Memorandum by the Regional Assembly for
Yorkshire and Humberside (LAG 50)
1. The Regional Assembly for Yorkshire and
Humberside is the democractic voice of the region representing
the 22 local authorities both nationally and in Europe. It has
cross party support and was formed in July 1996 with offices in
Wakefield and Brussels. It brought together the Regional Association,
Regional Planning Conference and the Brussels team. The Assembly
is led by the Leaders Group which is all 22 Leaders of councils.
There is also a political post (part-time) of Leader of the Assembly
and a chair and four other office holders with portfolios covering
spatial planning, rural affairs, education, social care, and LGA
links. The Assembly supports local authorities across a wide range
of activity. This includes strengthening education, securing a
fair share of public sector resources and private sector investment,
promoting sustainable communities, introducing e-government and
communications and so on. The Assembly has produced Draft Regional
Planning Guidance for the region which includes a Regional Transport
Strategy and was taken forward together with the Regional Economic
Strategy. These strategies were jointly launched, jointly consulted
upon and jointly tested by the same sustainability appraisal.
The emphasis is on planning for a sustainable future by strengthening
our towns and cities, improving our competitiveness, regenerating
our communities and looking after our environment.
2. The Regional Chamber for Yorkshire and
Humberside is the region-wide partnership body which for example
the RDA is obliged to consult on its work. It is made up of 35
stakeholders which includes the local authorities. It also includes
the TUC, CBI, Chambers of Commerce, Association of Colleges, Churches
Regional Commission, Environment Agency, NHS Executive, Cultural
Consortium, Universities Association, Rural Community Council,
Training and Enterprise Councils, Forum for Voluntary and Community
Organisations as well as RDA, Government Office, the Local Council
Association as observers and the Police as associates. It operates
through five commissions on economy, skills, sustainability, infrastructure,
and quality of life. The Regional Chamber has in place a single
strategic framework "signed up" to by all the partners
which provides the overarching framework for the region. This
is "Advancing Together" which has become the brand for
key regional activities.
3. The role of the Assembly and Chamber
is currently under review with the intention to move towards a
single organisation with much more of the business done through
the wider partnership.
4. On 24 January 2000 the Assembly set its
regional modernisation strategy. This was put together in partnership
with the region's Local Government Management Board and supported
by the DETR Modernisation Team. It was launched by Hilary Armstrong
MP in March 2000 at a regional conference in York.
5. The strategy is about supporting local
government in the region. It is about helping local government
manage change in response to the Government's Modernising Britain
agenda and its vision for local government identified in the White
Paper "In Touch with the People" and the two Local Government
Acts 1999 and 2000.
6. There is nothing new though about local
government modernisation. Local government has always been innovative
and responsive to change and since its inception has been champion
of its communities adapting change to local circumstances and
providing for the rich diversity that is in evidence across the
region. Whatever the circumstances, local government is at the
front-line and this has been in evidence most recently with the
adverse weather conditions resulting in the autumn floods 2000.
In our region local authorities provided a first class emergency
7. What is new in the strategy is the role
of the Assembly and wider partners. It provides extra strategic
capacity for local government. This currently allows for:
greater involvement and ownership
of all the key regional players to support modernisation in the
building on existing plans and activities
of these wider partners, including Government Office for Yorkshire
and the Humber, Yorkshire Forward, as well as the DETR Modernisation
Team and the Local Government Management Board;
positioning the region at the leading
edge of efforts to enhance the governance and performance of local
authorities (recent survey work shows this region's local authorities
are the most responsive to modernisation outside of London);
provision of a framework and steer
for the work of the DETR and Government Modernisation Team in
8. The Strategy is based on:
providing a single voice for dialogue
and lobbying with Ministers on local government modernisation
an extensive roll-out programme of
regional workshops, seminars, training and experience sharing
for elected Members;
region-wide officer networks on new
constitutions, best value and scrutiny;
joint working with regional officers
from various local government auditors, Best Value Inspection
Service, District Audit and the Audit Commission;
developing robust intelligence about
authorities in the region and progress on modernisation.
9. The activities have included conferences,
regional workshops, networks as well as regional products such
as political management simulations and the development of a knowledge
warehouse based on the development of our interactive website
which will provide an easy means of knowledge transfer, dialogue
and sharing of good practice.
10. The setting up of a regional New Constitutions
Network has made possible the Assembly's opportunity to respond
to this Select Committee and it was following discussion at its
meeting on 9 January 2001 that it was decided to see what evidence
we might produce.
11. Our response to the five key areas identified
by the Committee is below.
Preliminary views on whether the changes in political
management structures are likely to contribute to greater efficiency,
transparency and accountability in local government.
12. The evidence from within Yorkshire and
Humberside suggests that where transitional political management
arrangements have been in place for some time there is stronger
confidence in their modernisation and new structures. There is
also greater recognition of efficiency and accountability benefits.
Just about all the local authorities in the region now have a
new Cabinet system in place. The evidence suggests that as a result
decision-making is more efficient and focussed. A number of authorities
champion weekly Cabinet meetings, which take place in public.
Barnsley MBC and Wakefield MDC in particular are realising the
benefits and have had new arrangements in place now for about
13. In some other parts of the region new
arrangements are relatively recent and it is clearly too early
for those local authorities to make judgements about their impact.
Some of the smaller authorities have only just moved towards a
new system held back by capacity and resource constraints to implement
14. East Riding of Yorkshire Council have
had arrangements in place since May 2000 and argue that the increase
in corporate working and greater involvement which results from
the new arrangements has to be balanced against greater efficiency.
Executive members are finding it necessary to consult widely to
stay on top of their wide portfolios. East Riding Council also
indicate that non-contentious and less complex issues have been
speeded up as a result of the new arrangements. However, the contentious
and more complicated issues are not helped by the new arrangements
because they keep bouncing back and forth between Executive and
Scrutiny which takes more time. This is to be expected but it
remains to be tested whether the outcome is higher quality decisions.
15. Elsewhere, scrutiny is really starting
to bite as experimentation with the system develops. In Barnsley
MBC Cabinet spokespersons are very seriously having to justify
what they have done and what they propose to do, to their colleagues.
If they do not convince them the Scrutiny and Overview Commissions
can, and do, force them to think again.
16. Overall the evidence in the region emphasises
how important it is that the new arrangements respect local diversity,
flexibility and experimentation. A number of particular issues
impact differently upon different circumstances. For example,
East Riding Council is concerned about the requirements for cabinets
to have a single leader. This does not sit well with a balanced
Council. The joint leaders in East Riding have always worked well
together and been jointly accountable for leading the decision-making
process. A "single leader" approach imposed by the proposals
works against what they see as sound democractic and mature decision-making
in the interests of the area. Equally, there is a concern that
decision-making by individual portfolio holding Executive Members
does not work well in a "balanced" environment.
17. The overall experience of East Riding
suggests these new arrangements are really not appropriate in
such balanced environments. East Riding suggest that the proposals
have really been designed and shaped to fit councils with single
party majorities. Whether this is right or not the evidence available
in this region does seem to show that where there is a single
party majority that the new arrangements are working well, but
there is no cause and effect link with a range of possible factors
to take into account not least of which is the likelihood of a
more complex environment provided by politically balanced councils.
Ultimately, local government is about allowing for diversity and
ensuring that Central Government does not impose "one size
fits all". Proposals must allow for differences whether its
big or small authorities, urban and rural, single party or hung
councils, single or two tier authorities and so on.
The impact of the new arrangements on:
(a) the role of local councillors
18. Local authorities in the region have
been working hard to utilise their new arrangements to clarify
and increase the involvement and role of councillors in their
authorities and communities. There is generally an acceptance
that there are three key functions, decision-making, representing,
and scrutinising. Those authorities which have had transitional
political management arrangements in place for some time are finding
that the new arrangements are starting to work and some councillors
are really starting to feel more empowered. There is evidence
to suggest that this is happening in some cases at the ward level
as well as through scrutiny activities.
19. Other councils are finding it hard to
break out from previous practices and the "old" status
quo. The views about the benefits are very mixed. Some councils
welcome that the cabinet now provides a single focus for the political
management of the councila focus which was not there under
the committee system. Others are more concerned about the impact
of the cabinet system on back-bench councillors and front bench
opposition, who feel excluded from mainstream council activities.
This has led to widespread disillusionment in some areas. Harrogate
BC for example takes the view that some decisions which are not
fundamental in their own right, but which have political significance,
are no longer being debated.
20. Some elected members have clearly got
their teeth into scrutiny and community representative activities.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that representing the community
to council, rather than the other way round, is starting to emerge
much more. Authorities refer to many examples of good practice
in both area forums and scrutiny. Wakefield MDC for example refer
to the establishment of a Community Assembly for its District,
Local Listening Days, taking the Cabinet on tour to local schools,
presentations by ward members to full Council. Barnsley MBC refer
to in-depth investigations carried out by their scrutiny commissions
on issues such as road safety, the countryside, the future of
the Magistrates Courts, the policy aspects to licensing, caring
for carers, the use of IT by elected members, the way in which
the Council has responded to the Crime and Disorder Act and Domestic
(b) the role of local authority officers
21. There is an emerging view from the evidence
in the region that the new arrangements are improving corporate
working. Under the old structures in some authorities the Committee
Chairs built up close relationships with "their" chief
officers. They often developed a common agenda for the services,
independent of the Chairs of other Committees or the Leader of
the Council. This is now changing. In those areas chief officers
no longer have the close, exclusive relationship that existed,
and they do not manage their services without reference to other
parts of the organisation. Many of the regions authorities now
operate within a corporate model, where business directors with
portfolios sit within a matrix of activities to enable a focus
on cross-cutting issues and customer focused outcomes. This is
all good news for corporate working but this must not be at the
expense of service improvements where the link between Committee
Chair and the chief officer led to good and improving service
delivery. Both need to come together. There is also the issue
about elected members increasing their executive power and the
impact this has on the role of chief executives. This requires
re-defining in the light of the overall new arrangements but the
evidence suggests does not mean that the role is diminished but
in need of re-alignment and could be enhanced.
22. Some concern has been expressed about
the bureaucracy associated with the Forward Plan.
(c) the local electorate
23. The evidence in the region suggests
it is too early to assess the impact on the local electorate.
The initial feedback in East Riding for example suggests that
many people feel the "old" system worked well. Other
authorities reported greater interest from communities in response
to the new arrangements. Barnsley went so far as to say that its
transitional arrangements have helped to stabilise and re-engage
residents from a position of increasing disillusionment and decline.
Turnouts are slowly increasing and all seats are once again being
contested. Area forums in particular have been popular. In Kingston
Upon Hull CC the local electorate is now much more engaged with
literally as many as up to a hundred turning out in area forums.
Also, press interest in Cabinet business is higher than press
coverage under the Committee system.
Local authorities' experience of setting up overview
and scrutiny committees and the role of area committees or other
24. The evidence in the region suggests
overview and scrutiny committees are starting to bed down well.
Barnsley MBC has done extensive work in this field. Key lessons
include: preventing the scrutiny role taking the form of "old
style" committees (avoiding traditional agendas, reports
etc); encouraging their operation in a non-partisan way ("politics"
follows outcomes); providing dedicated officer support (and don't
let others report to them); involve the wider community; co-opt
members of the public on to them; ensure they are member-led;
balance their workboth scrutinising and "call in"
of key decisions and carrying out detailed investigations. In
Wakefield their scrutiny "Panels" include representatives
from their Community Assembly and the scrutiny Panels are developing
an integrated role with the Best Value reviews.
25. A variety of devolved arrangements are
in place across the region. In many places area forums are becoming
effective "sounding boards" and proving instrumental
to developing the local community planning process. In other areas
stronger linkages are being made with parish and town councils
in line with the Rural White Paper.
Difficulties authorities have experienced in implementing
the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000 (Part II) and
views on the inadequacy of the guidance and how it might be improved
26. There is concern in the region about
the failure of the Act to provide for Cabinet deputies. Whilst
there is much greater clarity about who is responsible for what
decisions in the new political management arrangements it seems
reasonable to allow for deputies. The advantages are demonstrated
in Barnsley MBC where deputies both bridge the relationship between
the Executive and backbenchers, providing effective "honest"
brokering and reduce the pressure of work on the portfolio holders.
27. Generally, the guidance provided by
DETR has been welcome but there is concern to see less prescription
and greater flexibility to allow for local circumstances. Some
authorities would have welcomed a model scheme of delegation as
part of the guidance on Modular Constitutions. It would also have
been helpful if, at the time of publication of the "New Council
ConstitutionsConsultation Guidelines for English Local
Authorities", DETR had issued some general, standard information
to the public. Such an initiative might have assisted in stimulating
interest in the debate locally on the options.
The extent to which local authorities are opting
for the directly elected mayor model and the advantages and disadvantages
of such a model
28. Few authorities in the region had much
to say about this issue and are currently consulting their local
electorates. Concern has been expressed about the directly elected
mayor model. Reasons are essentially about appropriateness, the
lack of checks and balances on a mayor, the dangers of extremism,
and the permanence of the position. However, about five or six
authorities in the region have mayoral petitions currently running
in their areas.
29. In conclusion the regions' local authorities
are engaged in major change management programmesoften
self stimulatedwhich are addressing governments' modernisation
agenda. Local government has an impressive track record of turning
new ideas into practical solutions that work on the ground and
this is proving to be no exception.