Examination of witnesses (Questions 323
TUESDAY 20 MARCH
COCKELL and MR
323. Can I welcome you to the Committee and
ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?
(Mr Cockell) I am Councillor Merrick Cockell. I am
leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council.
(Mr Myers) Derek Myers. I am town clerk and chief
executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
324. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction
or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
(Mr Cockell) I am quite happy; you have my views.
325. Could you give me and the Committee what
the political numbers are, what is the political makeup of Kensington
and Chelsea Council?
(Mr Cockell) We are two-thirds Conservative; one-third
Labour; no Liberals. That has historically been the position and
no change in any seat since 1972.
326. It has always been this way?
(Mr Cockell) Since the royal borough was formed from
the two boroughs, yes, since 1972 which was the last change in
holdings on particular seats.
327. You have probably answered my question
as to why you were opposed to the government's policy.
(Mr Cockell) We may be quite definitely a Conservative
authority but we are fully aware that Parliament and government
have a right to implement change. We have always been open to
change. Our systems have not been set in aspic for the last 100
years. As time has moved on we have changed the whole time. At
the time that this government brought forward its proposals, it
produced a list of 13 or 14 requirements at the end of the process
that they would be looking for. We have already met 11 of those
as we currently work.
328. You argue in your submission that the government's
reforms are based upon assertion rather than evidence. Can you
elaborate on that statement?
(Mr Cockell) If we go back to the inspiration for
much of this, it refers to the number of hours, for instance,
that councillors spend in committee and identifies this as being
rather a waste of time. The numbers quoted are up to 90 hours
a month. My experience in Kensington and Chelsea and other well
run authorities is that that is not the case. It may be the case
in large counties where people have to travel large distances,
but most of our committee meetings rarely last more than two and
a half hours, three hours at the very outside. Most members on
the council who do not have chairmanship responsibilities are
members of two service committees and one executive committee,
plus add-ons obviously. That does not get anywhere near half the
number of hours, including preparation and so on. A tightly run,
well chaired committee and well chaired council takes up far less
time of members. Therefore, the premise that there is a lot of
wasted time and unnecessary activities by councils is plain wrong.
329. Is the far less time explained by the fact
that you have group meetings before your committees?
(Mr Cockell) We do not have group meetings before
our committees. Most chairmen of executive committees have a read
through half an hour, possibly an hour, before. As a group, we
meet once every cycle. There are six cycles a year and we meet
once every cycle for an evening. I stop it after two hours and
that is normally sufficient for everyone. Chairmen of committees
are in close touch with their colleagues on that committee to
make sure they have their support on policies and that they are
going to have the majority at the end of the day but a lot of
time is not spent on group meetings or whatever.
330. Apart from your own position, the sub-committee
has received little negative evidence on these changes. Why do
you think that is?
(Mr Cockell) I imagine that most authorities like
us are busily trying to get to grips with it, spending their time
trying to create a system that will work, also in the knowledge
that the system is coming in. We are all moving towards that;
it is not going to change. You may not have had much seriously
negative evidence but, having read it, you have not had that much
that grabbed it with joy and thinks this is the best thing for
local government that has ever happened. It is all very equivocal
and a lot of people com in to try to get to grips with a very
prescriptive and very complicated system that they have to implement.
In our case, on 19 July, we intend to go to leader and Cabinet.
331. Barnsley and Middlesbrough last week were
pretty enthusiastic for it. They were fairly dominated by one
party, if you like.
(Mr Cockell) Can I ask: have they done a pre-leadership
Cabinet or pre-mayor, like some?
332. They have done pre-Cabinet systems in both
(Mr Cockell) In two years' time, I am happy to come
333. We are grateful for the way you have expressed
to us your opposition to the proposed changes. Have you also expressed
that opposition through the Local Government Association or to
the DETR directly?
(Mr Cockell) Indeed. I appeared before the joint select
committee, your predecessor, I suppose. You said at the beginning
that the fact that we are a strong Conservative council meant
it was pretty obvious what we were going to say. The view I have
expressed today is unanimous. There is no difference between us
and our Labour colleagues whatsoever on this. Frankly, my experience
in talking to fellow leaders of London authorities is that if
you talk to them in private they are pretty close to mine as well.
334. Why have they not expressed them then either
to the Committee or elsewhere? Is there a slight fear that if
you upset the government it might affect your funding next year?
(Mr Cockell) We have had a lot of experience of being
a Conservative authority with a Conservative government and that
does create tensions sometimes. For instance, on the poll tax,
we had problems because from day one we were opposed to it.
335. Westminster did not do too badly, did they?
(Mr Cockell) I cannot speak on behalf of Westminster.
Therefore, I can understand that there are difficulties in Labour
authorities being able to say publicly what they may be saying
within their groups and in private.
336. You said that your party group meets once
a cycle. At what point in the cycle?
(Mr Cockell) We meet two days before the council meeting.
337. It is a mopping up.
(Mr Cockell) It is a mopping up but it is the business
338. Clearly, if you have major decisions of
great significance that could be the subject of controversy that
are about to fall upon the committee cycle to come, I take it
that those are the kind of things that would be on the agenda
of that group meeting.
(Mr Cockell) Indeed or way ahead or policies that
we are at the first stages of considering, just to see whether
my group thinks it is worth carrying on with investigating them.
It can be at a very early stage of a policy. It could be even
years ahead of something coming to fruition.
339. That is advance thinking within the privacy
of the party group. How do you think the party group structure
is going to have to change its operation to accommodate the new
system in local government? Have you given some thought to that?
(Mr Cockell) Yes. I think it is going to be very difficult.
We are a cohesive unit.