Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)|
MONDAY 8 JULY 2002
140. Can I ask you what your views are on the
proposals for Business Improvement Districts? Do you think they
(Cllr Houghton) From our perspective obviously the
more local discretion there is the better. As a principle, fine,
I think in reality for places like ours I do not see much of a
take-up of that. We are asking business to increase rates and
in certain areas it is going to be very difficult. What we are
trying to do is attract business into the area and I doubt that
would prove to be an incentive.
(Cllr Thornber) We would much rather see business
rates coming back to precepting authorities.
141. What about the proposals to give voting
powers to co-opted members of scrutiny committees and overview
boards, non-elected members? What is your view on that?
(Cllr Thornber) Strongly against, it is anti-democratic.
I can give you some examples. I think there is a basic misunderstanding.
Scrutiny committees, as such, do not have executive voting powers
now. They can have an advisory vote, but that is all it is. The
executive powers are vested in cabinet. If we were to look at
the education committee, say in my own home county, and we give
the co-opted members a voting right, we would find as an administration
that was voted in that more than half of our 46 members would
have to serve on that education scrutiny committee in order to
maintain the proportionality. Leaving that aside, I do think it
is wrong. I think it is another one of these measures that undermines
local government and the democratic mandates which members have.
(Sir Robin Wales) I take a slightly different perspective
which is I think local decision, local discretion, is always to
be welcomed. I am in a slightly different position, perhaps. There
have been quite a few mayors and I worry enormously for the powers
of mayors if they are not properly held to account through scrutiny.
The more we can bring people with skills in, people who can take
part in that, to work with elected members the better. It is important
that there is local discretion and people should be free locally
to bring in things. Many, many years ago in Newham we were bringing
representatives in to vote on education and elsewhere and we thought
that worked for us. I think the opportunity for people to do that,
to bring in people with skills, is to be welcomed. I think anything
that frees people up to look at models of things they want to
do differently locally, and it may not suit everybody and that
is fine, the opportunity to do this is to be welcomed.
(Cllr Houghton) I would support the line that Robin
has explained. The executive functions of the council are separate
from scrutiny and the more that we can involve people in the general
monitoring of the council policy then that is a step forward.
142. The Government's proposals on capital finance,
do you like them? If you do not like them, how would you like
to see them changed?
(Cllr Houghton) Are you talking about the options
that have been put forward today?
143. The options in the White Paper.
(Cllr Houghton) Generally the options we would welcome.
Obviously the issue for usand we will not know this until
we get towards the end of the yearwill be which of the
options the Government is likely to pick, the balance between
them and the emphasis between each one of those. It is difficult
at this stage to see whether the Government has got it right or
not. Certainly we think there is a step forward being made, there
is more openness now in what is being put forward and hopefully,
local government finance is always difficult, we will get a greater
144. You do not say a great deal in the SIGOMA
submission about capital finance arrangements or against the pooling
arrangements. Is that because SIGOMA authorities expect to benefit?
(Cllr Houghton) SIGOMA authorities do expect to benefit
from the system, and so we would support the proposal.
145. Also in your submission you touched briefly
on that. You make some play of the deprivation perhaps of local
authorities. Is there anything in the Bill that tends to give
you any hope that that will be addressed?
(Cllr Houghton) Yes. Obviously again it depends, in
terms of the options that are being put forward, how much of that
the Government are going to include in the final exemplifications,
but the things that we have been putting forward have been addressedat
146. Can I ask you about Comprehensive Performance
Assessments. Do we need them, or do you think we should have them?
(Cllr Houghton) Do we support Comprehensive Performance
147. How much do they cost?
(Cllr Houghton) It is difficult, because the inspection
regimes seem to be changing day to day. We would put it in the
order of several hundred thousand pounds merely to manage that.
Looking at our service performance improvements, that would be
a worthwhile investment. If the CPA helps to rationalise the system,
which is what has been promised, then I would think that is a
148. So you have seen the awful precedent of
Ofsted and you still support them?
(Sir Robin Wales) Can I ask you a question with a
specific example that supports what we are saying. We in Newham,
much to our embarrassment and shame, became a failing authority
on social services, for a variety of reasons I would be happy
to go into, if you want. The best thing that happened to our social
services was the inspection regime that came in and looked at
it, which said to us, "You are failing", and we then
politically can do something about it. I think the question that
I would answer is, as to the cost, we are just having a CPA now
and it is fairly difficult, but frankly how much will we save
by having them in, listening to them, working with them and actually
moving forward? You might want to ask the private sector how much
they spend on reviewing services and checking all the services
that they do, because it is actually very important. If you have
services with hundreds of millions of pounds accruing, you need
to have a check, you need to have an assessment. I am actually
saying that I think the Government is seeking to move in the right
direction with the Bill, having the ability to check to make sure
that things are working. I have an issue that if you think an
authority is improving on what they are doing, that is a good
place to be in terms of giving them more freedom, though there
are some issues around that. But the principle that with good
performance you are going to be freed up to do things, you are
going to be freed to do some of the things that you want to do,
I think is such a positive thing. There may be an issue around
district councils. To be fair to them, there are some difficulties
perhaps for districts, but for some of the big mets and some of
them in London I think it is a jolly good thing.
(Cllr Houghton) It is really back to the question.
Yes, Ofsted have not been very good for our area and so have the
social services inspectorate, and that is the truth.
(Cllr Thornber) I think we would certainly welcome
the self-assessment part of CPA, forcing councils to think through
what their strengths and weaknesses are, but the process is far
from transparent, very subjective, bureaucratic, and it has certainly
mopped up a lot of hours of very senior officers. I think that
in a large county council that sum, with opportunity costs, would
run into £100,000 quite easily. If you add that to the best
value performance indices and best value regime, we are spending
a lot of money on a lot of performance indicators143. CPA
and BVPI have been very time-consuming. There are good parts of
it, but it has been a burden which has diverted officers away
from frontline service work.
149. If it goes wrong, if you get a cranky set
of inspectors, would you welcome having a right of appeal? Not
every Ofsted inspection, after all, was perfect.
(Sir Robin Wales) To be fair, I think the Government
recognises that and there is moderation in the system.
150. So "Yes"?
(Sir Robin Wales) Yes.
(Cllr Thornber) As a natural principle, yes.
151. Could you briefly advise the Committee
how you believe the timetable for this legislation fits in with
the introduction of the replacement to the Standard Spending Assessment?
(Cllr Thornber) I am not going to be very conventional.
I think it is correct that we are right rather than rapid, if
you will forgive the attempt at alliteration. Therefore, I think
there are so many complex issues here that really we ought to
take as much time as is necessary.
(Cllr Houghton) The Government has already delayed
the introduction of the new system. Further delay will only increase
uncertainty for the local authorities. The sooner we can deal
with the financial side of this, the better from our perspective.
(Sir Robin Wales) A good step, very reasonable. I
thought their attitude was very good, to be honest.
152. Are there any omissions from, or any further
proposed amendments to, the draft Bill which you would like to
bring to our attention?
(Cllr Houghton) It is difficult at this stage, because
the options have just been produced, so I think it is to be noted
that the options have just been produced today, and we need to
go through them to see if there are things in there that we do
not believe ought to be there, and vice versa.
153. Is there anything else that should have
been included in the Bill generally?
(Cllr Houghton) From our perspective, members' allowances
are a running sore in local government. I know the Government
have partially dealt with this in previous pieces of legislation,
but the sooner we get a national framework for members' allowances,
(Sir Robin Wales) Absolutely.
(Cllr Thornber) I would agree with that.
154. I take it you are also referring to severance
payments and pensions?
(Sir Robin Wales) Yes.
(Cllr Houghton) Yes, and to those aspects.
155. Anything else? There are various bits of
previous legislation that need repealing. Should they be done
in this Act?
(Cllr Houghton) I think we have enough to deal with
in this present Act.
(Sir Robin Wales) There is the original question we
were asked. I think we commented on this at the beginning.
156. Can we ask them the relationship question?
How do you feel that the relationship between central and local
government will change if what we predict will be in the Bill
will indeed be in the Bill?
(Cllr Houghton) I think it will change for the better.
I think there is a responsibility on local government, just as
much as there is on central government, to make the changes work
and to improve the relationship. We have the onus as local government
to say that everything is not 100 per cent right. Equally, I think
through the CPA and the PSA process, the PSA process in particular,
we are now getting real negotiations between authorities and central
government on priorities. That has been a major step forward.
The promise of lighter inspections, subject to the CPA, the promise
of Prudential borrowingthough there are still issues around
that on the Revenue side, and we recognise thatare all
welcome. If there is one thing more we could do it is the issue
of specific grants which just ties us down.
157. I would like to put one question to you,
briefly. In view of the fact that this is a consultation on legislation
and there may not be another Bill on local government for another
25 years, is it not important that anything that is outstanding
affecting local government should be referred to in this Bill?
(Sir Robin Wales) I am hopeful that you are wrong
158. What would you likea Bill every
(Sir Robin Wales) No, I think it is about changing
relationships. I had the misfortune to be in local government
in London in the 1980s. I recall some of the things that were
done then and some of the responses that were going on. It seems
to me now that we have moved into a different environment, we
are in a different environment now from that of the 1980s, we
have moved forward. I think the Government is recognising it needs
to give local authorities more power. I think the Government is
a bit nervous. Okay, we would be a bit less nervous. I believe
that as we do these things and people learn and feel comfortable,
we will begin to look forward. So the answer would be, I would
hope that by developing an ongoing relationship as we develop
a better, more intense local government, then perhaps there will
come a time when people will see that there are more things we
159. So you think we should continue introducing
legislation, and each time there is something new the Secretary
of State should introduce new legislation?
(Sir Robin Wales) The more we can recognise that we
operate in a different environment that changes, and changes all
the time, I think that is the point. Things change, and I think
we have to recognise the very quick changing society. The more
we can recognise that and, as I say, adapt, it enables us to adapt.
So I think this Bill goes a nice chunk of the way. We will probably
want more, and again I think we do come back to the situation
that we recognise that. People and attitudes change quite rapidly
these days, and we have to be prepared. Just things like IT, for
example, which I worked in. Some of the changes in that in the
last decade have been absolutely enormous. When we originally
were looking to devolve our housing in the 1980s we did not have
anything like the ability now that you can have, with just the
sheer technical capacity to do all sorts of things. So things
change, and I think you need to recognise that. So I think that
rather than wait to make this perfect, this is a good step down
the road. Let us take that and then let us see what else we have
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very
much indeed for your evidence. Thank you.