Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Burnley Borough Council

I have pleasure in enclosing a submission of evidence from Burnley Borough Council to the above inquiry.

  Burnley is a non-unitary district authority with a population of some 90,000 people. We would particularly hope that the Select Committee, in drawing its conclusions, will recognise the differences in what is achievable in this field between larger unitary authorities and smaller districts such as ourselves, and make recommendations accordingly.

Jerry Smith

Principal Policy Officer

December 1999


  Burnley Council has a long track record of public involvement and consultation, both corporately and within individual services. The Council's commitment to consultation is contained within its annual Democracy Plan and is reflected in the Council's structures and ways of working at both officer and elected member levels.

Structures and Processes

  Corporate public consultation is overseen at elected member level by the Community Involvement and Planning Working Group (CIPWG), which reports to the Policy and Resources Committee. The CIPWG is serviced by an officer group, the Community Involvement Team (CIT) consisting of officers from five service units with expertise in public consultation and involvement methods.

  Each service unit which deals directly with the public has a nominated officer for consultation, supported by a member of the CIT who advises on any surveys or other forms of consultation the service undertakes.

  The Council maintains a Burnley Organisations Database (BOD) of voluntary and community organisations. Plans are in hand to make BOD more accessible and user-friendly, and to develop the Council's existing web site which we see as having growing importance as a part of our public interface in the future.

  We produce a quarterly newspaper, Burnley Borough News, distributed free to every household in the Borough. This provides a regular opportunity for any member of the public to comment on Council services, plans and key issues.

  The Council has recently established a Citizens' Panel of over 1,000 representatively sampled residents. The first panel survey, conducted in the autumn of 1999, was concerned with Best Value and asked about access to and communication with the Council, satisfaction with services, and priorities. The results are summarised below. Before the Citizens' Panel was established we had conducted other large-scale public surveys on an ad hoc basis.

  We support, through grants and officer time, a large number of voluntary and community organisations including a borough-wide Community Forum and the Ethnic Minorities Consultative Forum.

  The Council has a Translation and Interpretation Unit which was recently awarded a Charter Mark. We also have significant in-house graphic design capacity.

  Public consultation and involvement is supported by a continuing programme of training for officers and elected members, including the production of a "toolkit" of simple methods providing alternatives to traditional and often unproductive public meetings.

  Resources permitting, we plan to develop the use of focus groups, participation days, citizens' juries, "Question Times" and other deliberative forms of public involvement over the coming two years.

  Burnley Council is active in the North West Community Involvement Network of local authorities and we are developing liaison arrangements with the other three Citizens' Panels in East Lancashire. We are also members of the national LGIU Democracy Network and actively pursue opportunities to learn from the experience of other local authorities across the country.

Service-based consultation

  The following services consult through various "customer forum" and "user group" arrangements, as well as in other less regular ways:

    —  Community and Recreation Services.

    —  Housing Management.

    —  Leisure in Burnley.

    —  Parks Services.

  Other services which regularly conduct public consultations using a variety of methods are:

    —  Housing Needs and Strategy.

    —  Planning Services.

    —  Economic Development Unit.

    —  Urban Regeneration Unit.

    —  Environnmental Health and Cleansing.

Neighbourhood consultation and community involvement

  The Council has a rolling programme of Local Area Work which involves working with residents, ward councillors and service providers to review and improve services at a neighbourhood level. The programme currently operates in two areas of the borough.

  We provide development support and act as the Accountable Body for three community-based economic development partnerships funded through the European Union's Objective 2, Priority 4 programme.

  Local residents are extensively involved in drawing up our current SRB Round 6 bid within the identified target area and are also preparing, in another area, a potential bid under the New Deal for Communities programme. Community management will feature strongly in both programmes if the bids are successful.

  We are currently exploring a range of approaches to neighbourhood management in several areas of the borough; this work is at an early stage.

Consultation on Council Strategies and Plans

  The following strategies and plans have been agreed following public consultation:

    —  Regeneration strategy.

    —  Economic development strategy.

    —  Housing strategy.

    —  Burnley Council "Vision and Values".

  The following strategies and plans are in the course of preparation and also involve extensive public consultation:

    —  Burnley and Padiham Community Plan.

    —  Local Agenda 21 Strategy.

    —  Local Plan.

  The Council has also taken the lead locally in consultation about the emerging sub-regional strategy for East Lancashire drawn up by the East Lancashire Partnership.


  For a fairly small authority with very limited resources, Burnley Council has devoted significant time and effort into citizen consultation and participation over a number of years. However we have recognised that these efforts have not always been deployed in the most effective ways and that a more strategic approach is needed. A significant start has been made on this through the development of corporate structures and processes described above, mostly implemented during the past two years.

  Problems which remain are now being addressed through the development of corporate strategies for public involvement and for information and communications, both of which are to be put to Members in the early part of next year. The following comments, therefore, are from the perspective of the lead officer in this field and do not as yet represent the adopted views of the Council.

  The problems to be resolved are:

    —  "Consultation overload"—on both council officers/members and on the general public/community organisations. This results from the pace of change in local government and the requirement to consult on a frequent basis on topics which, superficially, appear quite similar to one another. This could be overcome through better forward planning and linking of consultation initiatives where possible and appropriate.

    —  The continued reliance on inappropriate techniques. This should be overcome with the publication and promotion of our "toolkit" early next year and through continued staff and member training programmes.

    —  Issues of access and equality. The voices of key groups such as young people and ethnic minority women are not heard enough. This can be overcome through a rolling programme of targeted work with these groups; young people form the current priority here (on a joint basis with the County Council's Youth and Community service).

    —  Meeting the costs to the public of being involved in consultation and active citizenship. A start will be made on this through our current SRB Round 6 bid though this will not, of course, cover the whole borough but could develop good practice for use elsewhere.

    —  The need to update our corporate communications for the electronic information age; this is in hand but is not amenable to a "quick fix".

    —  Resources: it is difficult for a small authority such as Burnley to meet the costs of citizen participation, including staff time. The authority now has a specified budget for corporate community involvement (including the Citizens' Panel) but as yet does not have a corporate communications budget, which is a major inhibitor of our citizen participation work. Effective public involvement has to be underpinned by high quality and properly resourced public communications.


  The Committee specifically requested observations on this topic. As above, these are the observations of the lead officer and not the considered views of Burnley Council.

    —  Citizen participation does not threaten representative local democracy provided that there is clarity about where the boundaries of each initiative lie and who is ultimately responsible and accountable for decision-making. There have been examples in Burnley in the recent past, especially regarding area structures and tenant management, where responsibilities have not been as clear as they should. Staff and member training, and corporate communications, both have key roles to play here.

    —  Citizens may be ill-informed or just plain wrong but at the end of the day their votes count. Again, the importance of effective communications can hardly be understated if participation is to result in quality decisions.

    —  Our recent experience of establishing a Citizens' Panel has been informative and very positive. Informal and ad hoc contact with panel members has indicated how many of them are "honoured to be asked" to give their views. The results of the first survey have provided a much more balanced and positive view of the Council's services than many officers and members—who tend to deal for the most part with people who have problems or complaints—were expecting.

    —  The Citizens' Panel will also provide a pool of people for focus group work and other more intensive and deliberative forms of participation.

    —  We are about to embark on a four-stage process of consultation and participation over democratic renewal and the forthcoming local government legislation. This commences in January 2000 with a Citizens' Panel survey, followed by work with focus groups, a Citizens' Jury or similar and finally (if this proves necessary or is demanded) a referendum. The whole process should, as an important by-product, significantly raise the profile of councillors and their work.

    —  This year Burnley Council participated fully in Local Democracy Week. This, too, was an encouraging experience on the whole, and in particular in those aspects which were member led or which featured members prominently. Again, it was an opportunity to hear positive as well as negative feedback about the Council.

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