Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Councillor Peter Munn (LAG 02)

  These views are personal and are in no way representative of the views of the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, or the Liberal Democrats, or indeed of any other grouping to which I may belong

  I am a Councillor in the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, a Unitary Authority. I appreciate the opportunity to comment on Local Authority Governance.

  In the East Riding Council, I am a "back-bench" member through choice. Under the previous Committee arrangements, I sat on the DSO Board, and was a member of the Education Committee, and the Planning Sub-Committee.

1.  Preliminary views on whether the changes in political management structures are likely to contribute to greater efficiency, transparency and accountability in local Government

  1.1.  The reorganisation the East Riding of Yorkshire Council went through last April has been little short of a disaster for democracy and taxpayers. Lack of personal accountability, an excuse mentality, and a lack of vision have characterised our progress. All executive decisions are now in the hands of a minority of loud Councillors. I detect a lack of confidence by the Officer corps. The result is that decisions are increasingly being made by default, in spite of, rather than because of, Member involvement.

  1.2.  With the very wide spread of Executive decision-making, it is almost impossible to make sure that the nuances of decisions are taken into account. The result is that the quality of the decisions is sub-optimal. An Agenda some 50 items in length is impossible for our Executive to deal with adequately within the time frame dictated by the reporting function.

  1.3.  Alternative models involving greater delegation to Officers were considered, and are still being considered. However, greater delegation implies lack of democratic scrutiny and control, and has so far been rejected by this Council.

  1.4.  We have struggled to make the system we have been forced to work as transparent as it was before we "modernised". However, the system we have is much more opaque than the system it replaced. As a back-bench member, I have no defined mechanism for influencing the decision-making in the Council. What the public make of our system, I shudder to think.

  1.5.  While accountability is assumed to be strengthened by the new structures, this is a fallacy. In a balanced Council, accountability rests with the Council as a whole. However, under our Executive system, accountability rests only with the Executive, which is not necessarily representative of the Council. This leads to schisms, uncertainty, bad decision-making, and a lack of public confidence in the Council as a whole.

2.  The impact of the new arrangements on (a) the role of Councillors (b) the role of local authority officers (c) the local electorate

  2.1  I have the feeling that I am actually getting out into the community less, although my time sheets tell me otherwise. The question is whether I am more or less effective under the new arrangements than I was before. The answer is unequivocal; as a back-bench member, I am less effective under the new arrangements than previously.

  2.2.  As for spending less time in the County Hall than previously, that too is not true. I now have to attend seminars just to find out what decisions other people are likely to be making on my behalf, to attend meetings to influence them individually, and yet further meetings to influence them collectively.

  2.3.  In their relationships with Members, local authority Officers have gone back to the "bad old days". Where there are no fixed points in a relationship (which is the case between officers and back-bench Members) then both Members and Officers basically do what they can, and want to. Drift, lack of direction, and individual "enterprise" has been the result.

  2.4.  The local electorate generally doesn't care very much how the local authority organises itself, except that it wants the dustbins emptied on time, the streets swept, the children off the streets and in school, and their Council houses repaired. Oh yes, and they don't want to pay for it. Nobody so far has banged on my door demanding an elected Mayor. On the whole, they like what they have, and they dislike change. There has, in short, been no effect on the electorate, and I consider it my business to make sure that there isn't—no matter what political structure the Council adopts.

3.  Experience of setting up overview and scrutiny committees, the role of area Committees or other devolved arrangements

  3.1  Review and Scrutiny Committees are not getting to grips with what they ought to be at. They ought to be a source of radical thinking. They are in fact staunch defenders of the status quo. This is not necessarily the fault of Members. No Officer is going to say that what they do is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. No Member is going to disagree if he or she wants co-operation in future.

  3.2  Although area committees form part of one party's manifesto in the Council, there has been no progress on this form of devolved decision making, nor is there likely to be. The East Riding has area planning sub-committees with devolved powers. But then, it always did have, even before it was "modernised".

  3.3.  The East Riding is now fully parished, and I was heavily involved in putting the final parishes into place. The opportunities provided for devolved decision making through this route are so far small. My experience as a member of one of the new parish Councils is that I would not trust them to make responsible decisions. Although in theory, parish Councils could provide a focus for local decision making, it would need a major investment in time and resources before this route would have any public confidence in this area.

4.  Difficulties authorities have experienced in implementing the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000

  4.1  One insurmountable problem is that of making the back-bench voice heard. The Executive makes the decisions, and Scrutiny and Review criticises them. However, if preferment is in the hands of Executive Members, then Review and Scrutiny members are not going to "rock the boat". In any case, not all back-bench members are members of Review and Scrutiny Committees. Even if they were, their specialised knowledge may not be harnessed in the most efficient way. The harnessing of talents is particularly important in local Government, whose officers sometimes lack the breadth of experience of the average member. There is a need for back-bench members to have dissenting voices properly considered by the Executive. While this need is obvious in a Parliament of 650 members, it is equally needed in smaller chambers. Whether this is an efficient way of proceeding is, however, debatable. If it is not efficient, then the system shouldn't let it be done. But if not doing it denies the democratic process, then the system is wrong and ought to be changed.

5.  Directly elected mayors

  5.1  There is nothing I can say to help on this topic. It might work for large conurbations with different political systems (such as New York, Paris, and Moscow), but it won't work in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Perhaps the solution is to abolish the East Riding of Yorkshire—again.

6.  Other matters

  6.1  I cannot help but conclude that the political models developed by Government, and the political structures we have set up to implement them, have arisen from the confrontational philosophy of the British legal system. It is a well-known fact that human beings, confronted with a problem, co-operate to solve it. The adversarial system of splitting a representative body into an artificial executive/back-bench, Mayor/legislature, Manager/managed split is inimical to most models of human behaviour. The fact that it has survived in Parliament is not a tribute to its robustness; it is a reflection that a Parliament of more than about 40 members cannot work any other way. Once there is a well-defined minority, there arises an equally well-defined majority to oppose them. The East Riding Council, with a number of political Groups of more or less equal size is unfitted to an adversarial system, and developed a unique and effective mechanism up to April last for dealing with local Governance. I would have welcomed the chance to develop it further.

December 2000

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