Examination of Witnesses (Questions 606
THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999
MERRICK R COCKELL
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
(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.
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
The Committee suspended from 4.49 p.m. to 4.57
p.m. for a division in the House of Lords.
Chairman: Lady 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
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.
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
(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?
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
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
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
(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.