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
2. AREA WORKING
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. OUR INITIAL
3.1 Our overarching aim for area working
had been to:
Be more accessibleand less
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
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. THE IMPACT
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
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
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
thingsand only 7 per cent were dissatisfied.
5. LOCAL DECISIONS
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. OVERVIEW AND
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
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
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. AREA CHAIRMEN
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. SOUTH SOMERSET
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. THE GUIDANCE
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
Strong leadership for local communities;
Powerful roles for all councillors;
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.