Headlines: August 5th, 2004

The political management reforms introduced by the Local Government Act of 2000 are opposed by a majority of councillors. The changes brought by the Act include the replacement of the ‘committee system’ of decision making by an executive cabinet, with scrutiny committees challenging the decisions of the executive. In contrast the majority of council officers, executive councillors and stakeholders who work closely with councils, support the changes. These findings are published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in a report ‘Operating the New Council Constitutions in English Local Authorities: A Process Evaluation’.The report notes that overview and scrutiny procedures are a problematic element of the new arrangements but that considerable progress had been made since the launch of the new arrangements in May 2002. In many councils decisions by the executive are not called in for scrutiny. Overview and scrutiny is being approached in a variety of different ways. In some cases it is used as a management tool and focused on issues of concern to the executive. In other councils it is driven by the individual interests and enterprise of non-executive councillors pursuing issues of concern to them. There are also councils where it is used as an opposition point scoring game. Some councils have not adopted the process with the result that non-executive councillors are virtually on mass disengaged.

Councillor Howard Gore, Lancashire County Council, told Publicnet: “For scrutiny to work successfully the process must be tightly managed. We do this through a management panel which allocates the 20 or so issues each month to the scrutiny committees. Detailed studies, including interviews with people outside the council are carried out by task and finish groups who are given tight deadlines. This ensures that groups do not have an indefinite existence and removes the risk of a drift back to the old committee system. In a move to make scrutiny more effective we have set up a forum which brings together all councils in the county to explore common issues. This prevents duplication of effort and allows top experts to be called.”

The Lancashire CC scrutiny management panel has frequent visits from other councils who want to see at first hand how the process works and the benefits that result.

The ODPM report is available at: http://www.odpm.gov.uk/stellent/groups/odpm_localgov/documents/page/odpm_locgov_029993.pdf