Examination of witnesses (Questions 40
TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001
LYONS and MR
40. That is because the present system has been
(Sir Michael Lyons) I entirely agree with that.
(Mr Dobson) Do bear in mind, in relation to planning
that system will more or less continue unchanged.
41. Probity goes across committeeignore
my comments, everybody else does!
(Sir Michael Lyons) If we put planning to one side,
because it is an important case and there the government has seen
fit to make special arrangements, all that I can say is, it is
important that each and every council addresses these issues quite
openly as it sets up its new constitution. Indeed, that is what
they are required to do under the legislation.
Chairman: I think we had better leave this.
42. No, there is no point in having somebody
with his experience and letting them get away with that kind of
answer. The way people measure whether this system works will
be how efficient and honest it is. That is a word we all run away
from. Unless it is honest and open it will be totally blown out
of the way by the electorate sooner or later. How do you ensure,
in moving away from our existing machinery, you put in place something
that gives you those safeguards?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I do not know how to be the most
helpful to you. I can acknowledge that, as you make any change,
you run risks. You are right to say that, in many ways, the conduct
of local government is a function of a shared understanding, a
set of conventions, about the way we do business. The new constitutional
arrangements fundamentally challenge how local government has
worked in the past; therefore, quite explicitly we have to bring
those issues out into the open. The legislation requires each
authority to work these things through. I cannot give you a guarantee
that they will be adequately thought through in every local authority.
Chairman: I will have to stop you, otherwise
we are not going to finish.
43. The Local Government Act makes two sorts
of elected mayor options available: one, the elected mayor with
Cabinet; and the other the elected mayor with council manager.
How do you see those two options shaping up in two-five years?
(Sir Michael Lyons) To my knowledge there is no local
authority in the country which has yet indicated that it is seriously
considering the elected mayor and manager modeleven though
it is one which if you look elsewhere in the world works well.
I do not know any British local authority which is thinking about
adopting that model. I think we will see a series of authorities,
probably a small number to begin with, choosing an elected mayor.
There is a good chance, if one looks forward, that Birmingham
will be amongst the first of the authorities given it has decided
to have a referendum.
44. Birmingham would opt for the elected mayor
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think it would be a bit rash
for me to say what the people of Birmingham will choose, but there
is a probability of that.
Mr Olner: How do you see this elected mayor
issue going with Cabinet, if a non-political mayor is elected?
Mrs Dunwoody: What is a "non-political
45. Mr Branson.
(Sir Michael Lyons) It will be interesting, will it
not? To some extent the only elected mayor model we have in this
country, which is Greater London, gives us some insight into that.
46. I am glad you think so, Sir Michael!
(Sir Michael Lyons) There are tensions in any council.
Let me be clear, the elected mayor is going to be a very powerful
persona very powerful person. Whoever it is, whether they
are of the same party or of no party at all, there will be a set
of tensions between those powers and how they are discharged by
the elected mayor and those people who serve on the Cabinet, unquestionably.
Sir Paul Beresford
47. One of the insights picked up in London
was that people were bored silly. They did not turn out to vote.
You are going to be leading them with all these documents, and
very nice documents; you have got consultation on best value;
you have got consultation on this; and then you are going to have
a campaign; people are just going to throw up their hands and
go home. Are they going to respond to the consultation towards
the mayor, or are they going to stay home, what do you anticipate
the percentages will be?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I do not know. I am going to be
cautious about that.
48. Less than 10 per cent?
(Sir Michael Lyons) The challenge for Birmingham is
to respond to the paradox that, as you say, we have put a lot
of energy into consulting but if you go out and survey people
they say they do not know enough about what we are doing; and
the majority of them say they want to know more about what we
are doing. The job of communicating effectively is very important.
49. It is certainly very important but, to go
on from what Sir Paul said, there is no popular support out there
in any of the populations for an elected mayor, is there?
(Sir Michael Lyons) There have been different surveys
on this which show different things. Certainly the turnout in
London might suggest that it was not popularly supported but,
on the other hand, there is a danger if you take turnout
50. The London one got massive publicity because
it was the first, and if you cannot get popular support for that
how are you going to get popular support in Birmingham for an
(Sir Michael Lyons) I am not here to defend the proposition
that Birmingham will be better governed by an elected mayorthat
is not my remit. Secondly, we will see; because Birmingham will,
unquestionably, have a referendum on this subject and then we
will all know how strong public support is.
51. You mentioned briefly the English regional
governmentdo you see authorities like Birmingham being
in a little bit of a standstill at the moment with the elected
mayor position until the regional government situation kicks in?
(Sir Michael Lyons) No, Birmingham City is not in
a period of standstill in any sense at all. The City is clearer
about where it wants to go at the moment perhaps than at any point
in recent history. I think there is a considerable consensus about
that. The City is not at a standstill; but your underlying point
was about the relationship with the region. This is bound to be
problematic for any big city.
52. Birmingham has got no problem with the West
Midlands. Birmingham is the capital of the West Midlands and that
is it, because there is no other major city to compete with it
within the West Midlands. Its relationship has got to change with
the rest of the region.
(Sir Michael Lyons) In reality these things are very
complex, are they not? When the Regional Development Agency was
first established it had some problems, coming to espousing the
notion that Birmingham is the capital of the regionpartly
because a whole series of people elsewhere in the region were
saying that the very expression of Birmingham as a capital meant
that they were too preoccupied with the needs of metropolitan
areas. These things are complicated. I think we have the right
balance at the moment.
Sir Paul Beresford
53. One of the major complaints that many councillors
have had is that they have got virtually no role and virtually
no say. Following on from what the Chairman said earlier, I can
see you have got a committee structure set up here so that some
of that is alleviated perhaps by patronage, and everyone has something
to do. What really have they got to do? Could I pick on something
the Chairman will be upset about. Looking at your system, you
have got a Deputy Leader who looks after organisational development
and IT. Say you had the same structure in Bloggs council and it
followed the line of the well known north western councils under
the old system where they were caught out and there was a close
link between officers and members and people ended up going to
prison after a court case on corruption. One of the things that
bothers me, and it bothers Mrs Dunwoody, is that the role of the
non-executive councillor is such they will not be able to get
at that, if that is what was happening. I am not saying it is
happening in Birmingham; I am not saying it is going to ever happen
in Birmingham; but it is going to happen somewhere.
(Sir Michael Lyons) You are right, I do not believe
it would happen in Birmingham. We have got 117 members and some
very talented members amongst them.
54. You can think of some examples.
(Sir Michael Lyons) I come back to the point, it is
not a function of the new arrangements that there is greater risk,
but rather the move from one arrangement to another. If you do
not put enough energy and care into issues of probity and transparency
then you can face problems. Let me deal with the issue of the
member who is not a member of the executivethe term "non-executive"
is for me slightly odd. What Birmingham has been doing, of course,
is to expand the number of people who have an insight into the
executive function; and that is why each of the Cabinet members
has an advisory group on a cross-party basis. Effectively the
number of people contributing to each executive function is more
substantial. At the end of the day, the Cabinet will only have
55. What is the cost going to be? Firstly, you
have 15 committees, and now you have 28, so you have doubled the
size of the committees and you will have finance officers.
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think I have been clear on this,
I think the new arrangements will be process intensive. I think
we will be spending much more money on transaction costs in every
authority in the country than previously. What is the role of
a member who is not a member of the Cabinet: firstly, it is scrutiny,
and we will have sharpened scrutiny arrangements set up. Mr Dobson
can take you through those in greater detail. Secondly, the authority
is wholeheartedly in the process of devolving decision making
to a more local level. If you look through the Green Paper we
have provided you will see a real intention to have more decision
making at a local level; ward members will be executives; they
will be making decisions on behalf of their ward. That is a new
development we have been paving the way for and taking them towards
over the last three years. Then we come back to what is a critical
issuehere I can say I do not agree with SOLACE about the
need to reduce the numbers of councillorsthe critical role
at each member is that of representing a constituency on the council.
I do not think that is going to be any more difficult under the
new arrangements. I accept Mrs Dunwoody's point that you cannot
rely on the old committee process for automatically giving you
information. The council and the member have to change their form
of behaviour if they are going to be effective in this new situation.
56. Do you think it is working? What is the
reaction of the scrutiny members of Birmingham Council?
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think it would be mixed. There
would certainly be members who would say that they do not get
all the information they need. I have to say, ever since I can
remember, and I have known Birmingham for a long while, it has
always been a complaint that under the old arrangement people
could learn more by reading the newspaper than they could by relying
on council procedures.
57. This time it may be true.
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think it has always been true.
Sir Paul Beresford
58. Under the old system and the committee they
had the opportunity to scrutinise the papers before the decision
was made. There was an opportunity to hammer the officers and
the chairman and pseudo-executive members and there were changes
made. The patronage system to a lessor degree still worked and
was called "whipping".
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think between us we could pick
up plenty of examples in local government of the committee system
not adequately scrutinising proposals.
59. It could be very easily changed, could it
(Sir Michael Lyons) I think committee work still has
a place in local government, yes. Indeed, what is interesting
is, as local authorities respond to these new arrangements, very
often what they set up are more streamlined committee arrangements.