Proposals to slash cost of councillors rejected by Labour in Newcastle

September 26, 2015 11:30 AM

Labour members of Newcastle City Council's Constitutional Committee have rejected Liberal Democrat proposals to save £500,000 - but the Lib Dems will recommend them to the Boundary Commission anyway. And you have a chance to vote on the idea here

http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/liberal-democrats-argue-newcastle-city-10130629

The Committee debated a report on the optimum number of city councillors, having been asked by the Boundary Commission for its views. The Liberal Democrats in Newcastle believe that the report under consideration fails to cover the many ways in which council activity, and the role of councillors, has reduced in recent years. The report seem to us designed to lead the Committee towards endorsing the current number of councillors, if not more.


"As a result of changes brought in by the Labour administration, there are far fewer commitments for members in committee work, in scrutinising the council's work and in representing the council on external bodies" says Anita Lower, Liberal Democrat Group Leader. "The whole council has become more centralised and less transparent. Unless things change, and change quickly, there just isn't the need for as many councillors as we have now"


"Our own view, long-held, previously expressed on several occasions, and now backed up by the evidence submitted in our own paper, reproduced in full below, is that the number of members should be reduced. We suggest 60 members in 20 wards instead of the current 78 members in 26 wards, saving at least £200,000 a year in allowances, pension contributions and related costs.. We will listen to the debate at Constitutional Committee before deciding whether or not to submit our report formally to the Boundary Commission as an alternative to the submission that the City Council makes. However, we are disappointed that most of the comments that we submitted to council officers before their report to the Committee was finalised have been ignored."


"We also remain of the view that elections in Newcastle should change to "all-up" elections every four years (as in Northumberland and Durham) instead of the current arrangements, which are hard to explain to residents, of elections by thirds - actually, three years out of four and with a "fallow" year in the cycle. Whilst this is not formally part of the Boundary Commission review, their officers invited the City Council to give consideration to its position, alongside this review of the number of councillors and the ward boundaries. All-up elections generally attract high voter turnouts, because of the opportunity of each vote potentially to make more of a difference (whether an endorsement of an incumbent administration or to change it). We urge the Council to use this opportunity to review the case for all-up elections every four years in Newcastle, which we believe would also save up to £500,000 over the electoral cycle."

BOUNDARY COMMISSION REVIEW, NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE - COUNCIL SIZE

PAPER BY THE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT GROUP ON THE CITY COUNCIL

SUMMARY

1. On Friday 25th September, Newcastle City Council's Constitutional Committee will receive a report to assist it in its consideration of the optimum number of city councillors, having been asked by the Boundary Commission for its views.

2. Liberal Democrats in Newcastle believe that the report under consideration is a largely accurate description of how the council is currently organised and operates but that it fails to cover the many ways in which council activity, and the role of councillors, has reduced in recent years. The report seem to us designed to lead the Committee towards endorsing the current number of councillors, if not more.

3. The report therefore reflects a snapshot of council activity and governance but to be of full use to Constitutional Committee and the Boundary Commission we believe that it needs to be assessed against changes in recent years - we suggest the past five years as it covers both austerity and administration/governance changes.

4. Much of the extra work that it is contended that councillors perform relates to the work of the Cabinet and not the Council as a whole, for example the Combined Authority and Core Cities (see para 29 below). The Boundary Commission Review is about the role and total number of councillors, not the size of the Cabinet or the way in which it works - although we would contend that there is no evidence to suggest that Cabinet members are busier than in former times.

5. Our own view, long-held, previously expressed on several occasions, and now backed up by the evidence submitted in this paper, is that the number of members should be reduced. We suggest 60 members in 20 wards instead of the current 78 members in 26 wards.

We believe that the significant reduction in the resources available to the council, reflected in much-reduced activity, impacts upon the role of members in managing and overseeing this activity, and the time needed to perform that role.

The number of people employed by the Council (excluding schools, Your Homes Newcastle and the Museums Service) has fallen from 10,031 in 2010 to 6,499 today

Gross expenditure has fallen from £1171m in 2010/11 to £868.7m in 2014/15 and the net revenue spend from £501.9m to £156.3m over the same time.

Annual capital budget has fallen from £231m in 2010/11 to £117.6m in 2014/15

6. Note also that as a result of the governance changes of the current administration, there are far fewer commitments for members in committee work (see paras 28, and 31-33 below), in scrutinising the council's work (see para 39 and 40), and in representing the council on external bodies (see para 46).

7. We also remain of the view that elections in Newcastle should change to "all-up" elections every four years (as in Northumberland and Durham) instead of the current arrangements, which are hard to explain to residents, of elections by thirds - actually, three years out of four and with a "fallow" year in the cycle. Whilst this is not formally part of the Boundary Commission review, their officers invited the City Council to give consideration to its position, alongside this review of the number of councillors and the ward boundaries. All-up elections generally attract high voter turnouts, because of the opportunity of each vote potentially to make more of a difference (whether an endorsement of an incumbent administration or to change it). We urge the Council to use this opportunity to review the case for all-up elections every four years in Newcastle, which we believe would also save up to £500,000 over the electoral cycle.

COMMENTS ON THE REPORT TO CONSTITUTIONAL COMMITTEE

8. There are many statements in the report to Constitutional Committee about how recent changes have "strengthened democratic oversight", "enhanced the democratic process", etc. These are empty phrases unless evidence is presented to support these opinions, and what effect these changes have had on members and their work. In fact the City Council is arguably much more centralised and less transparent than before, and backbench members have been marginalised.

9. Integration of Services. It is difficult to understand how combining functions across councils or other public authorities actually increases the workload for councillors if that is the case that is being made here. This would need to be explained. By illustration, far fewer councillors are involved in functions that were already merged on a Tyne and Wear basis before the current devolution debate, than if each council had run its own policies/budgets/operations/scrutiny - e.g. public transport, museums and galleries.

10. The report seems only to deal only with what is presented as additional workload. There is no reference to the very many major changes that have reduced the workload of the council and members (some for good, some for ill)

The demise of Local Area Agreements, targets etc

The end of the very demanding Audit Commission inspection regime

The abolition of the Regional Development Agency and the significant time taken in liaising/pitching/bidding/partnering for funds available through the RDA. Ditto liaison with the former Government Office for the North East and North East Assembly

The ending of SRB, Neighbourhood Renewal and similar funds, many of which resulted in local project boards that Cabinet members and ward councillors sat on to oversee progress.

The abolition by the Council of its Local Strategic Partnership (unlike most neighbouring councils)

11. The Impact of austerity: It is certainly a challenge, but surely it is just as demanding (if not more so) on the workload of members in times when budgets are increasing, new government funds available, new projects launched and new governance arrangements being put in place? As mentioned above, there was significant member involvement in former area regeneration boards.

12. The changing nature of the city ; If the number of new houses predicted in the Local Development Framework come to pass (numbers have already been revised downwards) then there will be some impact on the work of councillors (especially on Planning Committee). The Submission of Evidence suggests it will impact "upon the role of councillors in how they engage with communities in those areas included in the Framework, as well as the workload to develop the plan". This assertion needs evidencing - in what ways will local members be affected in the work they do?

13. We would argue that there was as much, if not more, involvement of, and work for, local members during the large-scale demolitions that have taken place in past years, and especially (and widely across the council) in the refurbishment (estate by estate, separately for structural and internal modernisations) of the 28,000 properties owned by the Council and managed by Your Homes Newcastle.

14. The report makes much of a predicted increase of 11.4% in the electorate by 2021, but the increase in population is expected to be 2.3%. The latter is the relevant figure for members because they perform a representative role for everyone, irrespective of whether they are on the electorate register.

15. If the Council is arguing that being a "Cooperative Council" takes up more time of members it needs to describe exactly how this is the case and give some assessment of how much time. Are members sitting on the boards of new cooperative ventures, for example, or any other ongoing involvement? When council services are being cut, ceased altogether or moved outside the Council then, certainly once the process is complete, council(lor) time on these services and influence over them must surely be reduced not increased.

16. We have already had to point out major errors in the time-recording exercise by members. One that still calls for scrutiny is a claimed average per member of almost 9 hours every week spent on parish council/tenants and residents association liaison/work - especially bearing in mind that most wards don't have parish councils (and some don't have any TARAs). The Tenants Federation informed us some time ago that most TARAs say that they do not have any regular contact with councillors. In addition, the survey indicates that housing and anti-social behaviour do not feature in the top four issues for ward caseload - these are precisely the two issues that anyone who knows about tenants associations will tell you are the top issues for tenants, so again it doesn't really tally.

17. Section on Members' Remuneration - is there a reason for including this section? It is factual but is it trying to say that because some councillors pay their members more in allowances so that it justifies Newcastle having more councillors. Or that they are somehow better value for council taxpayers money?

18. At the briefing by the Boundaries Commission team it was made clear that they will look at how we match up to the median of the CIPFA comparators. Section 4.26 of their Technical Advice document states : "In cases where the authority's proposal would mean its council size differs to a significant extent from similar authorities, we will require particularly strong evidence ……… In a small number of cases, retention of the existing council size will require a strong case to be made before the Commission makes a recommendation on council size".

19. The Council has chosen to define "council size" in terms of absolute numbers rather than a ratio of members to electorate or population. Expressed as the latter, Newcastle already differs "to a significant extent" from these similar authorities. We note that Coventry has 44,000 more electors than Newcastle but 24 FEWER councillors so they have 4179 electors per councillor and we have 2364. Kirklees and Wakefield also have over 4000. In fact, extending the comparison beyond just the CIPFA nearest neighbours, Newcastle has the lowest ratio of all 36 metropolitan authorities except for South Tyneside and Gateshead.

DETAILED INFORMATION

GOVERNANCE AND DECISION-MAKING

THE ROLE OF MEMBERS

20. In the report to Constitutional Committee, the list quoted from the Newcastle Charter is not a Role Description for Councillors, only a very high level summary/snapshot, much of it couched in generalised language. For example, there is no reference to the scrutiny function, budget/council tax setting, corporate plan, Local Plans, planning/licensing/other non-executive functions. There used to be a formal role description which the Council acknowledged that had been created by NEREO (the regional employers' organisation).

CITY COUNCIL

21. City Council meetings have just been reduced to 8 times per annum from 10. This means that there is a three month gap between June and September, and that November is the only meeting in the rest of the calendar year. It is debateable whether this curtailing of accountability and democratic debate is wise, especially when so much is happening around budget cuts, devolution and council transformation.

CABINET

22. In 2010/11 there was an Executive (Cabinet) of nine members, meeting monthly. Cabinet operated with three sub-committees, all open to the press and public and with nominated Opposition observers:

Housing, Planning and Transport (HP&T) Committee

Neighbourhood Committee

Procurement Committee

23. The HP&T and Neighbourhood sub-committees were both abolished in 2011, and Procurement Committee in 2014. Full Cabinet takes whatever decisions are needed in these areas of business. Cabinet meetings are no more frequent, nor do they last longer, than in 2010/11.

24. There is less debate and arguably less transparency on issues that were previously considered ahead of full Cabinet by HP&T/Neighbourhood Committees or (as also in the case of Procurement also) delegated to them.

25. Cabinet also operates via a number of informal committees/working groups. Meetings are not open to the opposition or public as observers and there are no papers or minutes made publicly available.

26. One significant change was the introduction of delegated decisions to Cabinet Members in 2011 instead of taking the decisions publicly at Cabinet. In our opinion the outcomes have been:

Lack of transparency

Lack of accountability/challenge

Many reports are of much poorer quality than if they had to be presented publicly to Cabinet.

Most of the decisions that are "called in" for review by Scrutiny (albeit that there are not many, only three last year) arise from delegated decisions.

27. Policy Cabinet is a separate concept introduced in 2011 and attended by some Cabinet Members, depending on the nature of the topic but these have reduced significantly in frequency of late.

OTHER GOVERNANCE COMMITTEES

28. Comparing 2010/11 with 2015/16:

Constitutional Committee remains with a membership of 13

Planning Committee (previously known as Development Control Committee) had a membership of 16 in 2010/11 and for 2015/16 has a membership of two fewer, at 14.

Licensing Committee had a membership of 15 in 2010/11 and for 2015/16 has a membership of one fewer, at 14.

Adding together Regulatory Committee and the various appeal panels in 2010/11 there was a combined panel of 33 members to draw from. There is now just a single Regulatory and Appeals Committee with a membership of 14 members. All appeals are heard by sub-committees drawn from the same 14 members (any three). So far fewer members are now involved in any way in this essential process.

Standards Committee remains with a membership of 6

NORTH EAST COMBINED AUTHORITY

29. Much is made by the majority party of the time needed to develop and implement the governance arrangements for the new North East Combined Authority. However the key point in relation to Council size is that a very small number of members are in any way involved with this. Ignoring substitutes, taking the Combined Authority Board, its various committees and sub-committees and the Local Enterprise partnership (LEP) together, only the Leader and Deputy Leader and two majority party backbenchers have any role in the governance structure. The Leader of the Opposition is one of two representatives on the Combined Authority Scrutiny Committee.

30. The same is true of Core Cities. There is never any report to Council or Scrutiny about the work of this group.

OTHER JOINT AUTHORITY COMMITTEES

31. The eleven other joint committees are also heavily populated by Cabinet members. In aggregate there are places for only 7 of the majority party's 43 backbench members and only 4 of the 25 opposition members.

32. By contrast, in the municipal year 2010/11 there were 14 comparable joint committees, and the following were involved as members:

Cabinet members - 2 places

Majority party beckbenchers - 21 places

Opposition members - 5 places

OTHER COMMITTEES

33. The following advisory committees that were in place in 2010/11 were removed in 2011/12

Equalities Committee

Workforce Learning and Development

Science City

Conservation

Great Park

These committees all had significant backbench membership (both parties), alongside Cabinet Members.

34. For a number of years the City Council supported and resourced the Local Strategic Partnership which brought together the council with other public bodies (police, health etc), business representatives and the voluntary and community sector to develop shared priorities and approaches across agencies. The LSP was scrapped in 2011. Most neighbouring authorities continue to have such a body. We understand that the council, through its management, meet with other public agencies in some informal arrangement but this is partial and without any transparency.

35. Other agencies also scrapped since 2010 include:

The Tyne and Wear Economic Development Company

Newcastle/Gateshead's city centre development company 1NG

OTHER COMMENTS

36. A number of functions have been removed from the council and any influence that members might have over them. These include:

Tourism services are now the responsibility of NewcastleGateshead Initiative. The city no longer has a tourist information centre, which for a regional capital and one of the most popular short-break destinations in the country is seen as a retrogade step by many people.

Most sports facilities have either been closed or have been transferred (or are in process of being transferred) to private leisure trusts.

Most of the city's cultural funding has been ended. An external fund has been established through the Community Foundation for Tyne and Wear and Northumberland but council members receive no information about this and have no say on what is funded. The independent chair of Standards Committee made reference to this lack of information recently.

GOVERNANCE - COMMENTS AND CONCLUSIONS

37. The Leader and Cabinet replaced the Committee system in 2001 - and from then on there has been no policy-making role for councillors other than Cabinet members. At least some majority party backbenchers are supportive of a return to the committee system in Newcastle but have twice been whipped into voting against Opposition motions to that effect.

38. From the data provided above it will be seen that there is now a materially reduced role for backbench councillors: over 20 members are not appointed to ANY main committee - Cabinet, nor any Overview and Scrutiny Committee nor Non-Executive (Constitutional, Standards, Planning, Licensing, Regulatory);

This is not due to budget cuts.

The skills, knowledge and experience of members are not being properly tapped used.

SCRUTINY AND OUTSIDE BODIES

OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY

Background

39. There are far fewer members involved in Scrutiny now than five years ago.

References in the report to Scrutiny being revitalised, and overlaps having been removed surely refer to the post-2011 structure. The pre-2011 structure was different and perfectly clear.

The Chairs of Overview and Scrutiny Committees were given to Opposition in 2004, and this continues. This gives some formal role for the Opposition in Council affairs, although (as required by legislation) scrutiny membership is proportionate to overall Council membership.

This section compares the number of Scrutiny committees and the councillors on those committees for the years 2010/11 and 2015/16

40. In 2010/11 there were eight Overview and Scrutiny Committees of the Council, one of which was the Overview and Scrutiny Board that managed the overall process. Of the 78 members of the City Council, 9 were Executive (Cabinet) members; of the other 69 members, 66 of them had places on one (or in a handful of cases more than one) scrutiny committee.

In 2015/16 there are two Overview and Scrutiny Committees on which 27 of the 68 non-Cabinet members sit.

Sources: reports to the annual meetings of Council May 2010 and May 2015

41. The fact that there is currently a facility to establish task and finish groups is not relevant, as this has existed (and been used) in past years when there were more main committees. In practice, the response from members to serve on task and finish groups is rather disappointing, and the membership tends mostly to come from the main committee(s).

42. One of the key functions of Scrutiny is to review the performance of cabinet members and directorates. Reports by Cabinet Members to Scrutiny (and then on to City Council) used to be every six months but this was changed in 2011 to an annual report. Many members think that this is inadequate because information becomes out-of-date. Despite requests by Scrutiny, most cabinet reports are simply a list of actions and achievements (albeit of interest), not demonstrably linked to the aims in the annual plan and usually avoiding controversial and difficult issues.

43. Cabinet members do not keep to a recommended pattern for the submission of their reports; one consequence is that sometimes Scrutiny has to take more than one Cabinet Member report at a meeting; this is not satisfactory. With the reduction in the number of City Council meetings from this year, City Council will also end up taking more than one Cabinet Member report at a meeting. In fact the September 2015 City Council meeting had to take three cabinet member reports at one meeting:

Leader of Council

Deputy Leader

Cabinet Secretary (also for his previous remit)

44. The consequence of all this is neither non-Cabinet members on Scrutiny nor members at City Council meeting have available sufficient time to adequately scrutinise/question/challenge Cabinet Members.

45. The other main aspect of performance monitoring is the quarterly performance report which comes to Scrutiny after Cabinet approves it. The appropriateness of the content of this report has been a bone of contention for a very long time. Members of both parties on Scrutiny have been frustrated by information that they sometimes consider to be out-of-date, with inappropriate comparators and insufficient trend information to be useful. All of this could have been avoided if Scrutiny had been involved in the identification of key performance data and its presentation in the first place, instead of an informal cabinet working party taking the decisions without reference to Scrutiny.

REPRESENTATIVES ON EXTERNAL BODIES

46. In 2010/11 Council appointed representatives to 115 different external organisations and committees, a figure which had changed little over the previous decade. On these 115 organisations there were 207 places for elected members. These were filled by 62 different members (36 of the 42 members of the controlling group; 26 of the 36 Opposition members)

It was decided in 2011 to cut back on external appointments. For 2015/16 only 112 representatives were appointed to 61 organisations. The pattern of appointments is as follows:

95 of the 112 places were to majority party members and 17 to the main Opposition party.

Of the 95 majority party places 39 were occupied by Cabinet members and 56 by non-Cabinet members.

The 56 places occupied by non-Cabinet members were filled by 23 different members; in other words 21 of the 44 non-Cabinet majority party councillors have no position on an external body.

The 17 places occupied by Opposition party members were filled by 11 different members; so 11 of the 25 non-Labour members of the City Council have no position on an external body.

24 members have NO appointments of any sort to external bodies.

Example - City Council, following a thorough budget scrutiny process, approved forward the capital budget at its March 2015 meeting. This included £18m over three years for refurbishment to the Civic Centre. Less than four months later and out-of-the-blue it was announced that this would now be £45m. Scrutiny was not consulted before this decision, despite having formal responsibility for monitoring treasury management.

REPRESENTATIONAL ROLE OF COUNCILLORS

47. Members make up the voting members of their Ward Committee. The Liberal Democrat administration from 2004 removed the former Area Committees, as a two-tier localised structure was not justified (three elements where there were also parish councils). Ward Committee budgets were significantly increased and staff support via Ward Coordinators and Neighbourhood Response Managers increased.

48. Naturally much of this has had to be cut back as part of council budget reductions, but it is to the credit of the City Council that it has maintained significant Ward budgets for the Ward Committees when they were already way above what most other local authorities made available. The City Council Statement of Evidence contains the detail.

49. The Ward Committee infrastructure has changed in the last two years. Most Ward Committees used to meet every two months, but some met monthly. Now they meet quarterly so the engagement with residents is much-reduced via this route. More decisions on funding from Ward Committee grant aid have to be decided outside the meetings, often by email which reduces the opportunities for discussion even between members let alone with public input.

50. Members used to be involved in some consultations with city-wide applicability - usually via Ward Committees, but all consultation is now centrally managed through "Let's Talk", with next to no member involvement.

51. The previous administration had introduced a highly consultative approach to local prioritisation called "neighbourhood charters" which many wards had taken up or were in process of doing so. However the incoming administration immediately abandoned this approach. Frankly, it is so much easier on members' time for them to decide on local priorities and allocate their ward funds accordingly rather than engage in an ongoing consultative approach and being held accountable for publicly-set priorities.

52. Elected members used to have the determining say on significant budgets for local road and pavement improvements (advised by officers as to condition) - up to £200,000 per ward in one year. This often involved members in extensive consultation with local residents groups. All of this has ended - see Cllr Stone's motion to the September 2015 meeting of City Council for more detail of what has become a source of much frustration to members.

53. Members also used to meet regularly (in many cases monthly) with police and local housing and community safety staff in SNAPS meetings. This stands for Safe Newcastle Action and Problem Solving and was a response to public concern about anti-social behaviour and neighbourhood policing becoming a priority for the police. These meetings have also been much reduced in frequency, in some cases to quarterly.

54. Note that the significant and regrettable (but understandable) reduction of Council staff has resulted in a poorer standard of support, service and response to members. One consequence is that members spend more time chasing answers and assistance from officers than in previous times. It is a source of much frustration for members and reduces the satisfaction that being an elected representative brings. Formerly mainstream budget-funded jobs increasingly have to be funded through the (declining) Ward Committee budget.

55. It ought to be the case that residents with complaints/requests could be signposted to Envirocall (one-call system) but for many members the reason why they get a call/email in the first place is because of their own frustrations with Envirocall.

56. Even when jobs are agreed/funded, the time taken for implementation is often very extended and causes much exasperation.

57. Neighbourhood Managers, who used to help members to get decisions and action, now operate on a wide-zone, multi-ward basis and are changed very regularly so members barely get to know who to contact.

58. Opposition members generally research, write and physically distribute their own newsletters (quarterly, sometimes more often). It seem to us that majority party councillors generally piggy-back their (very limited) local copy onto the local MP's funded constituency newsletter, and they are generally distributed via paid-for delivery. Note our use of the word "generally" as there are exceptions. We have examples of both types of newsletters for scrutiny.

59. Workload - yes, it is probably higher for members who represent areas of higher deprivation (especially benefits/housing enquires) but has not increased materially over recent years. In June 2015 we were provided with information from an officer about "direct referrals from Ward Councillors to the Welfare Rights Service" The total from all members in the year 2014/15 was fifteen.

60. There are now more younger councillors who have jobs and have less time available. It is good to have a better age distribution among members, but the turnover rate seems higher than before - one wonders about the reasons? The work isn't interesting, demanding or challenging enough? This could be one factor.

61. There is no longer a designated member training officer. Few members seem to have Personal Development Plans. The report states that almost 30% of members said they had not received appropriate training to fulfil their role as a councillor. There seems to be much less on offer than before in skills training/development (mainly occasional "information" courses on what officers or cabinet members think other members should be informed about, little around personal skills)

INVOLVEMENT WITH COMMUNITY GROUPS

62. Youth Council activity, now that it is managed by the Council, is more sporadic and one-off than when run by The Childrens Society; member involvement is quite limited.

63. Unlike neighbouring urban areas such as Sunderland and Middlesbrough there is no BME network in place; the Tyne and Wear Racial Equality collapsed a decade ago and was not replaced; the Newcastle City for Peace network organisation lost its council funding and staff support in 2011 and was disbanded.

23 September 2015