Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 160-179)




  160. Good afternoon, and welcome to the second session of the Committee's inquiry into the draft Local Government Bill. Would you like to introduce yourself for the record?

  (Mr Clark) I am David Clark. I am Director General of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, called SOLACE for short.

  161. Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight into questions?
  (Mr Clark) Yes, I am.

Mr Betts

  162. Good afternoon. In your evidence to us you said about local government that central Government's relationship with it was that central Government uses carrot and sticks as a way of getting local government to conform to what it sees as being the appropriate course of action. Do you think this draft Bill fundamentally alters that approach in any way?
  (Mr Clark) No. I think we also went on to say something in slightly unparliamentary language—that the absence of carrots was somewhat noticeable. No, I do not think it does in a big way, because what we have again is the idea that "If you do this, something nice will happen for you, and what you must do must be something that we wish you to do." I think that is still there. The only thing it does, I suppose, is in the idea of the approval of the prudential capital arrangements which, as we said, I think gives some idea of the maturing relationship, but this relationship is over a period of perhaps 30 years now, so it has had some common developments, and I think both sides are trying to re-learn the partnership style.

  163. The Government has given quite a bit of hype to the idea of changing the role, greater freedoms for local government, new approach for the centre towards local government. Do you think that is really hype when you look at the details of what is down there?
  (Mr Clark) It is not for me to comment on what is and what is not hype, but I do think that certainly the Minister is a firm believer, and he has tried very hard in this to use the right language and indeed some of the tools that are at his disposal. I think part of the difficulty that we have is that most of local government—in fact almost the greatest percentage of local government in terms of expenditure—as well as several other people, have an interest in health, education and so on. I think there is a balance there to be struck between the desire for ministers to have programmes delivered and the desire for Government to intervene in local government. That balance is always a matter of politics really.


  164. Do you think the Minister for Local Government has lost out compared to the Ministers for Education and Social Services?
  (Mr Clark) I would not know, because I am not privy to the combat. I suppose that were I to look at it, we made a comment, I think at the end of our evidence, along the lines that it is a shame that it does not say something more about inspections and a paring down of some of those inspectorates, but I am obviously aware that some of those inspectorates do not report to the Minister of Local Government, they are creatures of other ministries.

Mr Betts

  165. Might you even, on considering it, say that that role and the new freedoms to local authorities are going to require a lot more regulations to come out of this legislation? Is that something that concerns you?
  (Mr Clark) Regulations are always fascinating. I am somewhat concerned that we could get by with a little in regulations about what constitutes a loan and what constitutes a level of reserve and so on and so forth. The direction of travel though, I have to say, seems to me to be fairly consistent, which is towards a greater freedom , but one could hardly say that this is freedom of itself. It is a little like a television quiz I am reminded of, which is where contestants were invited to pick what the picture is as individual pieces of a jigsaw arrive. In this case I think they have established it, but they are not quite sure yet what the picture is on the box. So the direction of travel is fine, but perhaps it is not quite there yet.

  166. Do you think therefore we should be rushing ahead to legislate on the basis of this Bill, or trying to spend a little more time trying to get this right?
  (Mr Clark) That rather depends. I think that from what is there, I would be saying that perhaps legislation as fast as we possibly can, unless there is an intention from parliamentarians to include substantial new things in the legislation. I think the majority of my colleagues—we have just had our annual general meeting of some 150-odd chief executives—broadly welcome it and would say, "Yes, it shows that when ministers say to us that they're interested in more freedoms, here comes a new prudential capital regime, yes, that would be good." I actually think that if it were delayed, then there would be some cynics who said, "Well they didn't really mean it anyway, did they?"


  167. Would it be better if it was delayed and therefore had a bit more in it?
  (Mr Clark) From my own point of view, if there were things in it about driving out the costs, not least the opportunity costs, of the plethora of inspection regimes, then I would delay it for a very long time if I believed that was an achievable goal. If I did not believe it was an achievable goal, I would go with what it is.

  168. A lot of it is going to depend on the regulations, is that right?
  (Mr Clark) It would appear that certainly on the finance side there is an element of that, indeed—that there are things to be done later. Again, my experience has been—and I have had considerable experience of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment process as it has been developed—that both the Audit Commission and the Minister, Mr Raynsford, have bent over backwards actually to get local government on side, if you will, about how this system would work, so I am perhaps not as concerned as I would be, but my instincts are that regulations drawn up down here tended not to work when I was in York, they seemed to be drawn up as though York did not exist and in fact London boroughs were somehow more important.

  169. In a sense, it is very much a parliamentary issue, but when the 2000 Act went through there were not draft regulations available at the time the legislation went through, and there were people who claimed that the regulations were a bit of a dog's breakfast and that they took a long time. Would it be better with this to have both the draft Bill now and draft regulations by the time we are debating the Bill?
  (Mr Clark) I think it is entirely an issue, as you rightly say, for parliamentarians, but that must be right. From my point of view, if one were able to perceive where those regulations should be, if there was an actually an open dialogue, I personally would be less concerned. After all, one of my duties was to introduce a taxation system with the community charge where the regulations did not come out until after we had sent out the first bills, so one is used to the idea of regulations not quite keeping up with the timetable.

  170. You do not think that matters?
  (Mr Clark) I think it is regrettable, but I think it is livable with.

Mrs Ellman

  171. In your written evidence you say that even more prescription around financial administration is a mystery and unhelpful. Is this all about central Government mistrusting local government?
  (Mr Clark) I am not sure what it is about really. There is an incredible part of the Bill—and I use the term advisedly—that seems to indicate that we should ask the Treasury what the reserves are like. I just find it incredible that anybody would not. Why one needs to put that into a piece of legislation, frankly, defeats me, but I could easily be missing something. There is an element that always creeps back of lack of trust. I regret, I think it has built up on both sides. After all, I grew up in a generation where local government officers were asked to subvert central Government regulations, and indeed there are Members around here who would remember those regrettable days.

Sir Paul Beresford

  172. Are you telling us they do not do that now?
  (Mr Clark) They may. I shall point my noise in the direction in a moment. I think that there is quite a degree of unlearning on both sides, from civil servants on both sides—I see myself, I saw myself, as a local civil servant—really to understand and to start to trust each other, and that does take time. I think some of this creeps back into this legislation.

Mrs Ellman

  173. The White Paper talks about increasing capacity and support for councils. Do you think that Bill is going to do that?
  (Mr Clark) I think I will wait and see, if I may. I know it talks about it, and it is certainly something I could highly commend. I cannot for the life of me now understand why I spent the four years I did as a councillor, nor indeed why anyone else would do that. The idea that one can build support and actually—remembering Asimov's triangle—recognition at the top for what they do rather than reward, would seem to be rather a good thing.

  174. The White Paper also spoke about non-legislative objectives for local government, things like training for councillors and others. Is the Government doing anything to help the non-legislative objectives that were in the White Paper to support local government?
  (Mr Clark) I suppose one could say that it is, in that it is about maturing relationships. I personally take the view that there is a simplification objective in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment work. Whether that will actually be realised in the interdepartmental issues is quite a separate question.

Christine Russell

  175. Mr Clark, you have already told us that you have had a direct involvement in developing the proposals for the Comprehensive Performance Assessment, is that right?
  (Mr Clark) Yes.

  176. In the light of that experience, do you have any lingering concerns about any of the aspects?
  (Mr Clark) I will not mince my words. More than "lingering". I think the difficulty with those sorts of things is that they cannot be done desperately quickly. I am very grateful that I was able to apply for the job of Director General here as opposed to Sir Andrew Foster's job which looks to me in particular as very, very difficult within that time frame. We are providing a lot of expertise from our members—not from myself, I hasten to add, but from the members of our organisation who are practitioners—and we are also providing some of the inspectors, but frankly, for people who are able to do that and to be trained within this time frame is quite ridiculous. I looked at a particular one in Kent which involved a £300 million outsourced operation. How one inspects the wherewithal of that in the time frames which are available, when one has not had the practitioner input in any event in that sort of work, seems to me very difficult. It also seems to me a little bit concerning—and I say no more than that—that the core data sets that are being used on inspections were actually inspected for another purposes. I think that is something that might need to be revisited. Some of it is somewhat out of date. Again, from my own authority's point of view and I think from your point of view, it is rather good really that it is not quite out of date, but even then if it is it will be even better . I might have given some views about whether I would want to have a methodology that was not so heavily reliant on data collected for other purposes.

  177. In principle, do you believe that it is right that those local authorities that are failing their communities should be identified?
  (Mr Clark) Absolutely, 100 per cent. More than that, I think it is probably a duty on Parliament so to do.


  178. Why is it not a duty on the electorate to get rid of that?
  (Mr Clark) I think it is because of the level of complexities; that actually to spot the failing organisations is quite difficult. Also, though, because of the contrast. If you look at this again, if I may use the City of York as an example, some 80 per cent of the people there are born and bred, they cannot compare whether we are doing better or worse than Croydon, because they have not been a deliverer of services there. In a sense, I think it is right that an authority should be tested against other authorities. Whether one calls them skiving, jiving, failing, wailing or whatever I do not think is an issue, but the idea that they can be judged amongst their peers by an overview, through yourselves or through someone else, strikes me as very sensible.

Mrs Dunwoody

  179. Why should not the people of York recognise what services they want from York?
  (Mr Clark) I think they do and I think they are rather good at it. I hope we are rather good at providing them.

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