help us achieve the guiding principles of the draft
Bill. We have found, for example, that in comparison with the
departmental structure we had before 1991, there is stronger leadership
for local communities, a more powerful role for councillors and
more transparency throughout the Council. The Bill appears to
assume that the area committee's role should be confined only
to advising the executive. Decisions on regulatory matters seem
to be channelled back to some central committeewhich for
us would be a retrograde step. We would want such decisions to
be made speedily and as near as possible to the people affected
by themand the area committee achieves that for us. Planning
is a part of the agenda that generates great interest, and part
of that function and licensing, is partly delegated to Town Councils.
The absolute separation of the executive from the scrutiny role
does not support this aim and does not add value.
Community leadership should be supported by
a council's structure. It should enable a clear public focus,
not only for providing leadership in the authority (through the
preparation of plans, strategies and budgets) but also in the
community (through community planning and partnerships). All this
would work towards the "joined up government" that we
so badly need to develop. This needs not only to occur at the
authority-wide level but also more crucially at an area level
where service providers and programmes fuse to deliver services
to local communities.
Our generic area committees have done much to
develop this way of working in South Somerset and we will be taking
this a stage further as area community plans become developed.
The removal of the area committee's decision making powers would
certainly reduce its power and diffuse its focus. It would also
reduce the opportunity for an area-wide scrutiny of the services
provided, to the detriment of local people. It would seem sensible
for the legislation to provide for our type of decentralised structure,
especially if we can demonstrate that it better meets the guiding
principles than the proposals in the draft Bill.
20 May 1999