Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Harrogate Borough Council (LGA 15)


  1.1  Following the invitation by the Government to consider the effectiveness of the Local Government Act 2000, this Council wishes to submit its views.

  1.2  The Council has tried to make the paper as balanced as it can. Where it has identified weaknesses, it has set out where action has been, or could be, taken to improve matters.


2.1  Speed of Decision Making:

  2.1.1  It is plain that decision making is quicker under the new arrangements and, to that extent, more efficient. Cabinet meetings do not last as long as committees. Individual Members make decisions fairly quickly at their decision making meetings.

  2.1.2  The new framework is therefore more reactive and less cumbersome.

2.2  Accountability

  2.2.1  Individual decision making does enhance the accountability of individual Members. It is easier to identify who made a decision when an individual Member is involved.

  2.2.2  As far as the Cabinet is concerned, it is also plain who the Executive is and where the power lies and, therefore, there is a degree of enhanced accountability at that point.

2.3  Transparency

  2.3.1  There is transparency of Cabinet decision making, in the sense that decisions are always made in public in this Council.


3.1  Members Feel Disenfranchised:

  3.1.1  There is a clear and marked loss of interest among back-bench Members. The new system is not regarded as inclusive, and there is very little opportunity for Opposition Members to change minds (as opposed to making debating points) in Council meetings.

  3.1.2  Apart from the Planning Committee and in some limited cases in the General Purposes and Regulatory Committees, back-bench Members are not part of the decision making machinery and minds cannot be changed during a debate, as was often the case in the past (since many issues were not intrinsically party political).

  3.1.3  This Council has endeavoured to address this issue by completely re-casting its overview and scrutiny system (Scrutiny Commissions), and there is evidence that the new mechanism is working better.

  3.1.4  It also seems to be the case that back-bench Members increasingly suffer from an acute lack of knowledge on a number of issues, which may be particularly marked when Members are canvassing and endeavouring to address issues raised by members of the public. It is now the case that, in order to find out information, Members now have to seek it by scrutinising and scanning not just the Cabinet meetings, but also the meetings of individual decision makers, and have to make more strenuous efforts to be fully informed, which was not the case in the committee system where most major issues were identified on service committee agendas and were thoroughly ventilated in discussion. Some Members have suggested that this lack of awareness as to current issues and the service background actually impedes the development of their community role since the electorate expect Members to be expert in most, if not all, areas of Council activity.

3.2  Pre-Decision Call In

  3.2.1  This does not seem to be working at all. Some issues have been scrutinised after the event, but no single attempt has been made to call in an issue before the event.

  3.2.2  There are probably several reasons for that, but it may be because, whatever the views of a Scrutiny Commission, the issue must be remitted to Cabinet where Opposition Members have no right to debate these issues.

  3.2.3  Back-bench Members of the Majority Group may be reluctant to be seen to challenge a Cabinet decision for obvious reasons.

3.3  Timely Decision Making Informed by Debate

  3.3.1  There is a serious lack of opportunity for timely debate and the consideration of alternative views before decision making. Under the committee system, decisions were debated in the presence of the press and public and on the basis of recommendations by professional officers which could be challenged by opposition groups at the time the decisions were made.

  3.3.2  The opportunity for informed and public debate has been lost. The new system does not generate policy debate in a public forum. All this was predictable and has resulted in a serious loss of press interest in local government at the time the Government would wish to see it increased.

  3.3.3  This Council has tried to address this issue by encouraging more debate. The Cabinet have shown themselves willing to submit issues to the Scrutiny Commissions and they have shown themselves willing to undertake investigations.

3.4  External Scrutiny

  3.4.1  This is shrouded in doubt in two-tier Authorities. It would appear that the County Council has been given the power of compulsion over the various Health Care Trusts and Health Authorities and that the scrutiny of the Police has been given to the Police Authority. The lack of a real role on these issues for district councils is significant, particularly in the light of the duty imposed on districts in relation to community safety.

  3.4.2  Resources: Scrutiny has tended not to be well-resourced. Local government officers often do not have the expertise to challenge external bodies, such as statutory undertakers, and local authorities have not found it easy to provide the resources necessary to carry out meaningful research.

  3.4.3  This Council has addressed this by appointing an additional Scrutiny Officer but there are real limitations on the impact one Officer can have.

3.5  Cabinet

  3.5.1  Cabinet Meetings: Cabinet meetings in public, which were eventually supported by the Government, do not seem at all effective.

  3.5.2  The Government originally envisaged that "political" advice would be given in private, then changed it to require that "key decisions" be made in public.

  3.5.3  The Cabinet, in an effort to be transparent, decided to have its debates in public, but in fact it is very difficult for Cabinet Members to "debate" an issue when the local press might be present looking for signs of dissension. That was of course immaterial when the dissension came from Opposition Groups, but single party Cabinets need to be seen to accept shared responsibility (the Government has never allowed the press to cover its meetings).

  3.5.4  Collective (Shared) Responsibility: While having its advantages, it also means that Opposition Members cannot serve in the Cabinet unless there is a formal coalition with an agreed programme.

  3.5.5  This Council endeavoured to be inclusive, by including an Opposition Member, but he quite rightly felt he had to resign once the Government insisted on the concept of collective responsibility.

  3.6  Individual Decision Making: The obvious weakness is that no "debate" takes place in respect of those decisions.

3.7  Key Decisions

  3.7.1  This framework simply does not work. The Government's definition of "key decision" is ineffectual since it does not require "important" decisions to be identified. What is important, is often a difference in an approach to policy, which would produce different outcomes for different Parties.

  3.7.2  Furthermore, the definition of a "key decision" is imprecise and the final onus is on the decision taker. This means that there is likely to be inconsistency within, let alone between, local authorities even if they were inclined to introduce another layer of bureaucracy to try to guarantee some uniformity of approach.

  3.7.3  The Government requires authorities to consider different key decision financial thresholds for every single service or function. This would require the Council to have probably a hundred different financial thresholds, which would be unworkable. It also requires authorities to seek to align their thresholds with those of adjacent authorities in the same tier, ie in our case with other shire districts. Yet, generally speaking, the purchase of service equipment or works costs the same wherever you are, for example, the purchase cost of a vehicle in Leeds is likely to be the same as in York, Northallerton or Harrogate, so this makes no sense. We supplied our key decision information to our neighbours but have heard nothing from them.

  3.7.4  Key decisions must be pre-notified in the forward plan which must be advertised. This Council has complied with all the criteria laid down. Copies of the new forward plan are available each month in thirteen different locations across the District. The one at the Council Offices has been inspected on three occasions in over 12 months, and two of these were by the same person.

  3.7.5  The key decision framework is not working, could not work and should be scrapped since it is of absolutely no interest to anyone. The Government consulted on this issue last June but has not yet reported back.

  3.8  The Appointment of Chief Officers: The Government's insistence on appointment by the full Council is in direct contravention of employment law. It is clear that Industrial Tribunals expect appointments to be made by the interviewing bodies. The possibility that the Council could reject an appointment or, worse, substitute an alternative appointment to that of the interviewing body, seems to me to be putting any local authority on very dangerous ground.

  3.9  The Group System: The Group meeting remains the focus of back-bench influence in any Majority Group, which merely reinforces the Group system as opposed to undermining it, which was the Government's original intention.


  4.1  Policy: It is very difficult to define "policy". Yet the Executive is supposed only to act within policy. This was never an issue under the committee system when due authorities could be given. The Government's answer to this now seems to be that something is only "policy" if it is included in a particular set of policy documents (the policy framework), which ignores the kind of policy guidelines set by most Councils over many years.

  4.2  Budget: What is budget? It is sometimes not clear cut whether something is within budget or not. For instance, is the use of underspends in the current year the use of expenditure within budget?

  4.3  Officer Issues: Officers have to develop a way to service fairly both Scrutiny and the Cabinet. Civil servants are only responsible to the Government; Officers are responsible to both sides. That can put some Officers in difficulties when they have privately advised Cabinet Members on an issue and are then called to the Scrutiny Committee.

  4.4  Confusion Caused by Two Tiers: Quite apart from the uncertainties associated with the scrutiny function as mentioned above, there are issues of service delivery, for example, where there is a duplication or confusion of roles where the scrutiny function is less effective because services are split between the tiers.

  4.5  Confusion about Planning Roles: This Authority has had serious difficulty in trying to resolve the confusion caused by the Government when it made Forward Planning an Executive requirement and Development Control a committee requirement. The public have had difficulties in understanding the difference between the role of the Chairman of the Planning Committee and Planning Cabinet Member and, indeed, Members have often been unsure whether to ask a question of one, or the other, or both. Similar considerations apply to the Environmental Health Cabinet Member and the Chairman of the Regulatory Committee.

  4.6  Bureaucracy: Far from resulting in less bureaucracy, this Council has actually had more meetings (an increase of almost 100 per cent) as a consequence of having to develop scrutiny roles, which has often involved consideration of issues both at Cabinet and in Scrutiny, and sometimes in more than one Scrutiny Committee. This will be increased further as the various scrutiny panels and sub-groups begin work. Moreover, the new system is hide-bound by regulations on how everything should be dealt with. There is only one Act but something like 17 sets of regulations, not to mention directions and over 300 pages of guidance, and all of it keeps being amended or revised and reissued.

  4.7  Concentration of Power: While this Council has a number of checks and safeguards in its Constitution, it is inevitable that new political frameworks concentrate power in relatively few hands. That is more true perhaps of mayoralties and city managers than of Cabinet systems, but essentially the system does not involve decision making by elected representatives of the entire community, as was the case on major issues under the committee system, particularly where decisions were required to be endorsed by the full Council.

4.8  Poor Links between Officers and Members

  4.8.1  It has always been the case in local government that as Officers developed their careers through the committee system, whether working through sub-committees or service committees, they gradually came to know and understand the political process, and that also built understanding between Officers and Members. That process is now breaking down. Officers have missed their exposure to Members, particularly back-bench Members, through committees. Many Members no longer have the same connections with Officers that often allowed them to resolve an issue in an informal way, simply by knowing who to approach.

  4.8.2  This Council has tried to address some of these issues by redefining its scrutiny role to emphasise service links between Members and Officers directly engaged in service delivery.

4.9  Lack of Expertise

  4.9.1  Previously, Members gained experience and got to know and understand service delivery through prolonged exposure to service committees. The new system only really encourages that expertise to develop amongst Cabinet Members. All Members do want to operate scrutiny responsibly and as a constructive role. However, the lack of expertise (which will be exacerbated after the elections) makes this aim more difficult to achieve and there is a great danger that detailed knowledge too will be found in only a few hands.

  4.9.2  This Council has therefore refined its original scrutiny arrangements in order to let Scrutiny Commissions take responsibility for individual services, in order to develop that expertise, but it does not develop the same comprehensive understanding that working with a service committee and professional officers permitted.


  5.1  Paragraph 11 of the New Model Code of Conduct (and its predecessor in Regulation 45 of the Local Authorities (Executive and Alternative Arrangement) (Modification of Enactments and Other Provisions) (England) Order 2001 has been drafted too widely.

  5.2  The principle that a scrutineer should not scrutinise his own decision is fully accepted, but the wording of paragraph 11 goes much further than is necessary to safeguard this principle.

  5.3  Paragraph 11 requires a Member of the Scrutiny Committee to declare that he has a prejudicial interest where the matter under consideration by Scrutiny relates to a decision made, or action taken by another Committee of the authority of which he is a member. The problem experienced by my authority essentially revolves around what is meant by "action taken" by another Committee. The following examples hopefully illustrate the point:-

  5.3.1  One of the Council's Scrutiny Committees wish to scrutinise the Council's planning processes and procedures. The majority (80 per cent +) of the Council's Scrutiny Committees are also members of one or other of the Council's Planning Committees (three Area Planning Sub-Committees and one parent Planning Committee). All those Committees apply the Council's processes and procedures when they determine applications for planning permission. The Council's solicitor reached the view (confirmed by correspondence with the DTLR) that all the Members of Scrutiny Committee who were also Members of one of the Council's Planning Committees had to declare a prejudicial interest on this matter because the Planning Committees of which they were Members had applied the processes and procedures and this was "action taken" that related to the subject of scrutiny.

  5.3.2  A proposal has been made that a Scrutiny Committee should act as an advisory consultee in relation to any proposals to change or make new planning policy. However, the same problem has been encountered, due to the large proportion of Members of the Scrutiny Committee who are also Members of one or other of the Council's Planning Committees. All the Planning Committees apply the Council's planning policy and this is to be regarded as "action taken" with the result that those members with dual membership are obliged to declare a prejudicial interest and not take part. This has created much administrative inconvenience, and seems to have the effect of excluding a large number of Members from the scrutiny process for no obvious purpose. It is submitted that the rule would make much more sense if it was simply applied to decisions taken (ie only Members who decided on the form of the Council's Planning processes and procedures or the wording of the Council's Planning policy would have a prejudicial interest and those who simply applied the same would not be caught).


  6.1  The Council hopes that the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee can make recommendations to deal with some of the perceived weaknesses inherent in the new political framework.

Chief Executive

Harrogate Borough Council

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 April 2002