Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620
THURSDAY 8 JULY 1999
MERRICK R COCKELL
620. Can I ask a question to all three bodies
who are represented. Would you yourselves support the fourth model
which would be something like a cabinet or executive with the
existing committee structure?
(Ms Shortland) I would support a fourth
model if it allowed us to continue working in the way that we
are working. I could not support a fourth model that was just
another model which meant that we actually lost everything that
we had been fighting for and feel so passionate about that worked
for our authority and our people.
621. Can I ask you the same question?
(Mr Smith) The three models in the Bill
are all ones which give a specific executive role to a limited
number of councillors, one or a very few. The idea of a fourth
model which is status quo plus, which actually was not precisely
the question but was the earlier point
(Mr Smith) I think I would be reluctant
to have it labelled "status quo plus" because my authority
does not want to be regarded with the dinosaurs, it actually does
want to change but it is fundamentally opposed to the principle
that you have to divide councillors into executive and non executive
councillors. I think that there needs to be a model in the Bill.
My authority believes very strongly that there needs to be a model
in the Bill that allows for there to be a changed, improved version
of local government but without the split that is inherent in
the Bill at the moment. Whilst that can be achieved at referendum
by fighting for an existing system, I have to say it is not a
very level playing field in those circumstances if you are seeking
to put forward the model that South Somerset have or Epsom and
Ewell have contrary to the three that are in the Bill. My authority
would say "yes, please, there must be a fourth model which
allows for diversity".
623. I am not saying "status quo",
I never used that word.
(Mr Smith) No.
624. I actually used the word "cabinet"
plus the existing committee structure.
(Mr Smith) The model that my authority
has developed has a cabinet but not in the sense that is recognised
in the Bill in that the cabinet does not have decision making
powers, it is monitoring and advising and proposing policy and
neither does it have what we would regard as a traditional committee
model in that it is looking to develop that jointly with members
of the public. There is a flaw in the Bill at the moment in that
it does not allow us to engage the public formally in that process.
If I may just use one small example, if my council decides it
wants to give to the local sports council a sum of money to distribute
amongst local sports clubs it is allowed to do so. If it wants
to set up a board of its own on which representatives of the sports
council sit and it wants to delegate that same decision to that
body, it cannot give the sports council the vote. I think that
is a real problem with the proposals as they presently exist.
Earl of Carnarvon: I have to declare an interest,
Chairman, because I am a ratepayer of Kensington and Chelsea.
625. Would Kensington and Chelsea like to add
(Cllr Paget-Brown) Yes. Could we say
we very much favour the option of being able to integrate the
committee system as an executive system because we think that
the committee system allows decisions to be taken in public and
in advance of the public and in front of the public that they
affect. If decisions are taken behind closed doors by a small
executive cadre and the other councillors only have a scrutinising
post hoc role we do not think that really is public involvement.
A committee system does allow all points of view to be expressed.
It allows all proposals to be scrutinised and cross-examined before
final decisions are taken. We have many examples where decisions
have been amended, changed or deferred because they have been
taken in committee or challenged in committee.
Earl of Carnarvon
626. Can I just add a very quick one. In the
London Borough you will be required to discuss with the public
in some sort of referendum way, do you really believe that the
public are interested in structures of local government or are
they really only interested in the services the local authority
(Cllr Paget-Brown) I think the public
in our borough like to be consulted. I do not think they are at
all interested in the mechanisms themselves. One of the earlier
questions was what mechanisms are in place for involving the public
more in decision making. We have plenty of examples where we have
set up recently new ways of involving, talking to the public about
anything from a small traffic management scheme which might be
controversial in a few streets to major issues which could affect
the whole borough, for example the Unitary Development Plan, the
Princess Diana Garden in Kensington Gardens. The public wants
to be consulted and they want the mechanisms to be consulted but
they do not care how the decisions are ultimately reached.
627. My understanding of what we are here to
do is that we are looking at how well the proposed new Bill may
or may not work. We are not here to decide "We do not like
anything about it" or "We would like another Bill".
Within those constraints could I ask each of the councils to envisage
for us how the best of their structures might fit in with any
of the models on offer and, if not, to what extent one could add
additional amendments to make them work? For example, I could
see in South Somerset that it would be fairly easy to amend the
Bill to allow area committees to operate in the way South Somerset
has suggested but it would not be so easy to match up a straight
forward committee system with the executive system, there would
be contradictions between the two. Those are the sorts of things
I have in mind. Consequent to that, particularly interested in
Epsom and Ewell, how do you manage a system where clearly there
will never be, as it were, a majority party, assuming it continues
in its present state, there will not be a majority party, yet
a cabinet and both former cabinet systems clearly take some form
of decisions and therefore has an effect on the way the council
(Mr Smith) Shall I kick off, Chairman,
on that one in particular? The decision making structure of the
council is set so that there is a representative of each ward
on the main decision making committees, policy and resources committee
and the commissions and there is also a different member from
each ward on the scrutiny committee. So there is a clear involvement
of all councillors across that decision making and scrutiny process.
The cabinet is not decision making but it is clearly very influential
and it is drawn solely from the majority group of residents' association
councillors. It has no power to make decisions but its views,
its recommendations, its notes of proceedings, are available to
all members of the council and, indeed, to all staff.
628. Is it de facto decision making?
(Mr Smith) Rather less so than de
facto decision making that other councils will have experienced
in a political and closed environment I would say from experience.
I think the key to it is that it is open influence because its
proceedings are minuted and are made available. There clearly
is a problem in terms of putting that into the structure of the
Bill which is not only about the three models but the whole structure
behind that in terms of how one defines what are executive arrangements
and assumes that split. Therefore, I think it would be difficult
for my borough to pursue the precise form of its structure within
the Bill as it is currently envisaged. What I will say is that
my authority has shown its ingenuity in the past, as many others
have. We have lived for many years with a situation where individual
councillors have no right to take executive decisions but the
reality is rather different, as we all know, using the law as
it presently stands to get round that. I would regret it if I
and colleagues in similar like minded authorities had to spend
the next ten years devising legal fictions to get round the executive
structure. I am absolutely sure that each authority will end up
doing what it wants to do. My authority will never end up looking
like the situation that you have heard described in Hammersmith
and Fulham. I make no criticism of that, it is just that it will
not look like that whatever the structure is.
629. Perhaps your recommendation then under
your circumstances would be to have a much less formal statement
of what the executive actually does and therefore would allow
your structure to work better?
(Mr Smith) The fundamental principle
for my authority is that the key decisions must be made in bodies
in which all wards are represented, which are open and accountable.
We would like a situation in which we could also involve the public
and interested groups directly in that decision making if we can.
630. I note you have suggested that the power
of economic, social and environmental well-being could be advanced,
as it were, into this Bill in order to assist your deliberations.
(Mr Smith) I think that assists the community
planning process which we are all now trying to get to grips with.
I think it assists it in two ways. One is that it gives an extra
validity to the local authority leadership of that process across
a wide variety of public and other agencies. The second factor
is that it gives self-confidence back to councillors in order
to enable them to do that process after a long period in which
that self-confidence has been knocked. I can say that as an officer
speaking here rather than as a councillor.
(Mr Cockell) Baroness Hamwee earlier said let us take
the politics out of it and I would just say there is no division
in Kensington and Chelsea between us and our Labour minoritywe
are the inverse of Hammersmith and Fulham, two-thirds Conservative,
one-third Labourthey are as one with us on this. Specifically
in answer to the question I do not think there is any way by another
amendment here, another amendment there, of changing this Bill
which is essentially highly prescriptive. It is clear that the
DETR are going to lay down the requirements of the constitution,
the role of the executive, indeed the size of the executive in
Kensington and Chelsea's case, eight areas, in other areas referred
to by the Local Government Authority down to three people. There
is not the ability within the current Bill for us to do what we
in local government wish to do. We are all different, we all have
different ways of approaching it. We have reached those ways through
history, through political control, through a variety of things.
Lord Hunt's Bill would have allowed us that variety and the flexibility.
That is fundamentally what we are all asking for today. It is
not just, as I say, a little bit here, a little bit there, there
needs to be a substantial review of this Bill and whether it is
status quo plusI accept the objections, it is difficult
to try and achieve a phrase that sums it all upin simple
terms it is that those of us who are running good authorities
of whatever political persuasion believe we should be allowed
to continue to do that. Our own people in our localities have
chosen a variety of systems by voting for us year in, year out
or as they think some of us have let down our local communities
and therefore changing political control. We need that flexibility
and a far less prescriptive Bill.
631. Are you effectively saying that there is
no way this legislation conflicts with what you want?
(Mr Cockell) No, because we will inevitably
end up with an executive, a mixture. To one side we will have
amateur local councillors who are simply there just to represent
their communities, a perfectly reasonable thing we all do as part
of all our responsibilities today, and we will have this executive
group that has great power of patronage, control of council allowances
if you wish to go down that Hammersmith and Fulham fully paid
way, a change from the tradition that I think a lot of us around
this table and many of you have been part of, public service where
in recent years we have changed the allowance system to an annual
fee rather than taking individual per meeting charges and the
risk of self-perpetuation. If we have a cabinet system, say Kensington
and Chelsea have a cabinet system, if we have a vacancy coming
up and I am running that cabinet I could just cherry pick somebody
from outside. They do not need to be on the council if there is
a vacancy in a coming up, bring in somebody totally from outside
and straight on to the executive, no requirement of experience
in a local authority or anything of that sort. There is an enormous
risk in that and inevitably there will be an unwillingness to
lose power by that executive.
632. Does that not undermine the whole Bill?
If you put a clause in there that says "other councils, other
circumstances, other bodies", for example let us imagine
75 per cent all councillors voting for another model, the council
would be allowed to have it.
(Mr Cockell) If it is such a wide ranging
amendment then I fully accept that may be possible. I am not in
any way an expert on how you might do this but broadly I do not
think small amendments will achieve that.
633. I notice you said "post hoc scrutiny"
only and that is not what is in the Bill.
(Mr Cockell) There certainly will be
no public scrutiny at the time that decisions are made.
634. As far as I understand the Bill, the Bill
suggests that scrutiny can be prior to decisions being made.
(Mr Cockell) There is a variety of choices
that can be made by a given authority. Certainly if it is forced
upon us we will end up trying to replicate the committee system
in some other way if that was at all possible. There is no insistence
in the Bill that there is scrutiny before decisions can be made.
Very often the sorts of decisions that we take, frankly the moment
they are taken they have implications. So to change them retrospectively
becomes very difficult, for instance closing an old person's home.
That has staffing implications that may lead very quickly to a
closure even with supposed scrutiny at some time in the future.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
635. Each of you come from very different councils
and each of you are defending the good job that you are doing.
Can you tell us what the turnouts have been in your local elections
and how they have changed over the years and whether you acknowledge
that there is any problem at all with what I would guess would
be fairly poor turnouts? That is my first question. The second
question is I would like to ask you about how you run your own
political groups. I must say from my own experience, and fairly
limited experience, in opposition in Wandsworth, all the big decisions
were not only made within the political groups but they were made
within a very few numbers of political groups, sometimes that
was a systematic way of doing it and sometimes it was an ad hoc
way of doing it. In my experience the reality is decisions were
made in political groups in private. Do you not acknowledge that
there is some strength in putting in a system that recognises
that in reality decisions will be made in private but if they
can be made with proper officer support and proper record keeping
they are likely to be better decisions?
(Ms Shortland) Turnout is going down
like it is everywhere. I do not believe that the council's structure
is what is driving the turnout down. Within my own authority what
we have recognised is a need for education. You can go into schools,
I have been into schools with 17 year olds who are coming up to
vote in a few months' time for the first time and they do not
even know how to vote. They do not know what the voting system
is or why we have a voting system in this country. What we want
to do is to actually start with very much younger children and
work with the county council, in partnership with the county council,
on trying to build in some fun education activities around local
government and why we have local government, what voting is all
about. It is interesting if you sit at polling stations how few
people actually bring children with them to vote nowadays. When
I was a child, and I know that my parents have told me, you always
took your children with you because that is what you did, and
you showed them what you were doing and why you were doing it.
I think we have lost that. I think that is probably where we should
make a start with trying to increase turnout with very young children.
It will take time. Hopefully if you are looking at 11 year olds,
by the time they come to vote we will have increasing turnout
because they will know what they are doing. In terms of how I
run the political group, we have now a district executive which
is only made of nine members and we have the majority on the district
executive, it is politically proportional. We do not have group
meetings before district executive meetings. What I will say is
that there will always be very important decisions for the council
which you discuss at your group meeting in advance. I hope that
we have now learnt that what we do for the big important decisions
is have a group meeting at which we ask the officers to come and
be present and that is offered to the other political groups at
the same time. My council is at the moment going through a review
because we have transferred our housing stock, a review of management
structures. We asked the Chief Executive and Director of Resources
to come and give us a presentation on where the Chief Executive
got throughout that process. That came to the group meeting and
obviously we then had a discussion about whether we wanted to
accept the proposals that were coming forward and what changes
we would want to make to that. The same was offered to the other
political groups. In terms of what you are saying I believe that
we are moving far closer towards the idea of what you are describing
where we have proper professional advice and, I hope, proper training
before we make very important decisions.
636. Can I just ask you, following Lord Ponsonby's
question, are you saying that you offer a briefing facility to
the opposition on a proposal which you have not actually decided
(Ms Shortland) Yes.
637. What happens if you decide not to implement
it, do you not have all the political flack from the opposition
for something you have decided not to do?
(Ms Shortland) It is a risk we take.
I believe in open government that if the Chief Executive is coming
to our political group, we should offer the same presentation
to the other political groups. I have a dialogue with the political
group leaders, the Independent group leader and the Conservative
group leader, and I ask them if they have got any problems that
they would come and discuss it with me which they do. We have
a discussion about where we think things can be altered. As long
as the dialogue is two way then there is not a problem. It is
if you get a political entrenchment, if you say "No, we are
going to make a political decision on this, we are not going to
listen to what anybody else says". The difficulty I have
is that we have had a will to change, a will to do things differently
and you have to have that will, that political will to want to
do things differently.
638. I think there may be a different culture
in different parts of the country. I think those of us from urban
areas might be surprised to hear that you could even float a controversial
notion which does not get implemented and the opposition would
be so kind as not to exploit it.
(Ms Shortland) They do sometimes. It
is a risk.
(Mr Smith) Two questions. The turnout in Epsom and
Ewell was 30 per cent, typical of a decline generally across the
country, significantly lower than it has been over the past ten
years, although prior to that there was a significant tradition
of uncontested elections in many wards. So a slightly difficult
one. I think that there is a point in relation to that which is
the turnout of the elections would not necessarily be accepted
as the sole arbiter of the health of local democracy. I think
there is an issue which is one we have sought to address around
the extent of polling of citizens panels of, in one case, a ward
referendum, a significant amount of that sort of research and
activity which sits alongside the electoral turnout issue. That
is why my council particularly wanted to go down the route of
trying to engage that level of activity directly rather than just
at election time. I suppose I cannot miss the opportunity to say
that the electoral turnout might have increased if local authorities
actually had powers which their local community regarded as being
the appropriate ones to their elected representatives locally.
On decision making of groups, as you will appreciate, as a Chief
Executive I am perhaps not best qualified to answer this. I will
say along with Jill here that I am invited to group meetings,
majority and minority group meetings, to offer advice as appropriate
and that facility is offered. What I can say, having sat in every
council meeting for the last dozen years or so, is that I detect
no evidence of any organisation prior to the meeting as to how
the vote should go when the debate in public happens.
(Cllr Paget-Brown) The turnout in the 1998 local election
in Kensington and Chelsea was 28 per cent down from 35 per cent
four years earlier. We have a history of relatively low turnout,
partly because the annual turnover of electors in the borough
I think is unique, about 40 per cent. We have a huge number of
people moving in and out of the borough, and quite a number of
people who have other homes and other places where they vote outside
the borough. That is one reason why that figure is low. I think
it is also worth recalling, as my colleague on my right has said,
that in 1945 we raised 80 per cent of the revenue that we spent
from local taxpayers. This year, in 1999, that figure is less
than 20 per cent. Clearly their financial interests are not as
tightly or closely affected as they were some years ago. In terms
of trying to get the turnout up, we support the concept of a rolling
register because as soon as the register is published we find
that a lot of it is out of date, so that would help us. In terms
of political decision making, yes, both the political parties
represented on the council have meetings in private and obviously
as the majority party that is where decisions on policy are discussed
and are reached or are sometimes amended. I think it is important
to say that there is a lot of consultation on key policy issues
publicly before those decisions are made and the public will be
involved. It may be a survey on a parking scheme, it may be a
questionnaire locally or it may be a large public meeting on something
like the environmental policy statement. Both of the political
parties, the opposition party as well, have access to officers
independently for advice and policy guidance. I think it is important
if you are taking decisions you want to be accountable for them
but the political group does discuss them and does agree that
those are the decisions that 40 of us or 35 of us believe are
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
639. When you spoke earlier you were talking
about the openness of the committee system and the cut and thrust
of the committee system. It sounds to me like you have made your
decisions before you get to the committee system.
(Cllr Paget-Brown) No, that is not the
case because the committee system is looking at a wide range of
issues and it is only one or two of those that will be discussed
in a political meeting. A number of issues which get discussed
in committee affect local people but perhaps not in a party political
sense. It may be to do with an environmental policy, it may be
to do with planning policy and it is very important that people
do get an opportunity to make their views known on that. The committee
system with councillors representing a geographical area and a
political spread of opinions enables that process to happen. As
I said in my opening remarks the decisions can be, and have been,
amended because of what has been said in committee. It is quite
easy for a chairman to defer a paper or to ask for officers to
bring it back at the next cycle or to investigate matters further
and that happens. If you are asking me about what the level of
the council tax should be, that is probably something best discussed
privately and then brought forward as the party's proposal which
is then put before the electors.