Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Middlesbrough Council (LAG 41)


  1.  Middlesbrough introduced its new experimental political arrangement in May 1999. The model, based on the Cabinet/Leader option, has therefore had the opportunity to develop in the light of operational experience. The Council has now begun to undertake appropriate consultation on the three democratic models.

  2.  Whilst the Middlesbrough model will be described in some detail throughout this submission, the diagram below highlights its main components.

  3.  As shown, Middlesbrough has established a model based on a Cabinet which has a membership of ten Councillors consisting of the Leader (its Chair), seven Commissioners with portfolios (ie Education, Social Care, Resources, Environment, Culture/Sport, Citizens Services and Regeneration); and two Commissioners without portfolio. The membership is politically balanced with eight Labour Members (ie the Leader and the seven Commissioners with portfolios), one Liberal Democrat and one Conservative (ie the two Commissioners without portfolio).

  4.  Cabinet meetings are held approximately every two weeks and operate under extensive delegated powers excluding the Policy Framework and those Regulatory functions anticipated in the Act.

  5.  The Cabinet operates on a differentiated cycle when meeting specifically to consider Education and Social Services issues. On those occasions Cabinet is chaired by the relevant Commissioners.

  6.  The current model also retains a number of quasi-judicial bodies and consultative bodies with remits covering the following issues: Better Governance for Older People; Corporate Parenting; Democratic arrangements (see paragraph 41 below); Works Council (ie employee consultation); Licensing, the Voluntary Sector; Bereavement Services; Crime and Disorder; Diversity (ie examines the needs of the diverse communities of Middlesbrough); and People with Learning Disabilities. All these bodies include independent persons within their memberships and although not possessing executive powers, report directly to Cabinet on their findings.

  7.  In terms of the system it replaced, the previous model consisted of 10 Standing Committees a majority of which met six times a year. They all operated under limited delegated powers and as such a significant proportion of their decisions had to be forwarded on to Council for confirmation.

  8.  The framework below the Standing Committees consisted of 76 Sub-Committees together with a number of other bodies operating below those Sub-Committees. In all there was a total of 130 Member bodies which compares with 50 such bodies within the current model.



  9.  It is immediately obvious that in comparing the two models, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of Member bodies with the new model being focused on a small politically balanced Cabinet, meeting on a regular basis with extensive powers which takes decisions which can be acted upon almost immediately by the Officers.

  10.  Information Technology has also been introduced which has helped to reduce the circulation of hard copies of agenda and reports. This is particularly relevant for Members as they have been provided with the necessary IT equipment which can access and copy, all relevant agenda, reports and Minutes.

  11.  Other factors which have contributed to improving efficiency include the Council's decision to establish a separate Cabinet Office which provides dedicated support to the Leader, the Cabinet acting as a whole and its individual Commissioners. Through the work of that Office, a one year forward programme is also in the process of being piloted Council-wide following pilots in Social Services and Education. This forms part of a further initiative to introduce action planning which will allow Commissioners and Officers to "track" the implementation of Cabinet decisions until such time as they have been fully implemented. Taking both initiatives together, Commissioners will therefore be involved in the whole process of policy development in terms of involvement at its inception right through its development, delivery and completion.

  12.  In addition, a new Democratic Support Unit has also been established which provides a wide range of services to Members which includes: support to the scrutiny process; developing systems to deal with Members' information needs; developing a "one-stop" shop facility; supporting Members in their community representation role; Member Training and Development; and traditional "Committee" support roles and the Mayoral support function.

  13.  Finally Cabinet also hold regular informal private meetings with the Chief Executive and Senior Officers to discuss significant issues to formulate policy.


  14.  All Cabinet meetings are open to the public and press and there has been a general reduction in items which have to be considered in private.

  15.  The press receive the Cabinet agenda and reports with all non-Cabinet Members receiving a hard copy of the Cabinet agenda. Through an IT based system, copies of the accompanying reports are also made available and can be printed off from their home based systems. All other Members can also attend Cabinet meetings and speak.

  16.  In order to represent wider interests of the Council, The Mayor, the Counsellor Advocate (see paragraph 27 below) and the Chair of the Scrutiny Executive are invited to all Cabinet meetings, receive all agendas and have speaking rights but cannot vote.

  17.  Cabinet reports now include sections detailing the reasons which support the report's recommendations together with the options considered in addressing the issues. The recommendations and the reasons are also contained in Cabinet Minutes.

  18.  The Council has placed all agenda, reports (other than confidential reports) and minutes on its website. Any person can access and obtain copies of such documents.

  19.  Weekly "Borough Briefings" receive wide circulation both within and outside the Council and give, amongst other things, a synopsis of some of the more significant issues considered at each meeting of Cabinet. Regular Press Releases on such issues are also submitted to the media in advance of Cabinet meetings.

  20.  Transparency is also promoted through Middlesbrough Council's "Prospectus", which sets out details of the Council's Democratic Model and the organisational priorities relevant to the seven Commissioners with portfolios. The Prospectus itself is a document produced for the Community of Middlesborough informing them of how the Council works and how it is working to improve the social, economic and environmental well being of the Town and its Citizens and will be the starting point for our Community Strategy.


  21.  The main mechanism by which the Cabinet is held to account is through the Council's Scrutiny Process, further details of which are detailed at paragraph 32 below.

  22.  Individual Commissioners are also held accountable through a number of other mechanisms which include: all Cabinet reports identifying the relevant Commissioner who is also asked by the Chair of Cabinet at the meeting to comment on that report; ongoing work which will see a greater linkage between relevant Commissioners and the various objectives contained in this Council's Best Value Performance Plan; the development of the one year forward work programme and action plan which again will identify the relevant Commissioner(s); and the submission to each Council meeting of Commissioner reports detailing some of the significant issues in which they have been involved and upon which they can be questioned.

  23.  When the Cabinet meets to consider Education and Social Services issues, they include a number of co-opted members who receive all agenda papers and have full speaking rights. Three of the co-optees on the Cabinet, when dealing with education issues, also have voting rights as required by the Act.

  24.  The Council's Standards Committee, which is chaired by an independent person can also hold Councillors or Officers to account as required by Part III of the Act.


  25.  Some Councillors have identified what they see as a diminution of their role particularly in relation to formal involvement in the decision making process. Under the Committee system, Ward Councillors could initiate and lead debate which might have had local implications of importance to their constituents. The links between the representative and scrutiny roles of Councillors outside the Executive envisaged by the Act have not been exploited. Information is another matter of concern. Due to the streamlined nature of the Cabinet model, decisions can be taken more quickly than under the Committee system. Several Councillors are reporting real difficulty in accessing information and keeping a pace with the business of Council. Locally, at least, investment in Member Services and new technology will start to address this issue over the following year. Nevertheless, some Councillors do not find new technology easy and further training and development is required. However, it has now been fully acknowledged that the Executive model requires Councillors outside the Executive to be more proactive in seeking information.

  26.  Another aspect of the new arrangement has been to make some Councillors feel more isolated with far less contact with other Group Members and Councillors in general. Nevertheless, some Councillors have welcomed the reduction of time spent in formal Committee processes, and see this in a positive light as this has cleared time for more work with constituents at a Ward level, one of the key objectives of the legislation.

  27.  In response to this changing role of Members, the Council designated the position of Counsellor Advocate, which is believed to be unique in local government. The Counsellor has an influential role and is fully involved in ensuring the effective operation of the Executive and scrutiny functions of the Council and that individual Members are equipped to undertake their enhanced roles in the community. As such, he acts as guardian and advisor for the interests and needs of individual Members and maintains an oversight of the relationship between Cabinet and individual Councillors. As previously mentioned, the Counsellor sits on both Cabinet and Scrutiny Executive.

  28.  There was also a recognition for a co-ordinated Member Development Programme which would help facilitate the new roles expected of Members under the Modernising Agenda. Officers are addressing the issue and have liaised with the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) on putting such a programme together.

  29.  Concerns have also been expressed that in terms of the Scrutiny Process, there needs to be a dedicated resource to ensure adequate support is given to Members in this role with Officers possessing the appropriate skills to administer and manage the process. The lack of dedicated Officer support has led to greater senior management involvement in the scrutiny process and some Members question this on the grounds of managerial effectiveness and potential conflicts of interest of the Officers.


  30.  For those Officers not directly involved in the working of the democratic model, the new arrangements for decision making are viewed as being more simplistic and efficient in terms of the speed of decision making and having to feed reports, in most circumstances, into one body to get a decision. Difficulties have however been encountered in respect of their role in Scrutiny.


  31.  At this stage it is difficult to assess the impact of the experimental arrangements on the local electorate. It is anticipated that the position will become clearer through the extensive consultation exercises currently being undertaken by the Middlesbrough Democracy Commission on the three possible models (see paragraph 41 below). What can however be said is that through the current consultative fora, devolved working arrangements, the scrutiny process and the better use of IT especially in relation to the Council's website, the opportunities to be involved in the democratic process has improved.


  32.  The Middlesbrough Scrutiny process is managed by the Scrutiny Executive whose main functions are those prescribed for Scrutiny bodies in the Act. In addition, its other roles are to set the work programmes for nine Scrutiny Panels (who have remits relating to Education, Environment, Housing, Leisure, Public Access to Services, Quality Protects, Registrars and Home Office, Resources and Social Care) and to consider and make recommendations on their findings to Cabinet. Both the Scrutiny Executive and its Panels have politically balanced memberships consisting mainly of eight Members (six Labour, One Liberal Democrat, one Conservative) and are open to members of the public and press. The Scrutiny Executive also has two Vice-Chairs one from each of the opposition parties.

  33.  Scrutiny has introduced a completely new approach for both Members and Officers in the way in which the Council examines issues and as such it is going through constant change and development. When, for example, a Scrutiny Panel undertakes a Review, systems have had to be introduced which ensure that all the key stakeholders are identified and involved in that Review, professional advice is sought wherever and whenever necessary, and expert witnesses from local and national organisations are also involved whenever appropriate. The process has however, allowed for a greater opportunity to undertake a more detailed analysis of subject areas without the constraints normally imposed by previous Committee working practices and cycles.

  34.  The annual formulation of work programmes for the Scrutiny Panels has also provided an opportunity for the inclusion of topics for review from a number of sources including suggestions from Members of Council. It is also intended that future programmes will link directly to the priorities of the Council through such documents as the one year forward work programme and the Best Value Performance Plan.

  35.  The system, however, is not without its problems and one of the main areas of concern already mentioned has been the need to provide appropriate, ongoing, comprehensive training for both Members and Officers to enable them to adapt to their new roles, especially in relation to the planning of reviews, detailed questioning and the analysis of information submitted. Further work also needs to be undertaken to better define the Scrutiny role in terms of Best Value and Best Value Reviews and the need for the provision of general guidance on the methodology and scope for Scrutiny exercises to ensure that they are undertaken effectively and consistently. The need to ensure that the Scrutiny Executive is kept informed of how recommendations, contained with any approved review, were being implemented by the Officers also needed to be strengthened.


  36.  A significant community based consultative framework already exists in Middlesbrough in the form of 25 Community Councils (CC) and two Parish Councils. With regard to the CC's, membership consists entirely of local residents. Each CC receives grant from the Council; meets on a regular basis; and receives reports from both Ward Councillors and Council Officers on matters of local importance. The CC's can make recommendations on the delivery of Council services and have been recently consulted on such issues as the Council's Best Value Performance Plan and the issues surrounding the Council's decision to enter into a Public Private Partnership with Hyder Business Services.

  37.  Furthermore, there are proposals to "cluster" Community Councils (ie based on areas of Middlesbrough) as a possible framework for community consultation.


  38.  Some difficulties experienced in operating Middlesbrough's experimental arrangements include non-executive Councillors adapting to their new roles within the model especially in relation to their roles within the Scrutiny process. Other difficulties include:

    (i)  the need to ensure that there are robust and proactive systems to ensure that Councillors receive relevant information especially in relation to Cabinet;

    (ii)  promoting Cabinet as the main decision making body of the Authority and changing the perception that it is not simply just another "Committee" together with enhancing the fact that its Executive Members are more than ever, accountable for their decisions taken at Cabinet and the functions contained within their respective portfolios; and

    (iii)  providing appropriate professional guidance and support to both Members and Officers involved in the Scrutiny process.


  39.  The first point to be made is that the Guidance Packs together with the "New Council Constitutions" are very comprehensive, generally clear and avoid "grey areas". The use of "ticks" in the left margin helps concentrate the mind on the statutory side of the Guidance and are particularly welcome. The fact that the "New Council Constitutions" has been prepared by a Team which included Officers with a Local Government background is also welcomed as the Constitutions embody a local authority perspective and avoids the Guidance being too theoretical and impractical at a local level.


  40.  The Council has agreed to take guidance from extensive consultation with its Citizens on the three models. There is support from some senior Members for the elected Mayor Model. The Council will not however make a determination on a preferred model prior to the consultation exercise and therefore it has not expressed a preference for any of the three models at this time.

  41.  In terms of that consultation, Middlesbrough's Democracy Commission, a body consisting of Business, Community and Young Person's representatives, the Chair of the Scrutiny Executive and the Counsellor Advocate will form the mechanism through which that consultation takes place. The Commission will review the Council's experimental arrangements and evaluate the three options. The Commission will produce an initial report, available to all households, to inform the consultation process. The Council's decision in May/June 2001 will then be based on the results of the Commission's report and consultation.

  42.  All households will be encouraged to contribute to the consultation and will receive a summary of the Commission's report, with a questionnaire to return. There will also be an electronic version on Middlesbrough's website. Focus Groups will be held with older people, people with disabilities, young people and non-English speakers and a detailed survey will be sent to all Members of Middlesbrough's Citizen's Panel. There will be discussions at meetings of Middlesbrough Partnership and with the Youth Parliament and Older Peoples' Forum. The results of the consultation will be considered by the Democracy Commission before being fed through to the full Council.


  43.  For the purpose of this submission, the advantages and disadvantages of having an elected Mayor are well known and it is not intended to comment further on this issue.

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