Monday, June 18, 2012

Are Area Committees a Luxury we can’t Afford?


The very first council meeting I attended was an Area Committee 3 meeting on 27th September 2000 at the Redbridge Sports Centre. I think it may have been the very first Area Committee 3 meeting too, and I have been a regular attender since, as have two of the still sitting councillors.

This structure was brought about by a government bill to Modernise Local Government and gave various options, one of which was to have an elected Mayor (like Newham) and another to have a Cabinet Structure (like Redbridge), but all options included Area Committees as an additional add-on option – they are not mandatory.

I think Redbridge Council formally adopted the Cabinet Structure in May 2002, but Area Committees were introduced well before that and have been going ever since, albeit with some modifications. At first they included small Planning Applications (mostly home extensions) but this function was transferred to Regional Planning Committees around 2006. Since then the frequency of the meetings has been reduced, as well as their budgets, and their effectiveness in engaging with local residents (participatory democracy) has been called into question on many occasions.

Sure, when a local issue hits the streets and fires people up, there will be a large number of residents who turn up. But by and large it is the “usual suspects” who attend. It is the same for Barkingside 21. Our meeting in 2000 at King Solomons where we had some 600 residents was about the proposed Racetrack on Fairlop Waters and our meeting in Fullwell Cross Library in February 2010 on the Proposed Regeneration of Barkingside Town Centre attracted over 200 residents.

As I have said there has been criticism of Area Committees from some quarters since their introduction but now it seems to be getting wider and from unexpected sources. The crux of the problem, as I see it, is that the cost of administration and running the meetings is far too high in relation to the budgets they control. Some councillors, who are fans of Area Committees, argue that they should have their budgets increased and have more powers delegated to them from the Town Hall. This is, as always, a conflict between economies of scale and local accountability and it seems to me that in these austere days the Area Committee Fan Club is losing the battle. In fact, on some subjects, it can be argued that London Boroughs themselves are too small - with Waste being the prime example, where Redbridge and three other boroughs have joined up to form the East London Waste Authority.

Since that fateful day in September 2000 I have been a keen supporter of Area Committees, but I’m now beginning to question that support. My problem is that Area Committees is all I know. I have no experience of how the Council was run prior to their introduction or how it might be run if they were axed. How would we, as a community group, engage with the Council in these circumstances? Indeed, how would individual residents engage when they have an issue?

What I’m looking for here is some informed debate, in particular from our ex-councillor readers, to guide me and others on the ramifications of such a move.

Discuss.

13 comments:

  1. I guess it depends on the value you place on people being able to hold councillors to account as decisions are made, in a less formal setting reasonably accessible from where they live?

    I am in no doubt that the Council is more responsive to local needs through having some decisions made locally. Many projects and initiatives supported by Areas would have been easily rejected when every decision was made in Ilford. And don’t underestimate the impact that this local tier has on the decision-making (and behind the scenes pre-decision) process at the Town Hall. Not least because, under the Cabinet system, it’s the only way any councillor other than the nine Cabinet members can be involved in deciding anything (other than planning/licensing).

    As you say, when there are big issues of concern attendance often runs into hundreds. It was no coincidence that after Barnet pushed through a big increase in councillors’ allowances, residents turned up to Area Cttes in huge numbers and Cabinet members appeared reluctant to attend even their own local meeting. In a Town Hall it is much easier to limit people’s ability to participate (in Barnet's case by employing security guards to keep them out).

    Over the years many people have turned up to an Area only once when something affects their own road - but surely this doesn’t negate the value of their having that opportunity? It is unrealistic to expect lots of people otherwise to give up their evenings to attend every time; those that do are people involved in their local communities, who often represent and report back to many more, for example through Residents’ Associations. Isn't this sort of community engagement to be encouraged and supported, rather than dismissing those involved as the ‘usual suspects’?

    In the old days Highways and Planning committees often sat until after 11pm; handfuls of residents who had paid to travel and park in Ilford were kept waiting whilst Cllrs ploughed through lengthy agendas of issues across the whole Borough. For whom is this preferable? Some councils, particularly of the left, are using 'austerity' to re-centralise decision making and take away the accountability that comes from localism. But these are the actions of people who tend to see the public collectively as 'clients' to be organised and managed, rather than as individuals who have a right to have their own say.

    The cost of local decision-making is often exaggerated – the Areas' spend on local services that would either have to be re-provided centrally, or cut - in which case that’s a service cut not an admin saving. And almost every agenda item researched, written up, printed and debated at an Area Committee would have to be researched, written up, printed and debated at some committee or other, wherever decisions are made - so much of the administrative cost is unavoidable. Much that remains represents small parts of many officers’ jobs – for example attendance at a few extra meetings during a year - that would be impossible to make into a realisable saving.

    Ian

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    1. Ian
      When ACs started they were almost monthly – because they dealt with Planning which had strict rules about timing. Also, Planning accounts for a lot of local issues – so more people turned up.
      Now we have ACs every 3 months (AC4) or every 10 weeks or so, if we are lucky. The thing is that when an issue comes up people like me (the usual suspects) are taking them directly to Councillors or Officers rather than waiting for the next Area meeting. Which sort of defeats the object of the exercise.

      As you say the real decision making is made at Cabinet, which is held monthly, and more and more issues are going there directly it seems. Perhaps Cabinet meetings should be held out in the areas where people live on a rolling schedule? Suggestion.

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    2. "it’s the only way any councillor other than the nine Cabinet members can be involved in deciding anything" says Ian.

      So if we don't have Area Committees we don't need those councillors? Sorted!

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  2. Its conundrum time again, isn't it? Simple pros - local accessability to councillors and local issues being discussed in public. Simple cons - cost, perhaps not a huge sum but there, and disruption/relocation. And what is a huge sum of cost? But at a time when Redbridge Council has withdrawn all support from the voluntary sector strategic partners (clearly they are not strategic enough) I suspect ACs cost more. So a measureable sum at least.

    So the cons - What price do we place on democracy, transparency and accountability? Can it even be measured? I am sure the Manford Way parking charges scheme would not have been overturned if the decision hadn't been scrutinised at AC3 and the councillors verbally roughed up. And Beattyville Gardens traffic calming was funded by AC4, not the then Highways Committee. So full marks for local democracy? Perhaps.

    But with the present stringent (and getting more stringent next year)financial restraints, do we want the money spent on Area Committees or keeping a Day Centre open? That's two examples from ten years of ACs. And they might actually have happened without ACs. We'll never know. But I do know from experience that options involving Day Centres were always included in the bdget making process when I was a councillor, and the less money there is then the more likely it is that one year the Day Centre will be closed. So hard choice again.

    You ask how do we therfore engage withthe council without Area Committees? Simple. We don't. Ignore the Cabinet members and the Mayor and Deputy Mayor. That leaves about fifty backbenchers. Fifty. If they do their job properly they should engage with us. When I was a councillor for Fairlop my local team of members hepled me deliver a good grade leaflet that gave my details. It told where and when my advice surgery was held and listed my home address and home phone number. Today it would also include my email address...note that I gave out my home address and phone number, not C/O The Town Hall. That would take several days to reach me, and I didn't want that. In my last months as a councillor I was contacted by a resident who had heeded the advoce printed in bold letters on the leaflet to "Keep This Handy". What I also did was what is today called Street Surgeries ( at least that's what they are called IF they happen). A number of adjacent streets would be leafletted in the early part of the week and told that I and some helpers would be visiting the area the following weekend and if there was something they wanted to tell me they should dsiplay the card in their front window and I would knock. All otherer doors were also called at but a point was made of me going to the doors where the card was visible. This way any and all matters of general concern showed themselves. When you talk to a hundred residents in one day and thirty of them tell you about the same problem, you know what the local concerns are. All matters of concern were taken up with the relevant council department and a report back leaflet delivered a week or two later.

    In a perfect world I would support Area Committees in some guise or another simply on principle. The more readily the system can be srutinised and held accountable the better it will do the job. But if we have to close day centres to pay for them?

    Ultimately the electorate will make the decision. But a knowledgable, but watchful and involved, electorate will make a better decision than an electorate which doesn't take an interest.

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    1. Well, well, Portly One. You and Vanessa below are touching on answers to my next question in this series for a post I have not even written yet. Many thanks to you both.

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  3. There are points for and against Area Committees, certainly in AC4 each Ward has a 'delegated' budget of £10,000 and the Ward Members can decide what is needed for their own area.
    As a regular Alan you will know that the monies have been used to further projects (especially Highway matters), that may well have come further down the 'list of to do items' then both residents and Cllrs would like.

    I totally supported the removal of planning applications from the Area agendas, where ever you placed the 'planning' section, you were guaranteed to frustrate half the audience because of waiting, plus you had Members forced to decide planning issues who really did not have the passion about a gable or hip ended roof! At least now you have Members who are pro active and willing to serve on such Committees and thus serve the public.

    As one of those Members who has had the pleasure of the old Committee system and the Cabinet system - I prefer the old Committee system.

    Consider: under the old Committe system all 63 Cllrs were expected to get involved (inc the Mayor) and did, the public attending Highways/Environmental Health etc with a problem/request knew that within months (generally) that THEIR problem would be dealt with, it was dealt with by the Committee and officers knew that barring earthquakes it would be ratified at full Council.

    The public attended those Committee meetings, they got an answer (generally) there and then without the seeming naval gazing that goes on at Scrutiny and therefore as the public were involved with the process there was no need (at the time) for Area Committees.

    Yes, the public can still go along to Cabinet but again they have to wait until various other reports items on a variety of subjects are dealt with - by taking a Highways problem to a Highways Committee one presumed that ALL Members on that Committee had a passion for the subject and certainly for many Members an in-depth knowledge of the subject that could rival the officers!

    Quite a few of the subjects raised at Area Committees have started off with an individual enquiry to a Member or Members and for some that is because of the delegated budget which enables the problem to be shoved up the corporate agenda.

    There are some issues of course that cannot be decided at either Cabinet/Committee or scrutiny and often revolve around some residents being disrespectful to their neighbours and those that know me have heard my views of the actions that should be taken in those cases.

    The majority of casework does not involve 'policy' or money as such but an attitude of mind and using what powers we do have as a Council to ensure that residents get a decent quality of life.

    Regards

    Cllr Vanessa Cole

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    1. Vanessa,
      Ah, the Committee System. We reported on this blog almost two years ago that Eric Pickles was minded to allow councils to revert back to this system. Do you know where we are at with this? Is it still in the Parliamentary backlog or have Redbridge council already considered and rejected it?

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    2. Alan,

      Eric Pickles has sent down the guidelines and from what I can see it is now down to Councils to choose what type of system they want.
      Redbridge are still looking at about 4 options and I presume that we will get to decide which one will choosen.

      The quickest way to 'engage' people is to ensure a system that deals with their problems in a straightforward manner,if people see results at the end end of the day then they just may well tell others and more people will come along.

      Regards

      Vanessa

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    3. Vanessa,
      Have any reports been published and where can we find them?

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    4. Alan,

      I think they have been going through either Goverance or Overview Committees, try Goverance first as it has a smaller agenda!

      regards

      Vanessa

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    5. Thanks Vanessa,
      I think I've found it, but I'm not sure as it's written in Council Gobbledygook.

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    6. What do you expect B21? Heaven forbid that a local authority should be guilty of writing something that a mere resident could understand. That could enable the resident to hold the authority to it.

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  4. Yes the Governance Panel continues its work and there'll be a report on progress so far as part of the agenda for the July Cabinet meeting. With a few honourable exceptions the level of engagement with the governance issues by cllrs has been low, which is disappointing given that the potential changes affect all members and everything the Council does. It doesn't look good to sit mute through the decision-making process and then say you don't like the outcome, particularly if you have voted for it along the way. So I hope all members will take an interest in the governance debate whilst there is still time to influence the outcome.

    The debate is focusing around two options - a modified version of the Cabinet system with more powers for full Council and advisory Service Committees, or a modified version of the Committee system with more powers for portfolio leads/Cabinet members. On the Panel the majority view currently appears to be for retention of the Cabinet system, modified, but the views of members more widely has yet to be fully tested.

    Ian

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