Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good morning. Can I welcome you to the first session of the Committee's Inquiry into How the Local Government Act 2000 is Working. Can I just draw people's attention to the fact that all the evidence that we received at the right time has now been published, in this document, and it is also available on the web. Can I ask you to identify yourselves, for the record, please?

  (Mr Panter) David Panter. Chief Executive of Brighton and Hove City Council.
  (Mr Bailey) Alex Bailey. Director of Strategy and Governance, Brighton and Hove City Council.
  (Cllr Price) John Price. The Leader of Chester City Council.
  (Cllr Evans) Jean Evans. Councillor, Chester City Council.

  2. Thank you very much. Does anyone want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Panter) Straight to questions.

  Chairman: Straight to questions; right. Sir Paul.

Sir Paul Beresford

  3. An easy one, to start you off with. Could you give us some examples of where you feel the new system has improved matters, over the old system, and where it has done exactly the opposite?
  (Mr Panter) I think, in our experience in Brighton and Hove, experimenting with the new system, with the Leader and Cabinet model, because we have operated under that for the last 18 months or so, and we are just about to change, as a result of the outcome of our mayoral referendum, in a few weeks' time, to a new improved, committee system approach, which I think will make us unique amongst unitaries across the country.

  4. That fits with the legislation, this new system?
  (Mr Panter) That is right. We were able to use an element within the guidance which did allow for a new, improved, committee system to come into effect. I understand now that that loophole, or option, has now been closed and is not available for others to follow suit. But at the time at which we undertook our work on looking at the options, that was one that was available to us, and we have been given the go-ahead to implement that new, improved, executive committee system. In terms of the benefits, having operated the Cabinet and Leader system, then, I think, on the whole, it has enabled the Council to act more swiftly, in terms of its decision-making processes; and I think we have managed to find the right balance between members who are involved in the executive decision-making and those undertaking the scrutiny role, and have engaged in quite a deal of scrutiny work, which has led, again, to outcomes which have helped improve the overall processes of the Council. I think, on the downside, and part of the reason why we have ended up with the improved committee system as our way forward locally, is that both amongst the general membership of the Council as well as the local population there was a feeling though that the Cabinet approach led to decision-making behind closed doors, and not open to the sort of inspection and transparency that full Council expected, and the local population. And in our mayoral referendum, last October, then we had a two-thirds vote against an elected mayor, in favour of a new committee system, which people saw as being a more transparent, open process around decision-making.
  (Cllr Price) The real pluses for us have been moving from a hung Council, which was totally hung, to a system where there is a clear administration, clear responsibility, clear accountability and, indeed, visibility. The other main gain has been the turnover, in terms of decisions; as we meet weekly, as a cabinet, you do not wait very long to get a decision from us. It has also led to a far more corporate approach to the way we do things; our aims and aspirations are clear, clearly visible, we produced within six months a corporate plan, that might otherwise have taken quite a long time. In terms of downs, there is a feeling, by some members, at least, that they are remote from the process and have lost something along the way. My own view on that is that in the fullness of time they will come to love and enjoy it in the same way that I do, or not.

  5. You have both talked about process; what about quality and value for money, for services?
  (Cllr Price) The services have improved significantly. Certainly, street cleansing, one of the first things we did was to look at that, and using the review process as well, and we have made some significant changes very quickly. We have that knowledge; we have only been going with a cabinet for six months; but one of the very significant best value reviews, conducted by the scrutiny side, in leisure and culture, which Jean has led on, will produce very significant benefits, looked at in terms of, one, how we do it, and the cost of doing it, that is, if we deliver the best value review, which we intend to do.

Chris Grayling

  6. Can I just ask Cllr Price, you say that backbenchers will come to love the system in the fullness of time, in your view, but you did not give us a reason as to why that is the case?
  (Cllr Price) As they come to understand it and appreciate it more. One of the things we have not yet done, which is clearly a very major part of it, is to set up local committees; whilst we do have local panels, at the moment, with some budget to spend, our clear intention is to delegate down to local committees executive decision and resource to carry things out. That will bring people to connect within their own communities. And, I think, at that point, the changes will be really appreciated.


  7. Why has it taken 12 months to get these local area committees set up then?
  (Cllr Price) We have local panels, we have had them for quite a while now. One of the big arguments is about numbers, as I am sure you know, from your own experience, getting the constituencies right, getting the right group of communities, it is quite difficult; we should have it up and running by the autumn.

Sir Paul Beresford

  8. When you were talking about quality, how much do you think the quality is actually related to the fact that you have now got overall control and you can actually drive your policies through; so it could have happened under the previous system, if you had overall control?
  (Cllr Price) We used to claim, very proudly, that there was a thing called `the consensus that is Chester', and, whilst that was a wonderful slogan, in order to get decisions, and quality decisions, demonstrably it required massive compromise, because nobody was in charge, as it were. It is now a Labour/Liberal administration, with clear accountability, and therefore we do get quality decisions, because the aims are clear, the aspiration is clear.

  9. Mr Panter; quality of services?
  (Mr Panter) Again, I can certainly cite examples, refuse collection and street cleansing being one, where, because of the way the system has been operating, we were able to act swiftly with a failing external contractor and, by default, bring the service back in-house, and that went through very, very quickly and has led to a dramatic improvement in that service for the people of the city. I think though that I would also say that in other areas of service delivery, which require a high degree of technical and specific knowledge, then I think we have seen also some negative consequences of the new system, in that the pairing of an executive councillor with a lead responsibility, say, for social services with a director of social services, very much the pairing then becoming the font of expertise, and other members, as well as others on the opposite side, finding it quite difficult to challenge some of the decision-making, because of not having the degree of expertise. Whereas, what we hope from our new, improved, committee system is that we will have a cluster of members from across party, who will be able to develop that expertise in a particular area, like social services, or education, in order to challenge appropriately.

Christine Russell

  10. Can I ask you both how well you think local residents in your two cities, I think Brighton is now a city?
  (Mr Panter) We certainly are; we have been for two years.

  11. How well your local residents not only understand the new political structures but also understand who exactly takes the responsibility for making the decisions? Now it may be an easier one for Chester to answer, because I accept that your local residents, in fact, rejected the mayor and cabinet system, and so, perhaps, when you answer, you could say why you think they did, in relation to that quote you made about you thought the reason was that local residents feared that decisions were going to be made behind closed doors; so perhaps Chester could say why, in Chester, you think residents do not think decisions are taken behind closed doors?
  (Mr Panter) I think, certainly, in the case of Brighton and Hove, we have been through a very extensive consultation process, going back over two years, to get us to this point, and we are fortunate, or unfortunate, depending on how you view these things, in that we have a local paper, `The Argus', which is very similar to The Evening Standard here within London, it is twice daily, although it is Sussex-wide, at least 25 to 30 per cent of its coverage, every day, it is a daily, including the weekend, is about the activities of the City Council. So there is a high degree of coverage of all of our activities, of the Council within the city, and I think that there is genuinely a very high interest in what the Council is about, and a desire to see us working in a very open and transparent way. When it came to the actual issue of the referendum, I think we felt, as a Council, given the restrictions we were under, in terms of what we could say within a month of the referendum taking place, that there was still a lot of confusion about what the referendum was for, particularly as there were local, key personalities who were being touted as potential mayors should we get to that position. So I think 95 per cent of calls to our helpline, which was to help people understand the postal ballot system, were actually queries about whether they were voting for one of those local personalities, not just the issue of whether they were having an elected mayor. So I think there was some confusion still, and, as I said, the restrictions on our ability as a Council to publicise closer to the referendum exactly what the referendum was about was a hindrance to us; and I am sure that played a part. But, equally, locally, it was very easy, I think, for a whole grouping of people across the city, various action groups as well as members of other parties who were not part of the administration of the Council, to mount a `no' campaign; and it was very easy to mount a `no' campaign on the back of this notion that the cabinet model puts a great deal of power into the hands of a very few.

  12. Do local residents know what they are going to get now?
  (Mr Panter) They do. We have had further consultation on the new committee system, the nature of the committees, their remits, memberships, and extending that out then to looking at how we build a network of neighbourhood fora that will support the committees' activities and engage local people at community level.
  (Cllr Price) I am almost tempted, Chairman, to say to Chris, I think you should answer that question; as a local resident, you are probably better placed than I. But Jean will deal with it, I think.
  (Cllr Evans) I must say, when asked that question, I am reminded of something a lady of our family's acquaintance said, many years ago, when she was being spoken to about the local elections, and she said, "Oh, yes, we must go out and get, well", I will not say exactly what she said, but "get those people out of the Government," was what she meant; absolutely no understanding of the fact that this was a local election and not a parliamentary election. And I have to say that, although I think we have done a very great deal to try to educate people, I suspect that there are a lot of people still who have very little understanding of what is going on, and I think we have got to work very hard to keep trying to educate people about the whole political spectrum and what it all means. But we have gone to a lot of trouble, before the new system was introduced, we have newsletters, we have had focus groups, we have had people coming into the Town Hall and we have discussed with individual people what the whole new system meant. And, again, you find that people come in who really have no idea what it is all about, and you suspect, sometimes, after you have spent a lot of time talking to them about it, they may well go away having very little idea; but we keep going on that, we keep working on it. And I belong to a political party that thinks it is very important to keep people informed about things all the year round, and so we are constantly talking to our local residents about what situations are, what exactly is going on in Chester, and really continuously trying to improve their understanding. As far as local panels are concerned, I think that has worked really well. We have found, with our local panel, for instance, that whenever there is any matter which is controversial, which is something that people are particularly interested in, they will turn up in droves; and I think that is really the best way of getting them to understand what is going on. Because however many focus groups you have, however many newsletters you have, you have a website, and so on, but I think really the way to educate people in politics is through their own individual experience of what is happening to them at local level, and seeing what their local councillors, their local parish councillors, are actually doing in a given situation and how that works out. So I am all in favour of these local area committees, and I think, as John says, once we get them set up, once we have got a proper budget for them, once they have got some real power devolved to them, that will really help to make people feel involved, which is what they need, and to understand much better what is happening in the whole political area.

  13. Can I just ask you, very quickly, the most contentious policy area in Chester that the Council is responsible for, and probably, I am sure, in most other towns and cities, is planning. If the committee went and did a vox pop on the streets of Chester, do you think the public, the local residents, would really know who makes the decisions about planning applications?
  (Cllr Price) My answer to that would be, yes, it is the planning board. It is not the cabinet, it is not they understand well enough; and, as you rightly say, we have had one or two major planning applications before us in the past, and quite recently, concerning Maryland Bank of North America and the green site issue. So I do not think there is any doubt at all, in terms of planning, or, indeed, there ever was.


  14. But, on planning, can you give me an example of where the Council proposed to give itself, or asked for planning permission for something, and the planning board turned it down?
  (Cllr Price) No, I cannot, actually. I do not think we have done anything very recently ourselves. We get the odd thing from the County, maybe; one is tempted to turn that down automatically, depending on your prejudice, but I would not dare say that, especially not here. But we have not had any, really; is that right, Jean, I would not think so?
  (Cllr Evans) I cannot think of particular ones, no.
  (Cllr Price) Not recently. I am sorry about that.

Chris Grayling

  15. Cllr Price, how many hours a week, as an executive member, do you think you spend on Council work?
  (Cllr Price) Too long, is the short answer. Ten, 12 hours a day, probably, including weekends, to the detriment of the garden. But the average has got to be two to three hours, I would have thought; it will vary from day to day, clearly, depending on the portfolio, I suppose, at any given moment, a particular portfolio, that could be very, very busy, and be at it all day, and not everybody is able to do that, of course, because they work as well.

  16. I was going to say, so, for somebody who has a full-time job, whether they are a businessman, or a teacher, or work in a hospital, or whatever, how realistic is it for that person to be on a council and to be a member of the executive, and to do the job properly?
  (Cllr Price) It is quite challenging, and some people do do that; others, very clearly, are unable to offer themselves for that kind of work, and therefore their job prescribes them from doing it, and that is to be regretted, quite frankly. However, the non-executive side of the Council is there, and there is a great deal to be done there, both of value and meaning.

Mrs Dunwoody

  17. When you say that, is there a scrutiny secretariat for the scrutiny committee?
  (Cllr Price) Yes.

  18. And how many officers do they have?
  (Cllr Price) The way we function, we are not there yet, completely, is that they are officers who are doing both; what we have not got is discrete function, which I guess was at the back of your question. That is required, we are committed to doing that, we have not done it yet.

Sir Paul Beresford

  19. Have you costed it, your new system versus the old?
  (Cllr Price) No.


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