Another damaging legacy from the previous Labour government

Call for review of scrutiny post Rotherham
4 February, 2015 | By Sarah Calkin

Councils should consider changing the way chairs of scrutiny committees are appointed in the wake of recent high profile reports into failings in health and children’s services, the Centre for Public Scrutiny has recommended.

A survey of officers and members involved in scrutiny found in almost two thirds of councils’ overview and scrutiny committee chairs were appointed either by the council leader or the majority group, with no input from the opposition.

In the majority of local authorities (65%) all scrutiny chair positions went to the majority party, which also took all vice chair positions in almost half of councils. Only 35% of councils filled their scrutiny positions in proportion to the political make up of the council.

The survey was carried out by the CfPS in the wake of Alexis Jay’s report into council failings in handling of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and Sir Robert Francis’s report into care at failings at Stafford hospital.

It said the findings of the survey echoed concerns raised by the Francis and Jay reports about a lack of robust challenge by members, political culture issues and obstructiveness from senior officers, members and other public agencies.

In total, 36% of respondents to the CfPs survey reported regularly or sometimes being blocked in their attempts to get hold of information from officers or cabinet members.

The CfPS said the findings meant it was “becoming urgent” that “proper research” was carried out into the effectiveness of scrutiny, noting no research had been done since 2004. The centre said this review should include looking at the impact of council cuts on overview and scrutiny.

Jessica Crowe, the body’s outgoing executive director, said: “CfPS’s work over the years has highlighted the value of effective scrutiny in improving local services and giving local people a voice in shaping service plans and decisions.

“However, what we are now seeing is a twin threat to that effectiveness from resource reductions – with resources for scrutiny down to their lowest level in a decade – and a political culture in a small minority of councils which seeks to control and limit its effectiveness.”

The report also recommended that all councils should review the governance arrangements of their scrutiny committees in light of the Francis and Jay reports.

Ms Crowe added: “Ultimately in my view, it is weak leaders who seek to control and limit scrutiny; confident leaders can face effective challenge and recognise the value it adds to their decision-making and efforts to improve services.”

The survey was carried out between September and November 2014. The majority of respondents were scrutiny officers with 5% of them members and 11% from a mixture of other backgrounds.

We don’t need a tilt, we need an earthquake

Balance of power tilts back towards councils, by Richard Garlick
14 March 2014 by Richard Garlick

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The planning minister struck a slightly penitent note when he was explaining his finalised planning practice guidance to the Daily Telegraph last week.

Nick Boles said that additions were being made to planning guidance in some areas where the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was “not working as it should”.

The message to the Telegraph readers was clear: we are listening to your concerns about an NPPF-enabled development free-for-all, and we are taking steps to bring it under control.

It was the latest step ministers have taken to insulate the government from such criticisms. Only a few days earlier, Boles had written to complain about an inspector who had told Reigate & Banstead Borough Council to release green belt land, saying the latter “had invited misinterpretation of government policy”.

He can fairly argue that the finalised guidance will in some ways bolster local planning authorities’ control of development. But it would be an oversimplification to suggest that ministers are reaching for the reverse gear on their planning liberalisation.

Boles can argue that the guidance will bolster local controls on development
Alongside the guidance, Boles confirmed changes that will mean that in most places planning permission is no longer needed to convert shops outside key shopping areas, or agricultural buildings with a floor space of up to 450 square metres, into homes.

These are major incursions into local democratic control of development. What’s more, the guidance itself instructs planning authorities to leave no stone unturned in the struggle to make brownfield sites viable and competitive with greenfield alternatives.

Commentators have suggested that this will force councils to accept lower design standards on brownfield sites than elsewhere, as well as relinquishing any claim to deciding the scale of developer contribution necessary to provide the infrastructure needed to support the scheme. Boles may be bolstering councils on some fronts, but he continues to undermine them on others.

That said, the finalised guidance does offer genuine reinforcement for town halls.

No longer is it the government’s position that only “in exceptional circumstances” will applications be dismissed as premature in terms of prejudicing an emerging plan. Guidance now spells out that the duty to cooperate is not a “duty to accept”, and planning authorities are not obliged to meet their neighbours’ unmet needs. Unmet housing need is unlikely to constitute the “very special circumstances” needed to justify development in the green belt, the guidance says.

Not of all these provisions are major changes to the status quo. In some cases, the finalised guidance is confirming an approach that councils have already been arguing for successfully in front of inspectors, or which the secretary of state for communities and local government has been enforcing in call-ins. But, cumulatively, these and other measures in the guidance look likely to, in some sectors at least, slightly tip the balance of power back towards local authorities.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning richard.garlick@haymarket.com.

Threat of revolt wins Tory shires more money

Copied from Sunday Telegraph 20 Jan 2013
By Patrick Hennessy, Political Editor

MINISTERS have backed down and promised more money after a revolt by shire Tories against “grossly unfair” cuts in local government spending.
A group of about 120 councils, mostly Conservative-controlled, warned Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, that reductions in spending announced last month would “crucify” rural communities.
The group was considering bringing a judicial review against Mr Pickles’s settlement, which it said would see “predominantly rural” councils receive 3.81 per cent less from central government compared with cuts of 2.05 per cent for urban councils.
Andrew Lansley, the Commons Leader, has signalled that a “correction” will be applied to next year’s spending figures.
Mr Lansley said the difference between spending on urban and rural councils was a “matter of concern”.

Localism Bill – anything goes!

Personally, I’m still undecided about what benefits (if any) the Localism Bill will bring, especially given its inherent criticism of elected members.  How else are we to view the drive to introduce ‘local’ representation and neighbourhood forums populated by those who will not of stood for any form of election?

There is however, one bit of the bill that appears to be some sort of sop to those elected members who seem unable to present the views of their electorate without actually making those views their own.  I quote the text below.

Predetermination  

Clause 13  

(2) A decision-maker is not to be taken to have had, or to have appeared to have had, a closed mind when making the decision just because

(a) the decision-maker had previously done anything that directly or indirectly indicated  what view the decisionmaker took, or would or might take, in relation to a matter, and

(b) the matter was relevant to the decision.  This Clause needs to be read in conjunction with a statement issued by DCLG (http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1768609) which says that:

These proposed legislative changes will mean councillors can be very clear and discuss freely their view and voting intention and publicise their views as they see fit.  However, councillors must be prepared to listen to arguments and evidence before making their decision.  These changes will reduce the threat of challenge.

I’ve no doubt some very clever lawyers at DCLG have drafted this clause to do exactly what the minister wanted it to – allow members to shoot their mouths off and get away with it!

Yes, very occasionally there will be issues that a person got themselves elected on and that it would be ludicrous to then exclude them from being involved in when it came to the debate and the subsequent voting process.  However, to suggest that, by simply producing the text above and make it the ‘law’, this changes completely the status of that members words in respect of pre-determination, is an insult to anybody who thinks they understand the English language.

The last paragraph especially demonstrates the nonsensical nature of this clause.

‘…….mean councillors can be very clear and discuss freely their view and voting intention and publicise their views……’

But then having done all of the above, ‘…..councillors must be prepared to listen to arguments and evidence before making their decision.’

I think they should change the word ‘prepared’ to pretend, because that it what somebody who has discussed and publicised freely, their view and voting intentions, will really be doing.

Worse still and hopefully an unintended negative effect of this clause, will be the pressure members will now come under to declare their view on an issue. It will no longer be acceptable to keep an open mind, listen to all the evidence, and maybe even put the case for those who have asked for your help, but then vote with your conscientious.  The public will now have the right to expect you to take a position or suffer the consequences.