Memorandum by Liberal Democrat Group,
Waverley Borough Council (LGA 29)
This assessment of the consequences of the 2000
Act for Waverley Borough Council is made from the point of view
of a substantial opposition party of 24 Liberal Democrat members,
out of a total of 57, and where the majority Conservative Party
has 31. There are two labour members.
A pilot scheme of a Leader and Cabinet comprising
10 Conservative Executive members, with three Overview and Scrutiny
committees, chaired by opposition Liberal Democrat members, ran
until December 2001 when the new Constitution was agreed. A further
period of review was agreed for six months. The actual number
of the Executive is now eight.
The crucial aspect that is still under debate
is the role of Scrutiny as a method of holding the Executive to
account and the degree to which this is, or can be, subverted
to purposes of opposition.
The Council has been operating under the new
system for over one year. Many members do not regard it as successful
or appropriate to Waverley.
There is a dramatic reduction in
democratic accountability as the Executive, meeting officially
once a month, takes decisions. In reality informal and private
briefings, pre-meetings and group meetings control the Council's
Fewer policy decisions come to full
Council. As a forum full Council has limited opportunities for
debate. The exposure of important issues to the majority of backbenchers
is minimal. Overview Committee does allow previous exposure of
an issue and some in-put to policy development, but this is subject
to the majority vote, which may be whipped.
Executive members are individually
responsible for portfolios. They are not uniformly competent,
informed, or have the time for the responsibility, which used
to be spread within a service committee. Since they are subject
to a group process of selection they do not form an effective
There has been an increase in officer
power and the Executive now overturns very few officer recommendations.
There is a marked decline in member,
public and press attendance at Executive decision-making meetings
as there is no forum for debate and they are perceived as "very
Scrutiny committees can only advise
the Executive so there is no effective opposition. Executive members,
who can be questioned, are nevertheless "supported"
by officer reports so that the process of acquiring alternative
information rests heavily on the expertise of the opposition members.
The majority of councillors see themselves
as having no role and no opportunity to acquire the expertise
that might make them potential members of the Executive.
It is understood that the Act intended to achieve
a number of worthwhile objectives:
Improve democratic interest and accountability.
Involve more people and enterprises
in governance and service provision through partnerships.
Our conclusions are that most of these objectives
have not been met, will not be met, and in some key areas there
is a visible deterioration.
This negative outcome directly results from
the guidelines set by the government.
There is a concentration of decision-making
in the hands of so few, and the lack of "bite" in all
other processes, including scrutiny, has lowered the effectiveness
of the Council. We had understood that it was intended that the
Council and Overview and Scrutiny Committees, together with the
Best Value regime, would set broad policy and hold Executive Members
On paper the new system would seem to allow
all of this. Nevertheless, the single party Executive is too powerful.
The Full Council is too powerless and the Overview and Scrutiny
system too fettered to fulfil the original intentions.