Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Plymouth City Council (LGA 05)

  In accordance with the expressed wishes of Central Government, Plymouth City Council began the process of modernising its democratic structures well in advance of the Local Government Act 2000, in fact following closely upon the publication of the White Papers, and in particular "Local Leadership, Local Choice".

  At an early stage a positive decision was taken to focus upon the modernisation of democratic arrangements by starting, as it were from the "bottom", that is in the areas of Standards and scrutiny rather than the executive. A further decision was taken to publish reports to every meeting of the Council's former Policy and Resources Committee (held on an eight weekly cycle) in order to maintain the impetus towards modernised structures. As such, Plymouth has a catalogue of reports detailing the progress of its preparations.


  An early experiment took place in which the Council set up Scrutiny Panels to look at pre decision, post decision and policy implementation. By and large these early experiments were well received and there was some good feedback. However, difficulties were experienced in implementing and taking forward scrutiny reports arising from these exercises.

  The Council nonetheless learnt from the experience.


  Proposals for the appointments of a Standards Committee first came before the Council in 1999, finally being implemented in June 2000. The Council has a Standards Committee consisting of eight persons, five elected members and three independent persons, and terms of reference which permit the independent members only to sit when hearing complaints regarding member conduct.

  Initially the work of the Standards Committee was rather slow, mainly because the Local Government Act 2000, Part III and associated regulations, were delayed. In this sense the Standards Committee simply monitored the development of the legislation.

  At another level, however, the work of the independent members in considering complaints to the Standards Committee has been brisk. Two formal complaints have been reported to the Council's Executive Committee and a number of other complaints have been dealt with either informally (because no action need be taken) or have not been found to justify reports to the executive because no breach of any code has been found to exist.

  The experience has been salutary. A number of lessons have been learnt regarding the difficulties of the complaints process, and in particular the Monitoring Officer has experienced first hand precisely how difficult it is to deal with such matters in a political environment. The resource requirement of this type of work are very substantial.


  In May 2001, the Council took steps towards the creation of a form of Executive, through the setting up of an Executive Committee and a Social Services Committee. Alongside this, full-blown scrutiny and Standards Committees were introduced, along with Area Committees. All of this was established through a trial constitution, specifically for the purpose of enabling Officers and members to experience what full executive arrangements might be like.

  In terms of decision making, this scheme of delegation reflecting consultation with Portfolio holders were seen as the first step towards direct political accountability. A delegated decision form, and format has now been established offering transparency to the delegated decision making process.

  Key decisions have been defined and forward planning processes established which is now beginning to inform not just the Executive decision making process but also the Senior Management and Resource Planning elements of the democratic process.

  On scrutiny, individual panels have been established with full powers of call in and pre-decision, post decision and policy development powers. Needless to say, in a political environment, some initial difficulties have been experienced with the full blown scrutiny process and adjustments had to be made to the constitution in so far as scrutiny is concerned. Again, resource demands to service the scrutiny process are substantial and conflict with the resourcing of service provision.

  Standards Committee exists as before.

  One of the most interesting aspects of the new constitutional experiment, however, has been the establishment of area committees. A decision in principle was taken at the start that no set format would be laid down for Area committees. By and large matters were left to ward members to establish their own format and ways of handling agendas. It is fair to say, however, that throughout the City the Area Committees have attracted a great deal of public interest, with up to 120 persons attending recent area committees.

  Again, additional resourcing is necessary, is not adequately provided and places increasing pressures on existing staff which conflict with the pressure to reduce administrative budgets.


  As a part of the formal introduction of the Local Government Act 2000, Part II, the Council carried out the required statutory consultation in relation to what were then the three options. Views from amongst the local population were split, but the result of the consultation showed a significant minority in favour of the one of the elected mayor options. Therefore, in accordance with the statutory guidance the Council elected to hold a referendum stating its preferred option as an elected mayor with cabinet and a fallback option of leader with cabinet. That referendum took place in January 2002.

  The Council decided that the referendum should be full postal and employed the assistance of the Electoral Reform Society in order to hold the ballot. The process of the ballot went relatively smoothly, with only one or two minor difficulties. Turnout was approximately 42 per cent (39.6 per cent of which were valid votes) which was higher than that of previous referenda (with the exception of one which involved the joint general election ballot). The count was observed by the Electoral Commission and the result showed 59 per cent in favour of the leader with cabinet and 41 per cent in favour of elected mayor with cabinet, with the minority of either spoilt or ballot papers not otherwise admitted.

  Overall, the cost to the authority (an additional revenue item) was within the region of £110,000.


  I hope you will understand that Plymouth has taken a very measured approach to the introduction of new democratic arrangements under the Local Government Act 2000. Far from approaching a "big bang" approach, the Council has chosen to introduce various elements of the new arrangements on an incremental basis. But that does not mean that all has gone smoothly. By and large, a number of members still believe that they have been distanced from the organisation by the introduction of these new arrangements. It is true that their involvement in area committees has offset the lack of involvement of some of them within the executive decision making process, and that this role coupled with scrutiny has kept the majority of them employed in Council business. However, "change fatigue" is very evident.

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Prepared 22 April 2002