Examination of witnesses (Questions 220
TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001
CONNOLLY and MR
220. How does that link between the cabinet
and back-benchers work?
(Mr Houghton) The deputy cabinet members sit on scrutiny
but not on the scrutiny area for which they have responsibility,
obviously. Where, obviously, they are involved in the cabinet
meeting and decisions are taken they cannot sit on scrutiny because
you cannot be in both camps. They understand what is going on
in scrutiny and can feed that back. Equally, a lot of this is
about member relationships and members working day-to-day together
and getting a common understanding of what is going on. I think
having those deputies involved in those processes provides an
effective link into that. Equally, we have an area forum structure
which involves all members irrespective of their designation,
and again it is getting those cabinet understandings and views
out into the area forums and not just relying on a small group.
221. How important do you think those things
are through the deputies and area committees?
(Mr Houghton) I think they are extremely important.
I think we have tried to get the best of both worlds, where there
is a clear executive decision-making process, and yet not isolate
the executive from what is going on. We would be reluctant to
see that removed. Obviously, if you ask would we prefer to have
that option the answer is yes.
(Mr Coppard) It is also a training ground for future
members. Instead of coming straight into the cabinet they come
through a deputy role, by and large.
222. Can I ask Middlesbrough: can you explain
a bit more about these Counsellor Advocates?
(Ms Connolly) Yes. Counsellor Advocate is the link
between the executive and the non-executive members. The idea
of this, initially, was to bridge what would be perceived as a
difficulty of communication.
223. This is a councillor rather than an officer?
(Ms Connolly) He is a councillor and in Middlesbrough
I think we felt that the key to the role was the person who was
224. So it is a bit more patronage?
(Ms Connolly) No, it is not. It is about having a
person who all members trust, who are not executive members, who
is able to feed through to the cabinet their concerns and problems.
We found that because there were teething problems when we introduced
the system it has been very useful, and he has played a quite
high profile role in establishing the links between the two parts
of the process.
Sir Paul Beresford
225. This would be a training ground in a similar
(Ms Connolly) I think it is.
226. And no patronage.
(Ms Connolly) No.
227. They do not get any extra allowance for
(Ms Connolly) Yes, they do.
228. How many urban districts were put together
into the Barnsley authority?
(Mr Coppard) There were 12 including the original
county borough plus parts of two rural districts, so 14 altogether.
229. So the area committees have simply re-established
the urban district councils?
(Mr Houghton) There are some members of the public
who think so and who think it is a good idea do so. I do not think
it is quite like that.
230. How far do the boundaries actually come
inside the original urban district councils?
(Mr Houghton) They are reasonably close but there
is no exact match.
(Mr Coppard) It was not done on that basis, it was
done on a ward basis.
231. Do they have delegated powers to spend
(Mr Houghton) They are given a small budget which
equates to £5,000 per wardif you have got three wards
it is £15,000 or for two it is £10,000to spend
on their local community plans. Each of the area forums has developed
its own community plan on the basis of a major consultation exercise
which took place in the summer of last year and which has helped
to facilitate some of the activities in and around that.
232. How is that sum of money arrived at? Was
it just the petty cash that was left over?
(Mr Houghton) It is what we can afford. We are one
of the poorest SSAs of any authority in the country.
233. Just pursuing that point for a minute,
if area committees are really going to work and people turn out
or they come and discuss, would you not accept that one of the
things that they will want is to be able to take decisions that
influence that area and that, therefore, having money (following
up the Chairman's question) will be important? Take the example
of traffic calming. I do not know what you spend on traffic calming,
but why, for instance, could you not consider, say, a proportion
of that pot being delegated pro-rata to each of the area committees
for them to determine priorities and then you retain a central
pot which people can bid into for bigger schemes?
(Mr Houghton) That assumes that our responsibilities
as determined through the engineers and the safety process can
be met from the existing resources that we have. You know the
difficulty that the council will be in if we have got a road where
there are serious accidents but we do not have the money to improve
that but we are giving money out to local people, introducing
traffic calming improvements in their area that do not actually
relate to any scientific examination of where the problems are.
Once the SSA system is introduced, and next year under the White
Paper I know Barnsley is going to get a lot more money, I am sure
we will be able to compensate.
234. Do you accept that for area committees
really to have credibility with local people greater delegation
of resources to them will be required?
(Mr Coppard) Yes, and we want to move in that direction.
This council has been through a great deal of change since February
1999 when we carried out the modernisation. These things take
time to settle down and develop.
(Mr Houghton) The next phase, in our terms, is that
we are amalgamating the estate caretakers, street cleansing services
and ground maintenance services in the borough into what will
be known as Neighbourhood Pride Teams, based on the area forums
and accountable to the area forums for the work they do. So we
are trying to get rid of the bureaucracy that has come with the
services. I will let these local teams manage their own local
services on the ground in those areas. In other areas of service
it will be less appropriate to manage it on that basis.
(Mr Stewart) It is not just a question about area
committees operating with delegated budgets. In many cases people
actually do not want or need the responsibility for that delegated
authority, what they want to be able to do is to see that they
are, by becoming involved in the work of the local authority by
engaging themselves in the process, having an impact on the decisions
of the authority. Even where budgets are not delegated or decentralised,
there are processes that you can use to involve people in the
decision-making on a particular issuewhether it be traffic
calming or street lightingwithin a general policy framework
set by the council. So there is that intermediate position in
between full delegation and decisions still being made
(Mr Houghton) In some of these issues we do take it
out of the area forums and get a view before decisions are made.
Equally, all the area forum minutes are an item on the cabinet
agenda, so there is an opportunity for members of the public to
raise issues and get them discussed at cabinet level. If the forum
wants to make a recommendation to the cabinetto build a
new swimming pool, for instancethat will get on the agenda.
They might not get the answer they want, but that will go on the
235. Can I ask you a question, going back to
scrutiny, because you said in your evidence that the lack of dedicated
officer support has led to some concern about, for example, potential
conflicts of interests as far as officers are concerned. How are
you trying to address that?
(Ms Connolly) We are intending to appoint dedicated
officer support. We are looking at reviewing at the moment exactly
what amount of resources will be able to go into that, but we
do recognise this is an issue.
236. Can I ask how have officers who have been
closely involved in developing proposals with executive board
members taken to then having to appear before scrutiny panels?
(Mr Stewart) I think that has been a difficulty in
the Middlesbrough arrangements. Having only been there six months
myself I cannot compare it with the arrangements of the previous
authority which did have a dedicated resource for scrutiny from
the outset, and it has led to two difficulties: first of all,
which was a point raised earlier, we have been in a position of
being, if you like, the permanent secretary servicing yourselves,
which is clearly unsustainable, but, also, it ends up taking up
a much greater proportion of senior management time that I think
would be better spent on doing what we were all appointed to do
in the first place. I think the case for having dedicated support
for scrutiny is unarguable. I think, as in Barnsley, there are
issues about the level of support that any local authority is
able to give its scrutiny process.
(Mr Coppard) As far as officers appearing before scrutiny
is concerned, I think this is part of their job and they regard
it as that. I have to say that the trend is very strongly for
the scrutiny commission to call the member spokesperson from the
cabinet before them and that spokesperson tends to bring the officer
with them for support. When we set it up we kind of envisaged
that scrutiny commissions might want to, first of all, interview
the member and then take the member out and interview the officer
to see whether they got the same story or not. They are not actually
working in that way, they tend to invite the member and the member
brings the officer with them.
237. Have you had any complaints from scrutiny
members that the officers, or indeed the elected members, appearing
before them have been less than full and open with, for example,
information that led up to the decision or the recommendation
that they are making?
(Mr Houghton) No, I think where there has been criticism
is where questions have been asked in terms of detail that have
not been readily available. So what we say to scrutiny is "Look,
if you are getting into some of the minutiae here we could do
with knowing what some of these questions are going to be before
we come because they are going to take some researching."
So there has to be a sort of too-ing and fro-ing between the executive
side and the scrutiny side.
238. How far do scrutiny panels manage to get
civil society within Barnsley or Middlesbrough to put in evidence
to them? Have they got anything coming from people outside the
council to influence scrutiny?
(Mr Coppard) If you take the example, perhaps, of
domestic violence, the scrutiny panels are split into smaller
groups and they actually interview battered women and the police
officers concerned with that area of work, and so on. So they
do go out. When they did their report on carers they interviewed
a whole range of people involved, either as clients or as carers
themselves. So there are numerous examples, really, where they
have done that.
239. That is them going out. How far do people
in the community volunteer to put evidence into the committee?
(Mr Houghton) Not massively. Engaging the public at
scrutiny level is difficult.