Memorandum by Epsom and Ewell Borough
The Borough Council shares with the Government
much of its vision for modernising local government. Epsom and
Ewell is an associate best value pilot authority, we have a very
strong reputation for winning and retaining Charter Marks for
our services. Before the Government published this Command Paper
and its Draft Bill, the Council had agreed to introduce a new
decision making structure. We are committed to the modernising
However the Council is concerned that the Government
is wrongly generalising that the performance, reputation and arrangements
of some Councils is the basis for making laws that must apply
We appreciate that this Government is determined
to ensure that it is not frustrated by some local authorities
which it perceives do not share its key objectives, and are not
positioned to implement the national agenda on which that Government
has been elected.
However, the Council urges the Government not
to apply such a broad brush of central direction that it alienates
or frustrates those Councils that share its objectives for services
that are more citizen orientated and closer to and more responsive
to local community needs.
Epsom and Ewell agrees that the traditional
Committee system is not effective in producing speedy decisions
necessary in a modern world. The Council has scrapped such a system
and replaced all service Committees with just three Commissions,
focused on Social, Leisure and Development issues.
We agree that the local community of residents,
business and the voluntary sector should be more closely involved
with their Council. Not only must they be better informed and
consulted, but also more involved in policy development, service
review and decision taking. Under each of our three Commissions
we have introduced a set of Boards comprising both Councillors
and representatives of the local community and partner organisations.
There is a Board for each key service area, and this is the focus
where we will engage with our community.
The Council agrees that the Community should
expect the highest standards of conduct and that a local Standards
Committee, with an independent element of membership, is an important
mechanism to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.
We have established a Standards Committee.
However we part company with the Government's
approach on decision making structures in one respect. Whilst
it is recognised that there are parts of local government where
the responsibility for decision making is opaque, where key policy
decisions are effectively made in private that has never applied
in this Council.
The Borough Council does not favour the elected
Mayor or the executive Cabinet options that the Government prefers.
It is determined to build on its long local tradition of open
and accountable community government by retaining Policy and Resources
to make policy decisions in public, following debate and analysis
by a politically balanced group of Councillors.
However, the Council recognises that there is
a vital role for a Cabinet of members to work together to ensure
that the Council's policies are effectively implemented, that
the organisation is efficiently managed, and that Best Value is
at the heart of the Council's arrangements. Our Cabinet will also
have a "think tank" role, with the support of a Strategy
Group representing key local stakeholders, to advise the Council
on the development and review of the long term, strategic framework
for Epsom and Ewell. Our Cabinet will not be taking executive
decisions in private, behind closed doors.
We agree with Government that there is a need
for effective scrutiny of the Council's operations, to ensure
that Best Value and continuous improvement arrangements are in
place and delivering change. There also needs to be closer scrutiny
to ensure the proper execution of the arrangements for delegation
of decision making, and a wider review of the effectiveness of
the Council's and other agencies' policies in meeting the needs
and aspirations of the community. We have established a Scrutiny
In summary, we endorse the spirit and much of
the detail of the Government's approach, but we cannot agree to
place policy/executive decision making behind closed doors in
an executive Cabinet.
The Draft Bill provides the opportunity for
the Secretary of State to recognise other models of decision making
structure than the three set out in the Draft Bill. The Council
will seek to convince the Secretary of State that our local model
of a new structure is one that should be recognised.
We intend to put our structure to our local
community. However if the current Draft Bill doesn't change we
would regret that the Government, despite its earlier expressions
of intent, will have fallen into the centralising and detailed
prescription modes of the previous Government. Is it really necessary
to prescribe the maximum size of Cabinet, the minimum size of
a Scrutiny Committee and other very detailed provisions that deny
appropriate local flexibility?
We are seeking from the Government an Act that
recognises and celebrates the diversity of local government, that
champions best practice, within the broad principles and objectives
that have been set down in the modernising agenda.
We are heartened by the constructive relationship
that the Government has set about creating with the LGA, and we
are content to leave the LGA to represent our views on the detailed
provisions within the Draft Bill.
A copy of the briefing document that we have
produced for our new Councillors in the May election is enclosed
for your information. We hope that the Government will produce
an Act that recognises that our local new structure is one that
should be recognised as a valid local solution that meets the
Government's objectives for better and modern local government,
and most importantly open government.
4. THE COUNCIL'S
1.1 The Council recognised in 1998 that
it needed to change its decision making structure, and appointed
a Structures Working Party to develop proposals which are now
being implemented in the new Council. The objectives that the
Working Party had were:
To involve the community more in
To simplify the Committee structure.
To establish a better link between
the structure and the Council's Vision, Mission and Guiding Principles.
To base the structure on the issues
important to the community, rather than the traditional professional
and departmental boundaries.
To establish a clear responsibility
for decision making where strategic policies can be developed
1.2 The Government had just produced its
White Paper on modernising local government, which expressed its
preference for decision making arrangements based either on elected
Mayors, or Executive Cabinets. Whilst the Council took note of
that, it was determined to develop a new arrangement that suited
the needs of this Borough and built upon its strengths.
2. So what is the Government's agenda?
2.1 The Government bases its thinking on
the following views:
"the greatest weakness of the
Committee system is that . . . major decisions are in reality
often taken outside of it";
"there is evidence of . . .
a concentration of decision making powers in small groups outside
the formal arenas";
"the traditional committee system,
designed to provide an open and public framework for decision
taking, has grown into an opaque system with the real action off
2.2 Whilst this may be true for some Councils,
it is not true of this Council, and the Working Party and Policy
and Resources Committee have been determined to ensure that the
policy decisions of the Council remain open, rather than taken
into an executive cabinet that meets in private. The Whitehall
model of the Cabinet executive structure is rejected. A Policy
and Resources Committee with 13 Councillors, representing each
ward of the Borough, is the focus of our new structure.
3. What sort of structure did the Council
have last year?
3.1 For the first six months or so there
are bound to be references to the old committees and groups, but
as everyone becomes more familiar with the new structure, references
to the old arrangements will disappear.
3.2 There were 132 scheduled meetings in
the last year, and in fact 145 took place. This represented a
heavy load for Members and Officers. It was reaching the point
where it was extremely difficult to find a free evening in the
week. Many Members and Officers found themselves in meetings at
the Town Hall three or more nights a week. Everyone recognised
that this could not be sustained in the long term.
4. Outline of the new Structure
4.1 The number of meetings during the year
has been reduced to 85, with about 24 additional meetings in the
year for Cabinet members, assuming it meets fortnightly. However,
there could be some further meetings in the transitional period.
4.2 The core of the new structure is Policy
and Resources, composed of 13 Councillors, representing each Ward,
where these decisions will be made in public, in a politically
balanced body where all Wards can be represented. We will have
a Cabinet, composed of the Chairmen of Commissions (see paragraph
4.3 below), and two other Councillors appointed by the Council.
Its role will be to advice P&R on the policies it should be
considering, and then to ensure that the policies decided in P&R
and full Council are properly implemented.
4.3 The provision of services to the community
will be controlled by three new Commissions. These too will be
made up of 13 Councillors, one from each Ward. The Commissions
will be the forums for Members to debate new policies, allocate
resources to service and cost centres, and monitor overall performance
of those services. To ensure that they can focus on policy issues,
more detailed decisions will be delegated to Officers, but with
extra safeguards to ensure consultation with local Members and
the Commission Chairmen, and the facility to "call in"
potential decisions that may be sensitive or important.
4.4 One of the most important objectives
for the new structure is to increase consultation with and the
involvement of groups and organisations in the community. Under
each Commission, you will see a number of Boards for key service
areas. These are made up of between six and 10 Councillors, who
do not necessarily have to be members of the parent Commission.
4.5 Beginning in the autumn cycle, representatives
of appropriate external groups and organisations with which the
Council works in partnership or which represent parts of the community,
will be invited to join as members of these Boards. Some may become
permanent members, others may only work with a Board for a short
term on a particular project.
4.6 Whilst the Residential Amenities Board
and Licensing Board will start out their life as decision making
bodies, all other Boards will begin as consultative bodies who
will advise the Commissions. However, it is proposed that as time
passes and relationships and confidence are established, decision
making powers may be passed to other Boards as well.
4.7 In our new structure there are two new
committees, one for Scrutiny and one for Standards. The Scrutiny
Committee, composed of 13 Members none of whom may be in the Cabinet
or Policy and Resources, will be responsible for scrutinising
the overall performance of the Council. It is also proposed that
it will have a role to scrutinise the work of outside organisations
who have a major input into the social, environmental and economic
life of the Borough. The Scrutiny Committee will also be responsible
for ensuring that decisions are made in accordance with agreed
procedures, and importantly, for reviewing the effectiveness of
the implementation of Council policies to ensure that they are
achieving the Council's overall objectives.
4.8 The Standards Committee will not come
into being formally until about six months into the new structure.
It will include an external representative, and be responsible
for overseeing the arrangements to ensure that the Council and
its Councillors conduct themselves in accordance with the Council's
Code of Conduct, and also advising individual members on issues
of registering and declaring interests, etc.
5. So what might the Government think of
our new structure?
5.1 Just before the Council agreed the structure
on 13 April, the Government published its draft bill on structure
for local government. It confirmed its commitment to the elected
Mayor or Executive Cabinet models of decision making. However,
it did recognise that other models may be possible and it might
approve some by making regulations under the new Act. We have
already begun to lay the foundations for presenting a case to
say that our local model should be so approved. It is not clear
at this stage how successful we might be.
5.2 The Government has also provided another
mechanism where a local structure can be retained if a Council
conducts a local referendum to put the Government's preferences
before the community, but the community votes to retain the existing
5.3 It is unlikely that the Government will
get the new Act on the statute book before early 2000, and we
could have a local referendum as early as 2001.
5.4 It will be a real challenge to interest
the community in the detail of the Council's decision making structure.
Local residents are normally only interested in the outcome of
it, in terms of the quality and range of Council services, and
some local contentious matters which are usually development related.
We have already written to the Secretaries of local RA's and political
groups to outline the new structure, and asked them for their
support in developing and implementing a plan which will retain
decisions being made in public, in politically balanced meetings,
rather than behind closed doors in an environment based on the
Whitehall model of Cabinet government.
6. It is all about change
6.1 You are joining the Council at the point
of the most radical change in the structure since its inauguration
back in the 1930's. It is probably easier for you as new Councillors,
because you will not have to unlearn old ways and values developed
over many decades.
6.2 It will be challenging for all Councillors
because it is going to take time to implement the new arrangements.
There will be a lot of fine tuning. There will be occasions when
something arises that we haven't planned for, and we will have
to change the arrangements to meet those circumstances. Sometimes
there will be frustrations for everyone, Members and Officers,
but if we work as a team, as we did in developing the new structure,
we will fulfil those objectives that are set out in the introduction
in paragraph 1.1 above.
21 May 1999