Examination of witnesses (Questions 68
TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001
WILCOX and MR
68. Can I welcome you to the Committee? Can
I apologise that we are running a little late? Could I ask you
to identify yourselves for the record, please?
(Mr Wilcox) I am Councillor David Wilcox from Derbyshire.
(Mr Stevenson) I am Mark Stevenson, policy officer
from the Local Government Association.
69. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction
or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
(Mr Wilcox) I think we can go straight into questions.
70. What progress is local government making
in putting the new structures in place?
(Mr Stevenson) I think it is making fairly good progress.
The most recent research that the LGA or the IDA has done has
found that well over half of local authorities have already introduced
some form of pilot arrangement. They have been experimenting predominantly
with the Cabinet leader model because that is the only one that
you can experiment with under current circumstances. I think it
is fair to say that authorities have been involved in their arrangements.
There are a number of authorities now that have been operating
pilots for two and a half, coming up to three, years. They have
been reviewing the arrangements, how they have been working. They
have been making changes to those arrangements. They have been
experiencing some of the problems that have been talked about
and are trying to develop solutions to overcome some of those
problems. Authorities have not just got this agenda to deal with.
That is quite an important point for the Committee to bear in
mind. These new arrangements have been introduced at the same
time as authorities are now required to carry out best value.
They are also being introduced at a time when there is talk about
PSAs, as Sir Michael Lyons was just talking about, at times where
there is a greater focus on neighbourhood based initiatives, the
neighbourhood renewal fund and some of the work of the social
exclusion unit. There is quite a change in culture that is being
expected of local government at the moment as well as these structures.
I personally think it is unfortunate that so much of the emphasis
has been placed on an analysis of the structures and not on an
analysis of the cultural change that is being required or the
outcomes that are being sought from all of these changes.
71. Have you seen any benefits from the new
(Mr Stevenson) I think there have been some benefits.
There are mixed pictures across the country and I think it would
be wrong to say that it was being successful everywhere. There
are a lot of communities which have used this impetus to change
as a way of changing a lot of the things they do, as a way of
re-engaging with the public. It has provided a stimulus for a
lot of authorities to think about how they have been doing things
over the past 10, 15, 20 and, in some cases, 100 years, and about
trying to make an effort to reconnect with local communities,
certainly to try to do things that are more relevant to local
communities. There have been advantages particularly in the leadership
aspect of a lot of authorities. There is evidence from a number
of authorities that are piloting arrangements that public understanding
of who their elected members are and who those members in cabinets
are who are taking the major decisions at the momentthere
is a growing recognition of leadership of communities. There is
also in those authorities where overviewI prefer to use
the word "overview" and ignore the scrutiny bit because
I think the scrutiny bit is rather misleading in a lot of caseshas
really helped to engage the public and local press in raising
a lot of issues. There are a number of authorities that have worked
very closely with the local press in their overview and scrutiny
processes and are managing to engage the public in a lot of issues
to get a lot more public interest. Those overview and scrutiny
reports, because they are backed by that public support, have
been that much more difficult for the executives to ignore, which
I do appreciate is happening in some places.
72. Could you give us some very specific examples
of where the things you are talking about have happened?
(Mr Stevenson) One in particular is Hartlepool, where
they have been doing quite a lot of work and have had a number
of overview and scrutiny reviews that have looked at executive
decisions or proposed executive decisions.
73. What have they achieved?
(Mr Stevenson) They have managed to change the executives'
minds as to what way they are taking a decision.
74. For example?
(Mr Stevenson) To be honest, I cannot remember. It
was a session I attended at a conference some time ago, but there
were two press stories that they had with them that they were
holding up as examples of what they had done.
Mrs Ellman: Do you think that is sufficient
evidence, what somebody holds up as an example?
Sir Paul Beresford
75. Could that have happened under the old system
(Mr Stevenson) Probably it could have happened under
the previous system. This is again one of the problems with getting
focused in on current systems and new systems. There are a lot
of things that happen under current systems that are currently
being levied as criticisms of the new system; there are a lot
of benefits that the new system purports to bring that could currently
exist under the present system. To be honest, it is certainly
not the association's right to judge what is going on in local
communities, if local authorities believe their overview and scrutiny
processes are working and their communities believe they are working.
Mrs Ellman: How do you know that? What is the
role of the Local Government Association in this? You have given
evidence where you point to quite a number of problem areas. In
your very generalised answer to my question you say how all kinds
of things are better; yet you cannot give me any precise answers.
What is the role of the Local Government Association in this period
of change? Is it to be specific? Is it to find where the problems
are or is it just a general principle which does not mean very
76. What is the difference between an overview
and a scrutiny?
(Mr Wilcox) If I can start on the one from Mrs Ellman,
I think our role at the moment is to identify examples of emerging
good practice and try and make those examples available to authorities,
because there is considerable scepticism with members of local
authorities as to whether or not they will have fulfilled an influential
role within the new structures. I think it is based on a mythical
past or a mythical present in as much as reality, as Sir Michael
Lyons said earlier, has been very much that executives have generally
made decisions in local authorities. Back bench members have gone
through a lot of processes where they seemed to be taking part
in decisions but they actually were not. A lot of people have
felt that they are losing something as a consequence of the new
structures coming in. There are also a lot of people who have
tried to develop new structures who feel they have gained. We
have seen it as our task to go and find examples of where that
has happened, where the authorities feel they have gained, where
they have a positive thing to say about the changes that have
taken place. In the report which we made as a task group, we gave
a series of examples of what authorities have been doing or trying.
Do not forget, we are still in the old structure. We have not
got the new structures up and running and in place yet.
Sir Paul Beresford
77. Do you not see there is a role to look at
it objectively on behalf of all local authorities? You have just
said you have looked at the positive sides. What about the negatives?
Have you looked at those too?
(Mr Wilcox) In our reports and our comments, we do
stress quite a lot of concerns that we have. It is not wholly
positive, but I think you have to take a view as to whether you
want the new legislation to facilitate improvements and whether
you want, as a Local Government Association, to support that process;
or whether you want to say, "We will knock this process."
We have been committed long term to an improvement agenda and
the improvement agenda requires us to say, "How might you
improve by using these new structures?" You may say, "You
could have done that under the old structures" and maybe
you could, but we do not have the old structures. We have some
new ones and it is about making a virtue of those new structures.
78. To go back to my original question, you
can use the negative to improve the procedures, but you sound
as though you are biased towards the positive side.
(Mr Wilcox) We were certainly looking for good practice
and where authorities felt things had improved. We were looking
towards disseminating that and that was not a partisan view; that
was the view of the whole committee.
79. How many of the current arrangements will
have to change to comply with the Acts and the new regulations
and guidance now being published?
(Mr Stevenson) I do not think we can particularly
give a specific answer to that. A lot will depend on the details
of what some authorities have in place and what some authorities
do not. Most authorities where they are operating pilot arrangements
at the moment with a single party cabinet are having to use a
ratification committee or they are formally delegating decision
making to officers to be able to operate that as a pilot arrangement.
Under the new legislation, they will not have to. All of them,
as far as I am aware, will probably have to introduce new reporting
mechanisms under the access to information regulations. A requirement
to produce a forward plan will certainly require new systems to
be put in place by local authorities, systems that presently are
not being operated in most councils.