Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Liberal Democrat Group, Waverley Borough Council (LGA 29)

  This assessment of the consequences of the 2000 Act for Waverley Borough Council is made from the point of view of a substantial opposition party of 24 Liberal Democrat members, out of a total of 57, and where the majority Conservative Party has 31. There are two labour members.

  A pilot scheme of a Leader and Cabinet comprising 10 Conservative Executive members, with three Overview and Scrutiny committees, chaired by opposition Liberal Democrat members, ran until December 2001 when the new Constitution was agreed. A further period of review was agreed for six months. The actual number of the Executive is now eight.

  The crucial aspect that is still under debate is the role of Scrutiny as a method of holding the Executive to account and the degree to which this is, or can be, subverted to purposes of opposition.

  The Council has been operating under the new system for over one year. Many members do not regard it as successful or appropriate to Waverley.


    —  There is a dramatic reduction in democratic accountability as the Executive, meeting officially once a month, takes decisions. In reality informal and private briefings, pre-meetings and group meetings control the Council's policy.

    —  Fewer policy decisions come to full Council. As a forum full Council has limited opportunities for debate. The exposure of important issues to the majority of backbenchers is minimal. Overview Committee does allow previous exposure of an issue and some in-put to policy development, but this is subject to the majority vote, which may be whipped.

    —  Executive members are individually responsible for portfolios. They are not uniformly competent, informed, or have the time for the responsibility, which used to be spread within a service committee. Since they are subject to a group process of selection they do not form an effective team.

    —  There has been an increase in officer power and the Executive now overturns very few officer recommendations.

    —  There is a marked decline in member, public and press attendance at Executive decision-making meetings as there is no forum for debate and they are perceived as "very boring".

    —  Scrutiny committees can only advise the Executive so there is no effective opposition. Executive members, who can be questioned, are nevertheless "supported" by officer reports so that the process of acquiring alternative information rests heavily on the expertise of the opposition members.

    —  The majority of councillors see themselves as having no role and no opportunity to acquire the expertise that might make them potential members of the Executive.


  It is understood that the Act intended to achieve a number of worthwhile objectives:

    —  Improve democratic interest and accountability.

    —  Prevent corruption.

    —  Speed decision-making.

    —  Involve more people and enterprises in governance and service provision through partnerships.

  Our conclusions are that most of these objectives have not been met, will not be met, and in some key areas there is a visible deterioration.

  This negative outcome directly results from the guidelines set by the government.

  There is a concentration of decision-making in the hands of so few, and the lack of "bite" in all other processes, including scrutiny, has lowered the effectiveness of the Council. We had understood that it was intended that the Council and Overview and Scrutiny Committees, together with the Best Value regime, would set broad policy and hold Executive Members to account.

  On paper the new system would seem to allow all of this. Nevertheless, the single party Executive is too powerful. The Full Council is too powerless and the Overview and Scrutiny system too fettered to fulfil the original intentions.

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Prepared 22 April 2002