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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 606 - 619)




  606. Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. Thank you very much for coming. I hope you will understand the constraint of time has meant that we have asked all three authorities to come before us at the some time. May I ask you whether there are any comments you wish to draw to our attention or written submissions, or are you content to go straight to questions?

  (Ms Shortland) Can I just say thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to come before you. I appreciate this is actually quite a difficult situation for you to have discussions with councils about. From the previous evidence I think one of the points I want to make most of all to you is that local government is all very, very different and we are a very different authority than the one you have just been hearing from. I just wanted to make that point, that we are all very different, and that is why we wanted to see flexibility within the Bill, because I believe there is a need for authorities to be allowed to be treated differently.

  607. Mr Smith, is there anything you want to add?

  (Mr Smith) May I just add something on the same theme from Epsom and Ewell's point of view. Our submission pointed out that our council has 27 residents' association councillors and is therefore unique. What it did not say is that they represent nine different and entirely independent residents' associations. Some of the concepts that you were hearing earlier about whipping have no real relevance in that sense in the borough which I represent.

  608. Mr Cockell?

  (Cllr Cockell) Thank you, my Lord Chairman. I did have some remarks but I will not make them because of the time constraint. I will just say that Kensington and Chelsea has never been frightened of modernisation. Seven out of the 12 recommendations on page 51 of the White Paper we had already implemented before there was any reference or need for apparent prescriptive legislation. Our major call is that there should be a fourth opportunity, as was outlined in the final remarks by Hammersmith and Fulham, that there should be what I think is being called status quo plus The fourth option for those authorities of all parties that run first class local services to continue broadly with the type of committee operation that they currently and have historically worked with.

  609. Thank you very much. I appreciate your consideration of the time. If you want to let us have your opening comments they can be part of our submissions.

  (Cllr Cockell) Thank you very much.

Mr Pike

  610. Following on right from that last point about status quo plus, you have expressed one view. Do all the authorities believe that there should be a fourth option or should there be even more options within the Bill? If this Bill was not forthcoming do you think that your local authorities would have looked at the need to improve delivery in the way your respective councils serve your communities or would you have just carried on because we have always done it this way?

  (Ms Shortland) Speaking from my own local authority's point of view obviously, because that is all the experience I have got, we have continued to change since 1991 when we introduced area committee systems. We changed them again in 1995 and decentralised more of the decision making and the budget. I think virtually all of the budget now is held in area committees. We have been continually improving and we have an improvement programme where we actually look at other councils, what other people are doing, and continue to strive to improve. The main theme that we have had is to try to get closer to the people that we represent and it is the people that we represent who matter most. If any of you have the time and opportunity to come and have a look at how our area committees work you will see that politics is actually one step aside from area committees. I have been Leader of the Council now for 15 months and I do not think I have ever whipped any of our members at all because there has not been a need to. What we do is for the people we represent first and foremost, not for the party.
  (Mr Smith) Can I just add to that. I am sure, because my own authority had started this process before the Bill was published, that it is something that we want to do because it is right and it is about involving the community more in decision making.

  The Committee suspended from 4.49 p.m. to 4.57 p.m. for a division in the House of Lords.

  Chairman: Lady Hamwee.

Baroness Hamwee

  611. I was just going to ask South Somerset if they could elaborate on their concern about the effects of the Bill on the current arrangements? The language used is quite moderate, that you are concerned that the decision making powers of the area committees will be "severely limited". Do you think that the Bill as drafted will actually, if I can put it in blunt language, scupper entirely the arrangements you have got and, if so, would you like to explain why?

  (Ms Shortland) Part of the problem with the way the Bill is worded at the moment is that it gives this split between executive and scrutiny and then there is huge void in between the two. I can see why in some authorities that may be necessary but in terms of area committee working where they are making decisions and scrutinising the authority on a geographical basis, if you have got that split or you have to have that split, you may as well scrap the area committees, they could not work in the way they are working now. Having given the public the taster of being able to be present for decision making and scrutiny all in the same place, if you then try to take that away from the public that is a big disincentive and that is not what the Bill is setting out to do. Similarly, we have strategy groups which are themed scrutiny, all members are present on those strategy groups, every single member has one place on a strategy group. They have a themed approach where we bring in members of the public but mostly outside organisations into those strategy groups which have a themed basis. They actually scrutinise what is going on or bring new ideas to the council. Again, if we have to change that in any way because of the Act that would be a disincentive to those members of the public who have engaged in what we are doing. That is why we became Council of the Year, because we have lots of outside people who were saying how good we were at engaging them in the work of the authority. That is really why I feel that we are very, very concerned that if we have to go down that route then we will end up damaging the work that we have already put into place. The way we look at it is that it is the framework and we are now beginning to build on that framework by introducing partnerships with outside organisations and the partnership we have got with the County council within the partnership committee, which again we hope to be decision making, would not be able to happen under the Bill.

  Baroness Hamwee: Thank you. Perhaps we should explain that the reason for a bit of a frisson was that was a very close vote which just appeared on the screen behind you.


  612. Can I just ask you one question before I ask Lord Carnarvon to come in. Is it possible that the area committee of a particular area could be of a different political control than the main council?

  (Ms Shortland) Yes, they are. The Liberal Democrats control the council but we only control two area committees and we have two hung area committees. Before the elections we had one area committee that we did not have control of at all and the Conservatives in that area voted in an independent chairman. We do not have a problem with that at all. If that is what the local people decide they want to do, they want to vote in people who are not of the same political persuasion as the main party, that is fine.

Mr Gray

  613. In my area of North Wiltshire there are two area committees and there is a real frisson as to whether or not the area committees can do something totally and utterly different than that decided by the council. What do you think about that?

  (Ms Shortland) What we have is council policy and the area committees work within council policy, they are not allowed to do anything outside the council policy. If they want to do something outside the council policy it has to be referred back to what is now the district executive or cabinet, if you want to call it a cabinet, it is just another name.

  614. If in a Conservative controlled area committee they say "we, the people of Malmesbury", the particular area I am talking about, "we want to do such and such, we are the duly elected representatives of the people, and we control the very large, almost unanimous, Conservative controlled Malmesbury area committee", what you are saying is that they can only do that if it is in line with Liberal Democrat policy across the whole of North Wiltshire.

  (Ms Shortland) We have what is called a no harm policy. An area committee can do things within their area, or activities within their area, as long as they do not harm the rest of the council as a whole. It depends exactly what you wanted to choose. If the Conservatives were running, say, one of our areas and they said "we want to halve the collection rate for the refuse collection" then that actually would be against council policy because you have a minimum standard. They would have to come to the district executive and demonstrate why they believed that they had the right to overturn that policy and take responsibility for it.

  615. One quick example: parking charges in town centres. What if an area committee says "we do not want parking charges, we want parking to be free in town centres" despite the fact that North Wiltshire District Council as a whole says there should be parking charges in all town centres? Would they be allowed to do that or not?

  (Ms Shortland) Yes, they would, but they would have to replace the revenue because it is corporate revenue.


  616. Love all.

  (Ms Shortland) That is actually a perfect example because my own area committee did just that. They decided they wanted to have Christmas free parking in our area and what we did was we used our discretionary budget, which is part of our budgets that are being devolved, and we took a decision to replace the lost revenue to the authority and give our people free parking and it really worked, it really increased the number of people staying in the town centres over Christmas.

  Mr Gray: What you describe sounds like paying lip service to local representation saying "be nice to the people" but the truth of the matter is the Liberal Democrats control the council, they will say what happens and you people can have as many area committees as you like, town councils, parish councils, but what is the use?

Baroness Hamwee

  617. My Lord Chairman, can we de-politicise this? I take the point that Mr Gray is making but can we say "controlling administration" because the same example could apply elsewhere.

  (Ms Shortland) I wish he would come and have a look at what we are doing because it really does not happen like that. We have multi-party co-operation. The new cabinet structure, or district executive as we call it, is multi-party and everybody is working together for the people we represent, it is not as confrontational as I think you want to believe it should be.

  Mr Gray: Sorry, being political, I am talking cynically about North Wilshire District Council which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats and the area structure is opposed by both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party and by the two Independents and their experience is it is not working. Lip service is a kind of Liberal Democrat "be nice to the people" sort of thing and all the decisions are controlled by the Liberal Democrats in the cabinet itself.

  Chairman: I do not think we can hold South Somerset responsible for North Wilshire.

  Mr Gray: I am using my own constituency as an example.


  618. I appreciate that.

  (Ms Shortland) That is why we need flexibility within the Bill.

Earl of Carnarvon

  619. I understood during the vote that the district council, hence Somerset and Somerset County Council are the same political persuasion. They do not have a serious problem politically. Do you think that there would be a difficulty if that was not the case?

  (Ms Shortland) In terms of the joint working that we have with the county council, I do not believe it would be difficult if the same people who are presently in opposition on the county council then became administration because they are party to the joint working arrangements that we have. In fact, there are not any opposition councillors within South Somerset's part of the county council but the Leader of the Opposition expressed at the Conservative Group how he has taken a full part in the partnership committee and comes along to it because he believes that he wants to see it work and see how it operates. The county council has a view to try and make it work in other districts as well.

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