Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by South Somerset District Council (LAG 27)

  Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the impact of the Local Government Act on Local Authority governance. Our particular area of interest is the contribution that Area Committees can make to modern political management.


  1.1  South Somerset District Council serves a population of 155,000 in a predominantly rural area. We have 10 market towns ranging in size from under 6,000 population to the largest, Yeovil, 40,000. Within the 370 square miles of the district there are 121 Parish Councils, and we are the biggest of the five District Councils in Somerset. We have a very close relationship with the County Council, helped by a joint Partnership Committee.


  2.1  In 1991 South Somerset District Council abandoned its traditional committee system to trial four Area Committees based on Housing Area Sub-Committees and Planning Area Sub-Committees. Their success led the Council in May 1995 to reorganise service based directorates into four area based teams. Planning, Housing, Community and Leisure, Technical and Environmental Health services each divided with Administration and Finance support into area based teams under an Area Director. Apart from the Chief Executive's Group, only the Resources Directorate remained at the "centre". By 1996 area teams had moved out to premises in each area and their budgets had been devolved to the Area Committees.

  2.2  Gradual changes have been introduced since May 1999 in advance of the Local Government Act to reflect the structural requirements of the Act. We have been trialling the Cabinet and Leader model and have a multi-party Cabinet.

  2.3  We therefore have some experience of experimenting with new forms of political management which may assist the inquiry.


  3.1  Our overarching aim for area working had been to:

    —  Be more accessible—and less self-serving.

    —  Put decision making as near to the locality as possible.

    —  Put the power of devolved budgets into local hands.

    —  Hold local meetings of Area Committees.

    —  Make the decision making process more transparent to our stakeholders.

    —  Provide an environment for local partnerships to develop.

  3.2  Our experience over the time has shown that we have largely been able to meet these aims. Area Committees are held in village halls and other accessible locations near to the people most affected. Local people attend the meetings, have an opportunity to voice their views and can see what decisions are made by whom. Although a large part of their agenda relates to planning matters, Area Committees also handle local grant giving, address local issues and review the impact of services delivered locally.

  3.3  In the two tier (or rather three tier) form of local government in which we work, we find that area committees provide an important focus for geographic community involvement and local action.


  4.1  During the passage of the Local Government Bill, we had anxieties that the laudable aims of transparency and efficiency were to be delivered largely by the separation of scrutiny function from the decision process. We had concerns that for area committees this may mean a dilution of power as a strict interpretation might find that the two processes run concurrently. Whilst the Government has always agreed that area committees go a long way towards achieving their ultimate aims, it appeared that this model might be marginalised by the Government's proposals.

  4.2  We took the opportunity provided by the widespread consultation throughout the passage of the Bill to make our point of view known, and we were pleased to see the acceptance of area committees as a legitimate means of decision making. Chapter six of the Guidance Pack on New Council Constitution recognised "that area committees ... can have an important role to play in bringing decision making closer to people and in helping to give the people a say in the way a local authority works". As the paper suggests, we have used area committees as one of the vehicles to consult people on the proposals for executive arrangements under the Act. Unprompted, many of the Parish Councillors involved in that consultation spoke strongly in support of our area structure and resist fundamental changes to it.

  4.3  Early results from a recent survey of 2,000 of our residents showed popular support for area working. 56 per cent of respondents were satisfied with this way of running things—and only 7 per cent were dissatisfied.


  5.1  From the very outset, planning decisions have been delegated to area committees. Where there is significant deviation between the area committee's decision and our planning policies, the matter is referred up to a central regulatory committee. Of the 2,800 applications received each year, only 1 per cent have to be treated in this way.

  5.2  Each committee has a discretionary budget which vastly improves their scope for local choice. When, in 1996, budgets were devolved to the areas, they reflected the relative need between areas. Over the years, as needs have changed, so have area budgets. The key principle on which the structure works is the observance by all of the "no harm principle". This means that area committees have been enabled to make any decision affecting their area within current policies, provided that it does not harm any other area or the district as a whole. In all the years of operation, there have been no instances where this golden rule has been broken.

  5.3  In our type of district, area committees are the natural focus to promote community planning. Representations on local priorities from individuals and local organisations are channelled through them. A trial Community Plan for the first of our four areas is making good progress and has demonstrated the benefit of working in this way.


  6.1  One of the interesting features of area working is that an area can be of a different political majority to the district as a whole. This has occurred on occasions without detriment to the efficient delivery of services. The reason for this may be the nature of local politics in South Somerset. Thanks to the maturity of the body politic in South Somerset, decision making has been based on consensus rather than on confrontation. Under the new arrangements overview and scrutiny committees will formalise the safeguards which informally exist.

  6.2  A small amendment which has been made in guidance on overview and scrutiny has been a great assistance. At present all of our members are on area committees and, with the exception of members of the Executive, all are on overview and scrutiny committees (known locally as Strategy Groups). There was therefore a strong likelihood that a councillor who acts on an area committee which has functions delegated to it by the Executive would also sit on the strategy group which scrutinises its decisions.

  6.3  The revised guidance enables that member to declare his or her interest orally before the relevant item is reached. He or she may then remain both to speak and vote on the relevant item unless it refers to a specific decision of an area committee.

  6.4  Most of the functions currently carried out by our area committees would not be the responsibility of the Executive. They tend to relate to quasi-judicial functions such as licensing and development control. We will be identifying those items which are "executive" to clarify who must be held to account for decisions. This will all be set out in our constitution.

  6.5  When our members discharge overview and scrutiny functions on the strategy groups they bring with them their experience of the area committee. In reviewing the policy and decisions of the Executive, members will represent their areas and can comment on the impact of the Executive decision on their area.


  7.1  Within the District Council, the area chairmen are seen as leading appointments. Initially we experimented with a Cabinet (the District Executive) comprising area chairmen, but found that this tended to reduce the corporate focus. We have altered the system so that the Executive comprises members with a district-wide brief for functions whilst the area chairmen are part of the Scrutiny Committee. This arrangement will be subject to review before May.


  8.1  About three years ago the District Council set up a joint arrangement with Somerset County Council. The aim of the initiative was to look at issues of mutual interest. Future membership of the Committee has been something of an issue as until recent amendments to the guidance, it appeared not possible that all County Council members would be elected for the area of South Somerset. The Partnership Committee is an ideal platform upon which community planning in South Somerset can be built and may develop into a multi-agency. We will have an overall community plan from which area plans can be developed.


  9.1  In developing our new structure and constitution, great use has been made of the guidance provided. It has been found to be very helpful and we have no comments to make about how it may be improved at this stage.


  10.1  The White Paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice" set out the aims of new forms of local governance as:

    —  Strong leadership for local communities;

    —  Powerful roles for all councillors; and

    —  High standards throughout local government.

  10.2  It is our experience that area committees can provide a healthy environment for these aims to flourish. We therefore respectfully recommend government to actively support the development by Councils of area committees.

January 2001

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