Memorandum by Councillor Peter Munn (LAG
These views are personal and are in no way representative
of the views of the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, or the Liberal
Democrats, or indeed of any other grouping to which I may belong
I am a Councillor in the East Riding of Yorkshire
Council, a Unitary Authority. I appreciate the opportunity to
comment on Local Authority Governance.
In the East Riding Council, I am a "back-bench"
member through choice. Under the previous Committee arrangements,
I sat on the DSO Board, and was a member of the Education Committee,
and the Planning Sub-Committee.
1. Preliminary views on whether the changes
in political management structures are likely to contribute to
greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in local Government
1.1. The reorganisation the East Riding
of Yorkshire Council went through last April has been little short
of a disaster for democracy and taxpayers. Lack of personal accountability,
an excuse mentality, and a lack of vision have characterised our
progress. All executive decisions are now in the hands of a minority
of loud Councillors. I detect a lack of confidence by the Officer
corps. The result is that decisions are increasingly being made
by default, in spite of, rather than because of, Member involvement.
1.2. With the very wide spread of Executive
decision-making, it is almost impossible to make sure that the
nuances of decisions are taken into account. The result is that
the quality of the decisions is sub-optimal. An Agenda some 50
items in length is impossible for our Executive to deal with adequately
within the time frame dictated by the reporting function.
1.3. Alternative models involving greater
delegation to Officers were considered, and are still being considered.
However, greater delegation implies lack of democratic scrutiny
and control, and has so far been rejected by this Council.
1.4. We have struggled to make the system
we have been forced to work as transparent as it was before we
"modernised". However, the system we have is much more
opaque than the system it replaced. As a back-bench member, I
have no defined mechanism for influencing the decision-making
in the Council. What the public make of our system, I shudder
1.5. While accountability is assumed to
be strengthened by the new structures, this is a fallacy. In a
balanced Council, accountability rests with the Council as a whole.
However, under our Executive system, accountability rests only
with the Executive, which is not necessarily representative of
the Council. This leads to schisms, uncertainty, bad decision-making,
and a lack of public confidence in the Council as a whole.
2. The impact of the new arrangements on (a)
the role of Councillors (b) the role of local authority officers
(c) the local electorate
2.1 I have the feeling that I am actually
getting out into the community less, although my time sheets tell
me otherwise. The question is whether I am more or less effective
under the new arrangements than I was before. The answer is unequivocal;
as a back-bench member, I am less effective under the new arrangements
2.2. As for spending less time in the County
Hall than previously, that too is not true. I now have to attend
seminars just to find out what decisions other people are likely
to be making on my behalf, to attend meetings to influence them
individually, and yet further meetings to influence them collectively.
2.3. In their relationships with Members,
local authority Officers have gone back to the "bad old days".
Where there are no fixed points in a relationship (which is the
case between officers and back-bench Members) then both Members
and Officers basically do what they can, and want to. Drift, lack
of direction, and individual "enterprise" has been the
2.4. The local electorate generally doesn't
care very much how the local authority organises itself, except
that it wants the dustbins emptied on time, the streets swept,
the children off the streets and in school, and their Council
houses repaired. Oh yes, and they don't want to pay for it. Nobody
so far has banged on my door demanding an elected Mayor. On the
whole, they like what they have, and they dislike change. There
has, in short, been no effect on the electorate, and I consider
it my business to make sure that there isn'tno matter what
political structure the Council adopts.
3. Experience of setting up overview and scrutiny
committees, the role of area Committees or other devolved arrangements
3.1 Review and Scrutiny Committees are not
getting to grips with what they ought to be at. They ought to
be a source of radical thinking. They are in fact staunch defenders
of the status quo. This is not necessarily the fault of Members.
No Officer is going to say that what they do is not for the best
in the best of all possible worlds. No Member is going to disagree
if he or she wants co-operation in future.
3.2 Although area committees form part of
one party's manifesto in the Council, there has been no progress
on this form of devolved decision making, nor is there likely
to be. The East Riding has area planning sub-committees with devolved
powers. But then, it always did have, even before it was "modernised".
3.3. The East Riding is now fully parished,
and I was heavily involved in putting the final parishes into
place. The opportunities provided for devolved decision making
through this route are so far small. My experience as a member
of one of the new parish Councils is that I would not trust them
to make responsible decisions. Although in theory, parish Councils
could provide a focus for local decision making, it would need
a major investment in time and resources before this route would
have any public confidence in this area.
4. Difficulties authorities have experienced
in implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000
4.1 One insurmountable problem is that of
making the back-bench voice heard. The Executive makes the decisions,
and Scrutiny and Review criticises them. However, if preferment
is in the hands of Executive Members, then Review and Scrutiny
members are not going to "rock the boat". In any case,
not all back-bench members are members of Review and Scrutiny
Committees. Even if they were, their specialised knowledge may
not be harnessed in the most efficient way. The harnessing of
talents is particularly important in local Government, whose officers
sometimes lack the breadth of experience of the average member.
There is a need for back-bench members to have dissenting voices
properly considered by the Executive. While this need is obvious
in a Parliament of 650 members, it is equally needed in smaller
chambers. Whether this is an efficient way of proceeding is, however,
debatable. If it is not efficient, then the system shouldn't let
it be done. But if not doing it denies the democratic process,
then the system is wrong and ought to be changed.
5. Directly elected mayors
5.1 There is nothing I can say to help on
this topic. It might work for large conurbations with different
political systems (such as New York, Paris, and Moscow), but it
won't work in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Perhaps the solution
is to abolish the East Riding of Yorkshireagain.
6. Other matters
6.1 I cannot help but conclude that the
political models developed by Government, and the political structures
we have set up to implement them, have arisen from the confrontational
philosophy of the British legal system. It is a well-known fact
that human beings, confronted with a problem, co-operate to solve
it. The adversarial system of splitting a representative body
into an artificial executive/back-bench, Mayor/legislature, Manager/managed
split is inimical to most models of human behaviour. The fact
that it has survived in Parliament is not a tribute to its robustness;
it is a reflection that a Parliament of more than about 40 members
cannot work any other way. Once there is a well-defined minority,
there arises an equally well-defined majority to oppose them.
The East Riding Council, with a number of political Groups of
more or less equal size is unfitted to an adversarial system,
and developed a unique and effective mechanism up to April last
for dealing with local Governance. I would have welcomed the chance
to develop it further.