Examination of witnesses (Questions 80
TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001
WILCOX and MR
80. Would you say that the new regulations and
the Act will have gained from the experience of what has been
happening before? Will it be an improvement or is it irrelevant
to what has happened before?
(Mr Stevenson) From a personal perspective, the government
and the DETR in particular have been very open about the drafting
of regulations and the LGA and a wide range of senior officers
and members from authorities experimenting with pilot arrangements
have had opportunities to feed in. The DETR were operating what
they call a virtual group of officers to whom drafts of regulations
were circulated and comments were sought. The Institute of Local
Government Studies at Birmingham have also facilitated quite a
range of practitioner workshops at which the DETR have been present
to help develop those guidelines and the guidance as well. Whilst
there are criticisms of the guidance, the guidance is probably
better than it would have been had it just been left to civil
servants. There has been quite a deal of access for authorities
to feed in their experiences and, as far as I am aware, this is
the first guidance that I have seen issued from the government
which does contain practical examples.
Sir Paul Beresford
81. Can I come back to a question that at least
two of us are interested in? You mentioned that you preferred
overview to scrutiny. Could you define what you mean by overview
and scrutiny and the difference?
(Mr Stevenson) Sure. A lot of that comes from the
minister's early discussions and debates about these arrangements,
where it was just referred to as scrutiny. The word "scrutiny"
tends to most people to mean nit-picking over decisions that had
already been taken. That was certainly not a role that the association
believed was the role for members who were not on the executive.
It was certainly not a rewarding role and we were completely supportive
of those members who were saying that sort of thing. The minister
did change her tone and the committees were rephrased as overview
and scrutiny committees. My personal view is that it is the overview
side of things that should prove to be the most rewarding side
of things. It is the overview side of things which is involved
in reviewing how policies are actually working, getting involved
in making recommendations to the executive about changes that
may be needed to policies to make them work more effectively,
about reviewing what is going on within local communities, because
the Act provides a power to be able to do overview and scrutiny
on a range of things, not just council services. It provides an
opportunity not just to look at individual services but at cross
82. It sounds like a DETR press release. Could
we come back to the regulations etc? There has been a phased approach.
Has this made it workable or more difficult for local government?
One of the complaints I have had is that firstly best value, now
this; the local authorities are loaded with regulations; the regulations
are extremely detailed. Each month there has been another mound
of them, so rather than it being phase loaded, if nothing else,
it has been difficult to get them out and get them to you so it
is a wheelbarrow approach. How have they reacted to it? How do
the councils feel?
(Mr Stevenson) I have had those views expressed to
me by councils as well and to a certain extent I share those views.
There is a huge amount of regulation and guidance that has been
issued under this. The one thing I have not doneand maybe
I shouldis assimilate all the guidance and regulations
that exist for previous systems. Maybe it is just because legislation
was introduced at different points. No one has ever put it all
together to see how much currently exists. There has also been
an issue about the fact that, because it is all so new, councillors
have asked a great many questions of the DETR as to how do you
expect this to work. It is not surprising that the DETR have been
very detailed and very prescriptive in a number of instances and
in a lot of instances where perhaps it does not really make sense,
prescribing numbers of people who may or may not sit on the committees.
It is incredibly detailed.
83. Would it be fair to say that local government
is plenty of local and not much government?
(Mr Stevenson) It could be said, yes. As authorities
have been asking for more and more advice from the government,
the guidance has got bigger and bigger. I think the government
has tried to make some concessions to this by highlighting in
the text that guidance which is statutory guidance and that guidance
which has been put out in response to a lot of the requests for
advice or clarification that local authorities have been asking
84. The fourth way, these local councils. Was
that a good idea, to tack that on?
(Mr Stevenson) I think it was unfortunate that it
was tacked on. The association still maintains that this limit
of 85,000 is somewhat arbitrary. If we could wind back the clock,
we would hope that the Hunt Bill managed to receive Royal Assent
because that would have provided for complete flexibility to authorities
to decide whether to introduce new arrangements or not. We believe
that authorities should be able to consult on all of the options
for their communities, should they choose to. Restricting it to
only those shire districts with a population of fewer than 85,000
as of June 2000 seems to be rather an arbitrary decision. However,
when the models were first brought into the public realm, those
authorities that believed they were least suitable were the smaller
authorities, often the more rural authorities and often those
that have a history of not having any political control or having
a large number of independent members, where group mechanisms
have not necessarily been so dominant, where decisions have been
openly debated within the committees, where they have not been
taken in groups by a majority party behind closed doors. The opportunity
for alternative arrangements is a very welcome one. It is unfortunate
that it is only available to other authorities if they go via
the hugely circuitous route of having to have a referendum and
consulting separately on what a fallback option may be. If nothing
else, it requires an awful lot of time, energy and cost. Why should
those authorities be discriminated against purely because they
have a larger population. If you look at some that may have 86,000?
85. Are there going to be many which just come
on that border line?
(Mr Stevenson) At the last count, there were around
20 at between 85,000 and 100,000 population but even saying up
to 100,000 is arbitrary. The biggest problem with the alternative
arrangement situation is the fact that we still only have draft
regulations on alternative arrangements. Those authorities which
are interested in pursuing them and have been consulting their
communities on the issue are cautious about consulting on the
strength of what the Secretary of State intends to happen. We
are very aware of what can happen in Parliament and, given the
debates over the access to information regulations and the changes
that were made at a late stage to those, there is no guarantee
that the Secretary of State will end up with regulations that
do exactly what he currently intends them to do. Authorities are
understandably cautious on consulting or developing proposals
on those bases.
86. How soon do you think the government should
make an announcement on that?
(Mr Stevenson) The government are currently consulting
with the LGA on a draft set of regulations and the LGA has been
talking to local authorities about those. Our consultation deadline
is Friday the 9th. They intend to lay the regulations before the
House so that they will hopefully receive approval before the
Easter recess. One cannot guarantee what happens once these regulations
reach the House or indeed whether the House is still sitting by
the Easter recess. There is a problem for authorities potentially
in meeting a June timetable if the regulations have not been laid.
87. What is the role for the third rate councillors
who are not really given a role in the Cabinet?
(Mr Wilcox) We identify a whole series of possible
options for councillors that are not in Cabinet. It is really
a matter as to whether authorities and their councillors want
to seize the opportunities that there are in this legislation.
If they do seize those opportunities, there are a lot of things
that councillors can do that will be extremely positive in their
communities. On the other hand, the legislation does seem to be
sufficiently permissive to allow executives or groups to effectively
close down those positive opportunities. In those circumstances,
the local councillor will do what the local councillor has always
been able to do and that is to start to kick up a fuss.
88. You think there are enough mechanisms, supposing
there was an independent councillor elected for, say, New Mills?
Would they be able to cause sufficient trouble in Derbyshire County
Council so that some notice was taken of them?
(Mr Wilcox) Compared with what they are able to do
now, I do not see that there is any restriction on what they will
be able to do in future. I do not think their powers are necessarily
enhanced by this legislation.
89. You do not think they are restricted by
(Mr Wilcox) The papers for the Cabinet executive meetings
must be made available in advance. There have to be plans made
available in advance so members know what the important decisions
are going to be. Their access to information, which people are
understandably concerned about, I do not think is diminished by
this legislation. Given that and given their natural capacity
to make noises, I do not think their role is in any way restricted.
I question whether it is enhanced but I do not think it is restricted.
90. How far do you think the arrangements for
area committees are working? Really, we are going back to reinstating
urban district councils, are we not, in a lot of the bigger authorities?
(Mr Wilcox) They have certainly been well received
by local communities. They are an opportunity perhaps for non-executive
members to take local executive decisions. Where they run into
the greatest problems is if you have authorities with small majorities,
where you have some tensions as to what you wish to delegate to
area committees. I know there are examples where authorities have
toyed with area committees and pulled back from them because they
are concerned that the area committees would end up taking decisions
that they as an authority were not elected to carry out. There
is a tension there but it is the tension of any devolved system.
If you devolve a system, the people who have the devolved powers
sometimes take the decisions that you do not want them to take.
91. Party caucuses: do they need to change substantially
under the new framework?
(Mr Wilcox) When we are talking about change, that
is where I have the grave problem because there are party groups
in operation at present that work well and some that are tremendously
restrictive. If you talk to the leader of Bedfordshire about the
new structures which they have established, they have gone for
Cabinet and scrutiny and they have been running that for about
three years now. He will indicate to you that the most important
thing is that, in the council, in that three and a half year period
since they were elected, they have never lost a vote. They have
a majority of one. Ultimately, the caucus and the group or whatever
has triumphed. However, we would suggest that they have an extremely
good and open scrutiny system which works well and effectively.
They would argue that improvement has arisen as a consequence
of that scrutiny taking place. They have had improvement but they
have not lost any major votes. The caucus lives but the new arrangements
are perceived to be more effective.
92. Do you think five years on we are going
to have as many councillors in most local authorities as we have
now or is there a move to reduce the number of councillors and
does that have a direct effect on the number of party activists?
(Mr Wilcox) I suspect the moves to reduce the numbers
probably lie in your hands rather than in our hands.
93. They certainly do not lie in my hands.
(Mr Wilcox) No. I am going to have to pass on that
because I really do not know. I know there are pressures that
are on for a reduction in the number of councillors from Solace
and one or two other bodies. Turn-outs in local elections may
lead people to question the value of local councils. Local authorities
have to establish for themselves that they have a positive role
to play so they have a part to play in that but the reduced powers
which local authorities have and the centre ground politics which
we seem to increasingly pursue mean that it is more and more difficult
for activists on door steps to knock on doors and describe all
the differences that they would introduce, compared with what
their opponents would introduce. I think that is a real issue.
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very
much for your evidence.