Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  260. That represents a change from what happened before?
  (Mr Jones) No, it is not really a change. If our evidence gave that impression I must apologise. The key issue for us has been to tease out which items on the area committee agendas are scrutiny, which items are executive and, to be frank, there is a vast majority that are in between—quasi-judicial things, planning applications and discussions about licensing and those sorts of issues.

  261. Perhaps we can move on to Bedfordshire. I think you have said in your evidence that the council does not believe that area committees could discharge all three roles—ie, consultation, scrutiny and the executive function. Not least it would breach the spirit of the legislation. Can you say to us how you see area arrangements?
  (Cllr Hendry) What we have had in Bedfordshire, and have had for some six or eight years at least—Bedfordshire as a county, as you will realise, is largely rural, with Bedford, Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard being the main three towns—is a different concept for the urban and a different concept for the rural. The fora have worked very successfully in the rural situation. My own one, for example, has lasted for eight years now and has been very successful, because it takes together 13 parish councils into one fora. This has been very, very successful. In mid-Beds, for example, they have decided that they will have them right across mid-Beds, and they are promoting them very actively at the present time. That is the concept as far as the rural situation is concerned. As far as the urban situation is concerned we have had pilot area committees, but I think they have been of limited success, personally, very limited success, largely, I think, because people are not prepared to delegate enough responsibility to them. That is the thing that I think impedes them.

Mr Blunt

  262. How important is it in order to make these things work that you have a high level of officer support in the area committees?
  (Cllr Hendry) It depends how you see the areas committees. As far as the fora is concerned my concept is—it is personal—that you have 13 parish councils who individually have a very small voice, indeed, but collectively as 13 parish councils together they have a very strong voice. They also have many common problems or aspirations, or whatever it happens to be. Again, if you get 13 coming forward and saying this collectively is our aspiration and this is the problem then, of course, it is far more likely to be dealt with than if they did it on an individual basis. They are a perfect consultation media. We are very much, surprise, surprise, into consultation and they are a perfect form of consultation. You also have to give them individual responsibility and we have tried to take more and more responsibility for basic things, like, for example, allocating a sum of money to the individual parishes as far as highways are concerned and saying, "That is a sum of money we give to you, now you determine how it will be spent in your parish". They come forward with their own individual ideas, and so on, for spending that money. We have doubled that in this year's budget. We are trying to put more and more direct responsibility back to them, but on a limited basis. The other role, I think, is the ability to educate. In each agenda we do have, it is disguised to a certain extent, a degree of education. The last one that I had last week we had our Director of Social Services there and she was discussing with them some of the problems of social services and what can help, and so on and so forth, as it affects them, because they are right on the Cambridgeshire border, and their medical services are coming from Cambridgeshire and not from Bedfordshire, and that creates real problems. She was able to discuss all that with them first hand, and they go back to their parishes and dissipate all that knowledge.

  263. In order to make area committees work successfully how much do you have to deliberately delegate or allocate officer time and officer support to make the area system work?
  (Ms Shortland) In our case what we did in 1991, when we first devolved, if you like, to areas we did not have that much officer support, we devolved budgets to area committees and those committees were dealing with planning applications and housing, but the officers were not based there and it was not very satisfactory. Most of the decisions had to come back to the central committees as they were then. When in 1995 we decentralised completely we put many of the staff out in the areas. If we were starting that again today from scratch we might do things slightly differently. We have come slightly away from that in the sense that the officers are placed out in the areas but the management of those people does not necessarily have to be in the area, the management could be with one person that covers the whole council based in an area. They would not have to be based in Yeovil, it could be based in the area and the management could be there covering the whole service. The fact that the officers are working on the patch in the area I think is very beneficial, especially to your parish councils and your partners that you are working with, social services, et cetera.

  264. How do those arrangements dovetail the work of the Cabinet and the overview and scrutiny committee?
  (Ms Shortland) The cabinet obviously takes decisions to delegate certain levels of decision through the delegation procedures to area committees. In terms of our budget, for example, one third of the revenue budget is delegated to area committees. Probably about three quarters[2] of the capital budget is delegated to area committees but within parameters that are set by the council and by the cabinet. There is a framework of no harm, et cetera. A lot of the things that are in the guidance we already have in place.

Mr Brake

  265. Could I ask whether this arrangement has had an impact on your staffing levels?
  (Ms Shortland) The new modernisation arrangements?

  266. In the area structure, have you had to gear up and do you have more staff per head of population than else where?
  (Ms Shortland) I they we have more chief officers than other places, because we have corporate directors that are responsible for each area, so, therefore, we have within our district council five corporate directors, which other councils might not have. However, we have stripped out the layer beneath that, we go straight from corporate director to unit manager. In terms of the overall staffing budget there is not that much difference between us and other district councils. What we are trying to look at now is whether we need to have the managers in those positions, because what we are looking at is having one of those being a manager that covers the whole service and, therefore, you could have team leaders in the other places rather than having to have a manager in a every area.
  (Mr Bell) I think our instincts have been to have a light touch approach to officer support for area committees, because the danger is you over-dominate them with professionals. We have been trying to use clerks to help the area committees focus on their agenda, and not trying to drive that agenda. Picking up the point about scrutiny, for example one of our scrutiny examinations was on winter maintenance of the roads, that was an important opportunity for the fora to contribute. We would not necessarily invite them to contribute to all of the select committee reports, just the ones that they have identified as important.

Mrs Ellman

  267. In Bedfordshire you have separate officers to deal with scrutiny, could you tell us how important that is and how much it costs you to do that?
  (Cllr Hendry) It is very important as far as we are concerned. We started in January 1999, as you know, and we started with four select committees. Those four select committees clearly had a scrutiny role as well as a policy determination role. As David Bell said, if a select committee is looking at winter maintenance first of all they have to look at how we are doing it at the presented time, so there is a scrutiny role there. Having done that in January 1999 we then decided in April 2000 we would bring in a scrutiny committee which would be an opposition committee. We have a Conservative administration in Bedfordshire with a huge majority of one seat. We have an all-party executive. I deliberately put in place an opposition scrutiny committee because we wanted a committee of the opposition to be scrutinising all of the activities of the executive and of other select committees if they felt so minded. Therefore, it was for an acceptance of that concept that it was necessary to put in place officer support for it. It is still finding its feet, nine or ten months down the road it is still finding its feet. The reason why we did it, some say I shot myself in the foot by doing it, was to give us a year's experience before it became a requirement, that is with the concept of ironing out some of the problems. I think we have ironed out this parity of esteem concept, it is a very difficult one to live with and it is difficult to quantify costs.
  (Mr Bell) The actual specific support for select committees is £320,000, which represents one tenth of one per cent of the council's revenue budget. Obviously there is officer time devoted over and above that select committee support. It is headed up by an assistant chief executive. I think it is important that you give it that kind of status, although we have been quite strong in the principle that we all work for one council and we are all serving the council's interests and at times that causes some tension. You can overstate it. I think it is important that select committees have that support and I think you can overstate the tension if you are not careful. We have found it worked reasonably well, with one or two hiccups along the way.

  268. How removed from other activities are the officers who are serving on those committees?
  (Mr Bell) They are part of the officer corp and under my leadership. The assistant chief executive plays an important part in the wider corporate life of the council. I believe that is very important. If you divorce the scrutiny function altogether you are in great danger in all of this of putting something within the system that is going to destabilise. Having said that, that has not prevented that officer and his colleagues being quite robust in helping members have a sharp perspective. That is the right way to do it, keeping your officer corp together to make sure there is a dedicated resource to support the scrutiny and overview function.

  269. How would an officer viewing his or her future career view their role in the scrutiny committee? Would they be jeopardised if they criticised?
  (Cllr Hendry) No, I do not think so at all. I am sure that our assistant Chief Executive has aspirations to greater things and I am sure he will be successful. I do not think it would be jeopardising his chances at all. At the end of the day we work for one council, you cannot put everything into compartments. I am looking at chief officers, chief officers come before scrutiny and give evidence, and those are the chief officers that have worked with the portfolio holders to bring forward a policy. If you try and get it into compartments it just would not work, in our view. Ultimately there has to be honesty on everyone's part and I do not think it spoils their career in any way. In some ways it enhances their career, they are far cleverer than you thought they were before.

Mrs Dunwoody

  270. That requires a degree of confidence, both on the part of the chief officer concerned and on the elected members concerned. I would agree that that ought to be the situation.
  (Cllr Hendry) Absolutely.

  271. The reality is, human beings being what they are, if you have an effective scrutiny officer who appears too often to be coming out with faults or, shall we say, gaps in the policies that are being provided is it possible that this might have a slight effect upon their chances of preferment?
  (Cllr Hendry) I honestly do not believe so. We have a very good assistant Chief Executive and he does ask some very difficult and very searching questions. He is obviously cleverer than we gave him credit for.


  272. What you mean is you appointed him because you did not think he was good.
  (Cllr Hendry) We gave him that job for just that reason and he proved us wrong.[3]

Mrs Dunwoody

  273. Is it dependent on the fact that he is senior? Are you really saying that the thing that has made the difference is that he is already an established officer, number two at the top of the tree, knows where he is going, presumably planning only to be with you for a limited amount of time and, therefore, can establish his reputation as an independent, if not an independent a perceptive support for the scrutiny committees?
  (Cllr Hendry) It has to be, in my view, at that level. It is no good passing it down the line, I am not being disparaging in any way, and having a junior manager doing that job, it would not work. He has to be questioning the chief officers and unless he has an equal status with the chief officers they would tell him to get lost.

Mrs Ellman

  274. Would you say that is one of the things you learned from the period of trial?
  (Cllr Hendry) Yes, absolutely. Fortunately we got it right the first time round.

  275. Has South Somerset any views on this?
  (Ms Shortland) I find it quite difficult and quite challenging to hear of other councils where they have this confrontational process. I have never experienced it, and I have been a councillor for 12 years, we have a different culture and a different way of working.

Mrs Dunwoody

  276. You always agree on everything, this must be a very unique local authority!
  (Ms Shortland) There is a very great difference between disagreeing with something and finding a way around your disagreement and confrontational behaviour. We have developed a way that the scrutiny role works. We have a senior officer, it is our monitoring officer, the solicitor to the council, who works with the scrutiny committee, and we also have policy development committees, which are strategy groups as well. Most of the changes that are being made are driven by the strategy groups and more junior officers working with the strategy groups. What they are finding is ways of improving and developing policy which bring about changes as opposed to the confrontational scrutiny/executive split.

  277. Why do you assume that scrutiny has to confrontational?
  (Ms Shortland) I am not assuming it has to be, what I saying is that from my experience of the way other councils are working it sounds as though you are expecting to have confrontation, and that is why you have to have senior people managing that from the way you have just described officers.

  278. Surely if you ask a confident person who knows about their job a question that is a difficult question that should not—this is lesson that has not yet been learn learned by everyone—indicate that you are doing something confrontational, what it means is that you are asking a question that you want answered.
  (Ms Shortland) That is quite right. That implies that the officer who is supporting that job should in no way have their position or future career in jeopardy.

  Mrs Dunwoody: You do not have human beings in South Somerset!

Mrs Ellman

  279. Could I turn to the new Health and Social Care Bill, which does include a provision for local authorities to scrutinise the health authorities. Do you feel that the powers proposed under that Bill are sufficient to enable local authorities to scrutinise the Health Service properly?
  (Mr Bell) When we started off we wanted to make this as simple as possible because we did not want NHS scrutiny to sit in permanent session and there was a danger of that if every council exercised a scrutiny right and every NHS chief executive was hauled in front of the scrutiny committee. We are going to adopt a single scrutiny committee across Bedfordshire, which the County Council will take the lead upon, and the three district councils will have representation. We are also hoping to include Luton Borough Council, which is a unitary authority as well, because the NHS boundaries really are Bedfordshire and Luton. We are also keen to avoid the rerunning of the performance management debates that take place within the NHS. We are going to try to focus on the strategic county-wide issues, for example, the shape of hospital provision across the county or the way the new primary care trusts are developing. I think that is the way to do it to avoid having too many meetings, but rather be sharp, strategic focused and county-wide.

2   Witness correction: One quarter. Back

3   Note by witness: This was a jocular exchange and no slight was intended to the Council officer referred to. Back

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