Local Government Consultation (HC 316-I)
ODPM Committee 22 Feb 2004
Evidence given by Lucy de Groot, Executive Director, Ted Cantle CBE, Associate Director, IDeA (Improvement and Development Agency for local government); Mike Hayes, Past President and Louise Wareing, Planning Policy Officer, Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)
Q17 Mr. David Clelland: Is not the very essence of local democracy the fact that local people are elected to come together in the town hall and use their local knowledge to make decisions? Is it not a complete negation of the whole system if they then have to go out and ask the opinion of people when they are supposed to know that, that is why they were elected; what is this all about and who does the consultation, is it a group of officers or is it the councillors? Surely the councillors who ought to be aware of public opinion and should not have to ask other people to tell them what it is?
Ms de Groot: There are two strands to that question, the first one around are councillors in a sense already empowered by the electorate to take all decisions relating to the full range of services that multi-purpose local authorities have, and do they need to do any further consultation? I think it is a slightly omnipotent view, with the greatest respect, of the people who are elected. The assumption is that there is a relationship between elected politicians and quite sensitive issues around people's lives, around the nature of the care service or, indeed, the things that people feel passionate about like parking and roads. The idea that there is not any benefit in consulting with local people, particularly over time and space - because you might get elected one year and things might emerge a year or two years later and you might not have been particularly, as part of your election campaign, dealing with that issue.
Q18 Mr. David Clelland: But councillors live in the community. You made the classic reference there to politicians; like ourselves they are people who live in the community who are elected, but immediately you start calling them politicians that immediately divorces them from the community these days. It is crazy.
Ms de Groot: Not at all. What I am saying is that a lot of local councillors feel that both formal consultation and the kinds of things that councils have done from time immemorial - ward surgeries, being out and about amongst the people in their ward - are important ways of collecting information that they then use to make the formal decisions in the council. Your second point, as I understood it, which leads to the answer that Ted Cantle gave earlier, is that it is very important to be clear when you are consulting what the relationship is of the consultation to the decision-making process that councillors are rightly responsible for.
Q19 Mr. David Clelland: What is the relationship?
Ms de Groot: I think the issue of area forums, of the nature of committees - there are widespread numbers of authorities now from Birmingham, the largest single authority in England, down to small district councils - of all political complexions I should add - who are actively setting up different ways of engaging on particularly environmental service issues, with their local communities, which involve councillors as well, to the area forum, the area committee type of approach.
Q20 Mr. David Clelland: What is the relationship between the consultation and the decision-making process? Are there identifiable mechanisms for feeding the consultation process into the decision-making process?
Mr Cantle: As far as I am aware, just about every consultation exercise is then fed into the decision-making process, so it is still the councillors making the decision at the end of the day, but they have better information upon which to make that decision. When you think about the size of some electoral wards, some wards are just a few hundred people but the wards that I am used to are more like 5000 people; there is huge variation in size and scale and, in those larger wards in particular, it is often impossible - however good, conscientious and committed the councillor is - to actually get round an entire ward, let alone all the different sections, the different age ranges, the diversity of the ward. The consultation really is to make sure that all the information is available, which is then put in front of the democratically elected representatives to make the decision. It is not a substitute for decision-making, it is a way of informing the decision.
Q21 Mr. David Clelland: Do you have any method of measuring the success of this approach?
Mr Cantle: There have been one or two attempts at evaluation and, again, I have given them in our evidence, but they are very few and far between. One of the things which this Committee might precipitate is a more measurable ---
Q22 Mr. David Clelland: We do not know whether it is effective or not.
Mr Cantle: We have given four or five examples of where Local Government Association surveys have asked residents and councils about effectiveness, there have been one or two critical evaluation comments saying that it has failed to reach particular hard-to-reach groups and I think we give about five examples of attempts to evaluate whether or not it has been successful, sometimes by local authorities and sometimes by national bodies, but I would be wrong in suggesting that there has been a whole systematic review of the effectiveness.
Q26 Mr. David Clelland: Following on from what I was talking about before in terms of the effectiveness of consultation, can you say a bit more about what your role is as an organisation in supporting local government in its consultation process?
Ms de Groot: In our evidence we outline some of the key areas where we support local authorities in consultation and in general principles of good practice, and I suppose there are two or three I would identify. One is that we use our website IDeA Knowledge to promote good practice and examples of good practice; in particular there has been a section called Connecting with Communities which is actually one of our most heavily used elements of the website. That is one area and we continue to put up examples of good practice on the website around a whole range of things, which consultation might be a part of rather than the main theme. The second area that Ted Cantle has already referred to is that we work closely with and service the independent Beacon Councils Panel, and one of the themes of that this year is getting closer to communities, and so we put all the evidence we get through the Beacon Councils Scheme on the website and we actively help beacon councils to disseminate their good practice, so we are doing what I would call some marriage broking around the sector. It is the beacon councils' responsibility to lead on that, that is part of what being a beacon council is, but we very much support them in disseminating their good practice and we will be doing that in the getting closer to communities theme. The third area where we are very active is around the technology, if I can call it that, of communications these days; as people will be aware there is a range of areas where there have been both Government-initiated but also local authority-initiated ways of involving people using technology, so not just things like electronic voting but the example that was given of Waltham Forest where, using hand-held devices, they can go out into the community and then get people to vote in the community about priorities. That is just an example.
Q27 Chairman: If I could just interrupt, if we are going to get through all the questions that we want to ask we are going to need rather shorter answers.
Ms de Groot: Okay. They are obviously about helping with technology and, finally, we are jointly working with the LGA, so I suppose making the link between notions of choice and personalisation which are quite politically of interest at the moment, and we are jointly holding a roundtable discussion with the LGA in March.
Q28 Mr. David Clelland: How is your organisation financed? Who measures your effectiveness and how is cost-effectiveness measured?
Ms de Groot: We are about two-thirds financed by the top slice of the rates support grant which the LGA agrees on an annual basis and the other third is a mixture of paid-for services from the councils and specific grants that we get from various parts of Government and elsewhere.
Q29 Mr. David Clelland: How is cost-effectiveness measured? How do we know we are getting value for money out of your organisation?
Ms de Groot: The local government community hopefully knows they are getting value for money out of us ---
Q30 Mr. David Clelland: How do they measure it? How do they know?
Ms de Groot: We provide an annual report and performance statistics to our own board - we are an autonomous company - and we provide that information to the LGA on a regular basis as well.
Q51 Mr. David Clelland: Are you saying that you have not measured or perceived any great difference between the consultation practices of local authorities with different kinds of structures?
Mr Cantle: That is right. I do not think anybody has attempted to relate particular consultation practices to particular democratic structures, and if you look at the examples we use they vary from some that have cabinet structures to smaller councils that still have an existing system and so on.
Q52 Mr. David Clelland: It varies.
Mr Cantle: Yes. We are not aware of any particular relationship; that does not mean that it does not happen, but nobody has actually done that piece of work to test whether it exists.
Q58 Mr. David Clelland: We talked earlier about the question of the danger of consultation fatigue, but to what extent has the necessity for consultation been aggravated by the professionalisation of councillors and the vast reduction in their numbers which was brought about a long time ago by the 1972 Local Government Act, which halved the number of councillors. Would consultation be less necessary if we had more councillors and if there was a rule that they had to live in the ward that they represented and therefore be more in tune with what was going on?
Mr Cantle: I am sure there is a view about that.
Q59 Mr. David Clelland: Have you got one?
Mr Cantle: I have, and I suppose it is a slightly personal view because I have been in local government for some time and certainly the councillors who I worked with 20 or 30 years ago I think had more established forms of consultation at their fingertips, it may have been through trade unions, it may have been through other associations in the local community, and a lot of that old social capital - if I can use that phrase - has broken down and no longer exists. Part of the consultation therefore is about inventing new ways of engaging with people, in recognition that some of the old ways have gone, and I am not sure that it is simply about the number of councillors.
Q72 Mr. David Clelland: You said "they thought", who were they?
Mr Hayes: This was a community group in Waterloo.
Q73 Mr. David Clelland: Obviously it cannot be the whole community, but a group of active people.
Mr Hayes: Yes, a group of local activists who had a particular agenda about protecting the local residential community but who had dedicated themselves in a very fine way to being engaged with the planners.
Q74 Mr. David Clelland: How do you know how representative they were of the whole community?
Mr Hayes: Actually, they had quite a lot of local community support amongst the residential community. But that was not the point I was making. The point I was making was that plan-making takes forever: it is bureaucratic; it loses the plot; policies change. So I am all in favour of trying to move towards a slightly more light-footed, faster, more informed, up-to-date process of planning.
Q85 Mr. David Clelland: Given the shortage of resources, should not those community engagement officers very quickly look to using the resources of the elected councillors as a key part of the consultation process?
Mr Hayes: Absolutely, and one hopes they do.
Ms Waring: This is an area which a lot of our members have highlighted as an area of concern. Because of lack of resources and time and staff, they are concerned that, whilst they would want to produce incredibly good statements of community involvement, there is a little clause which says that only the minimum requirements must be satisfied, so there is a danger that it could just be falling back to the same practice as the previous system before the new Act came in.
Q90 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think there is a significant risk of consultation fatigue?
Mr Hayes: Absolutely.
Q91 Mr. David Clelland: What should we do to avoid it?
Mr Hayes: Corporately, local authorities need to be much more aware of how they are engaging local communities. That is about, very often, individual services talking to each other before they go out to the community - and maybe individual authorities as well, if it is a split, two-tier system. I do think we have an important opportunity in the alignment between community strategies owned by the local strategic partnership and local development frameworks owned by the local planning authority. Certainly, in my local authority, we are planning later this year that there will be one consultation and that will address the needs of the community strategy and the local development framework. I think being more efficient, actually telling people in advance what you are going to consult them over, having a programme of consultation, will help, but we also need - and I think lots of people in lots of places do this - to help community develop the capacity to respond to consultation too.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
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