Memorandum by North Yorkshire County Council
Liberal Democrat Group (LGA 26)
As the largest opposition group our observations
of the new structures are coloured by our position in the system
which North Yorkshire County Council has been operating since
While the Executive can and do make many decisions
in a slightly quicker way than under the committee system there
are many negative points to the new system of decision making.
We always had given many delegated powers to our committees and
decisions were in many cases speedy and uncontroversial. With
the Executive system the debates in the Executive are not robust
as all the views are from one side of the political spectrum.
This is not democracy, local people have expected differing points
of view to be articulated so that good sound decisions could be
made. The new structures have diminished this capacity. Debates
at full Council do not fulfil this role as the debates are more
structured and it is usually too late to make change, the Conservative
group are whipped and follow the views of the Executive. Whatever
the Executive decides goes.
Backbenchers from all groups feel cut off from
the Executive and struggle to keep up with changes they play no
part in, debates now tend to be only on principles and not on
detail. The officers no longer have wide member input and the
discipline of having to justify their views to opposition members.
The Executive itself seems unwilling to listen to the views of
others and the views of Scrutiny Committees, this may be the fault
of our system but there is a strong temptation for all executives
to behave in this way.
Many members find it unsatisfactory but as yet
the procedures are still developing. Many members see no point
to it at all at the moment. There has been very little policy
input and the Executive seems disinterested in our views. We would
like to see some statutory guidelines as to the number of Scrutiny
Chairs which are offered to the opposition, the administration
has made sure that they have chairs to the most important services
which rather makes a mockery of impartiality and effective scrutiny.
We are finding that the relationship between
officers and scrutiny committees has as yet not developed, officers
are often finding the different emphasis by members on questioning
rather than them producing reports difficult to cope with. There
are still too few staff dedicated to the scrutiny role and until
there is an increase scrutiny will remain a very poor relation
to the Executive. Senior officers are naturally developing very
close working relationships with their executive member which
in turn makes their relationship with the scrutiny committee difficult.
Members like to be given a clear task and scrutiny
often does not provide a clear role with a defined outcome leaving
members feeling dissatisfied and that their time has been wasted.
The committee system did allow all councillors an opportunity
to participate and take part in decision making which even if
they were on the wrong side of the result left them feeling that
they had participated.
The county council services are so large and
complicated that it is not possible to look at just one small
area of the service.
The overview side of scrutiny has not been used
to great effect as yet.
There have been several "call in"
of executive decisions but again the Executive appeared to dismiss
the views of the committees.
While it is obvious that at this time backbenchers
are unhappy with their role they do need to be more proactive
and find new ways of working.
They feel cut off and have little to add to
council decisions and have much less participation than before.
How are new members expected to develop an interest and knowledge
through the new system, the old committee system allowed knowledge
to be accrued over time.
Backbenchers in North Yorkshire have always
worked hard in their communities and in the rural areas most work
closely with their parish councils to see that services are delivered
to their communities and also to represent their views.
All too often under the new structures backbenchers
feel they are being lectured at and dictated to by the Executive.
We have experienced problems with the issuing
of press releases by backbenchers and we are developing new protocols
to allow free speech.
Best Value is being enjoyed by many members
who have found that it allows members to meet middle tier officers
and talk about services in detail. They also feel that they are
making constructive comments, which actually leads to a change
in the way services are delivered to the public.
Best Value is effective in achieving change
but it is time consuming and costly. Too often few savings are
identified and many service improvements are suggested which leads
to difficult budget decisions. The role of members is developing
slowly and a more streamlined approach is emerging. Officers have
found Best Value difficult and also they have found it hard to
understand the role of members in the process.
Officers need to develop new ways of working
with the new structures and how they work with all members. The
new structures are not going to allow middle ranking officers
a chance to have an input into the democratic structures which
in future years could lead to a gap in their knowledge and their
Potentially these are a very useful contact
with the public in a large geographical county such as ours. Members
are finding that they can be used to debate local issues and as
public participation is encouraged it also makes the council and
decision making seem more relevant. There are too few delegated
powers as yet but hopefully they will be trusted in future to
deliver more decisions.
The system of members' allowances varies greatly
from County to County and it would be an improvement if there
was a standardised national scheme as has been agreed by the Welsh
Assembly for all Welsh councils. Although the attendance allowance
system was bureaucratic and seen as a poor system encouraging
the culture of meetings the fixed allowance is seen as unfair
to those councillors who give more time to their duties. For example
members who sit on appeals panels give hours of time for which
now they receive no more than those who do little more than attend
two meetings a month. The legal position of allowing payments
for substitute members also needs addressing. For the first time
I have witnessed members refusing to cover tasks which once they
did willingly as they feel they are working more than their fair
share. In North Yorkshire the Police Authority has agreed a new
scheme of allowances, which means that Police Authority members
are being paid more than a county councillor, when this used to
be just one committee of the county council. The Independent Panels
are struggling with a difficult task and national guidance would
at least set a base in the whole system. We do still feel that
members could be paid units for the work they agree to undertake
so that those able and willing to do more will feel valued. Councillors
are always sensitive to voting for pay rises for themselves and
a national scheme would remove this embarrassment. The present
rates in North Yorkshire will not encourage new, younger recruits;
we still have far too many white male post middle-aged councillors
diminishing our local democracy.
We also believe that all councillors should
be allowed to opt into council pension schemes as being a councillor
often leads to a career standstill and a loss in potential pension.
Decision-making is speedier but it is not democratic
when many County Councillors are cut out of the decision-making
process. Local government has always been close to the people
allowing active representation by local councillors on local issues.
This is becoming increasingly difficult under the Executive system.
The old system was often protracted and had
too much paper but to achieve change there are no short cuts to
democracy if change is to be achieved successfully.