Memorandum by Cumbria County Council (LGA
The County Council consulted widely on the options
for changing the decision-making processes in line with the requirements
of the Local Government Act 2000.
The expectation was that the new system of decision-making
be more representative;
encourage wider community involvement
in the Council; and
provide better quality services.
After the consultation exercises it was agreed
that the County Council would adopt the model of Leader and Cabinet.
This system has been in place since the County Council elections
in June 2001. We are currently undertaking (through a cross party
working group) a review of the Constitution. The group will report
to Council on its recommendations for improvement in late May
The Cabinet meets fortnightly and this does
enable decisions to be made quickly. However, this is constrained
by the requirements to publish key decisions in advance and the
current definition of a key decision. It is also constrained by
a Policy Framework much of which was agreed under the old system
and therefore not designed to enable a modern cabinet style of
decision-making. This constraint will disappear as Policy Framework
documents are updated and renewed. The other constraint is the
significant absence of delegation to individual cabinet members
and officers in the new Constitution. This means most decisions
have had to be made by Cabinet.
This has also meant considerable commitment
from the Leader and Cabinet who have found that the new system
requires the equivalent of full-time work. It has put considerable
work pressure on the few whilst successfully managing to exclude
the majority of councillors, much to their chagrin.
Transparency and Accountability
The Leader, the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Members
are clearly identified as being responsible for specific areas
of the Council. Their responsibility for decision making is clear
and explicit within their published portfolios. Cabinet and Local
Committees have also had to account to scrutiny for decisions
that have been called in. All meetings of the Cabinet and Scrutiny
are held in public unless they are considering exempt information.
Who made decisions was not quite so clear under
the old system when decisions were made by Committees.
Reflecting Local Opinion
The logic of the new decision-making system
was that it would allow "backbench" Members the time
to concentrate on community leadership and act as advocates and
brokers in their communities. This would in turn enable them to
better reflect local opinion.
The backbench members have a key role:
in scrutiny of the executive;
in local decision-making through
Local Committees (on a limited range of devolved responsibilities
and with a limited devolved budget, much of which concentrates
on local highways matters);
in community planning in a limited
way through a range of local mechanismsLSPs, Neighbourhood
Forums, Neighbourhood Renewal etc; and
in policy development through Scrutiny,
Consultative Forums of communities of interest and in Full Council.
However, it is not clear how they can effectively
represent local opinion in the new decision-making system in a
systematic way that influences and informs policy development
and decision-making. Many are seriously concerned about this and
feel, to a significant extent, that they have been effectively
The demands of the decision-making systems also
make it difficult for Leader and Cabinet to fulfil their community
leadership roles and responsibilities owing to workload pressures.
We have had County Council Area Committees,
based on District Council boundaries, since 1996. Under the new
system they have continued as County Council Local Committees
and continue to have devolved executive responsibilities for a
range of services and budgets. They also have some non-executive
responsibilities for community planning with other tiers of local
government. Local Committees can raise local issues at Full Council
on behalf of the communities they represent.
The County Council is also involved in strategic
Partnerships. In Cumbria there is a Cumbria-wide Strategic Partnership
and four Local Strategic Partnerships. As required in the Government's
guidance the local authorities have led on the development of
these partnerships but are significantly in the minority on membership.
For example, the Cumbria Strategic Partnership has 40 plus members
of which seven are local authority Members. The County Council
understands the need to work in partnership with others in the
"wicked issues" and the need for joined-up thinking
and action. The concern is about the "democratic deficit".
As such partnerships start to develop community strategies that
set the vision for Cumbria in 10-15 years where is the democratic
accountability? How do we ensure they truly reflect local opinion?
Our assumption is that this is the role of the elected members
on the partnership who have a democratic mandate to represent
the views of local communities but if we are in a minority how
can we ensure this happens?
Involving the Public
This is a key area of concern which the Constitution
Review Group is currently addressing. Public involvement at Cabinet
and at Council is minimal and if it happens at all it is issue
based. More positively, a Public Participation Scheme operates
at Local Committee level, there is an extensive network of Neighbourhood
Forums, and there are broadly based Consultative Forums on which
views are sought across the whole range of the Council's activities.
The current administration is committed, however, to extending
public participation further and in new and imaginative ways.
Local Committees have experimented with different
methods of public participation. Some rotate their meetings around
the local area; others leaflet local communities and give communities
an opportunity to raise local concerns; and all have promoted
the public participation schemes through mailshots to communities.
Provide Better Quality Services
The Leader and Cabinet are closely involved
with the Officers in the decision-making that should lead to better
quality services. However, a weakness in the new system is how
the intelligence about services gathered by all the Members feeds
in and influences decision-making. The mechanism on policy development
would be through consultation by the Executive with Scrutiny.
Scrutiny would also be able to call in the decisions made by the
Executive on implementing policies. However, this would not necessarily
pick up all the intelligence held by all Members. Many backbench
Members feel extremely limited in how they can influence and inform
decision-making by the new system. The present administration
wishes to ensure, and is seeking to ensure, that appropriate mechanisms
are put in place to enable all members to contribute positively
to the new system. How this might work in practice, however, is
difficult to determine.