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Small but 'significant' shift to committees
Local Government Chronicle – 2 February 2012

By Mark Smulian

The government's plans to allow councils to return to the committee system could be taken up by a small but significant number of single- and upper-tier authorities, LGC has learned.

Brighton & Hove City Council, Kingston-Upon-Thames LBC and Nottinghamshire CC have all indicated they will exercise powers granted to councils under the Localism Act and return to the committee system.

Meanwhile, a straw poll of 76 council chief executives unearthed at least four other single- or upper-tier councils that are actively considering a return to the committee system. In addition, Newark & Sherwood DC and a handful of other districts could also return to the committee system 12 years after it vanished from all but the smallest authorities.

The Localism Act gives councils a choice of keeping the status quo, returning to the committee system, or implementing something entirely new so long ministers sanction it.

This overturns the compulsion in Labour's Local Government Act 2000, which specified a cabinet with an elected mayor or leader, with other councillors limited to scrutiny.

Tony Roberts (Con), leader of Newark and Sherwood DC, said there was all-party agreement to switch to committees, but said: "if anyone thinks we are just going back to the committee system they remember through rose-tinted spectacles they have another think coming. It has got to fit our council around the priorities it has chosen."

Newark and Sherwood is looking to committees dealing with policy, people, place, prosperity and public services but wants to ensure it can still take rapid decisions.

"You have six people making all the decisions in the cabinet and the backbenchers feel disconnected and disenfranchised," Cllr Roberts said. "People who walk the streets to get elected want to feel they will be making a difference, not just making comments. There is an antipathy to overview and scrutiny."

Nottinghamshire CC announced last month that it intends to revert to committees this year.

Leader Kay Cutts (Con) said: "I feel the current system has no proper debate, is not any quicker and cuts out backbenchers and opposition parties. It is not transparent, and on all fronts is a failure."

She says a particular virtue of committees is the opportunity for councillors to develop subject expertise and to gain experience in how the council works.

While most councils only grudgingly went along with the 2000 reforms, LGC's straw poll found a general reluctance amongst chief executives to abandon executive arrangements. Roughly a quarter of respondents said they had decided not to return to the committee system and of the 55% that said they had not yet considered the question, there was widespread agreement that such a move was unlikely.

One council grappling with the question is Solihull MBC, where leader Ken Meeson (Con) expects to reopen the debate later this year. He said the council had looked at a hybrid model where portfolio holders would chair a committee the decisions of which they would sign off.

However, that model "met objections that the committee would not really be taking the decision," he explained. "The problem is speed of decision [of cabinets] against wider involvement of councillors.

Changing is not cost free. A report for Brighton & Hove noted that member allowances would have to be rewritten with the deletion of cabinet posts, and that two extra staff would be needed to service committees, though they might be switched from scrutiny work.

A further complication is that councils have since 2000 gained powers to scrutinise local health and other public services, and so will anyway need some sort of scrutiny function.

Since 2000, councils with fewer than 85,000 residents have been allowed to retain committees.

This became known as the 'fourth option' and its special interest group 'Fosig' now sees a chance sell the committee system to councils previously barred from adopting it.

Conversely, the Centre for Public Scrutiny sees a threat to scrutiny as a practice and, no doubt, to scrutiny officers' futures.

But the government no longer thinks there is a 'right' answer on local governance, and is prepared to see both systems compared 'live'.

In brief: cabinets and committees

Committee system

Councils set up committees covering whatever subject areas they choose. All councillors sit on a number of committees, which vote on matters before them. A full council meeting can be needed to give effect to a decision.

Cabinet system

Decision-making power rests with the cabinet. Other councillors scrutinise their decisions and consider long-term policy. Full council has certain powers over budgets and overall policy direction.

Case study - Kingston-upon-Thames RBC

It's been 'back to the future' in Kingston-upon-Thames RBC, which re-established a committee system last May - before the Localism Act took effect - by preserving a nominal executive for legal reasons while giving the real powers to its committees.

Under Kingston's system, decisions are taken by three committees: people's services (adult care, children, and education), place and sustainability (environment, regeneration and housing) and policy and resources (policy and finance), with the full council as the executive body.

Portfolio holders will remain but there will be no cabinet. Each sits on the committees relevant to their post and, until the executive can be legally abolished, meet after each committee to formally ratify its decisions.

Kingston also has a long-established system of neighbourhood committees, which will remain.

Leader Derek Osbourne (Lib Dem) explains: "To all intents and purposes we have restored committees, but the roles of portfolio holders are now much wider than those of chairs in the old pre-2000 system."

Cllr Osbourne says this will in fact allow more decision to be scrutinised than before.

"The cabinet and scrutiny system had the problem that no matter how robust the scrutiny body was it was less transparent than committees, it cut out the opposition, so it was anti-democratic, and it did not allow your own backbenchers to learn about how the council works and so gain experience to be the portfolio holders of the future," he says.

"You cannot scrutinise everything, so what happened was that only those things that were politically controversial went to scrutiny, so 80% of what the council does was never scrutinised by anyone."

Reintroducing committees has provided a rare point of agreement between the Lib Dems and the Conservative opposition, who welcomed the change with a statement that said: "Power will no longer be centralised with a small delegation of councillors, thus enabling the views of all councillors and the residents they serve to be voiced."