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Select Evidence

Select EvidenceThe Localism Bill will shake up how Local Government interacts with people as much (or more than) any legislation in the last 35 years. We see it as a steam train at full power hurtling into town halls across the land, scattering all in its wake.

We introduced our readers its key issues in  Localism Bill Announced and the Bill is currently wending its way through the Parliamentary mincing machine that turns Bills into Acts - and thus laws to be followed.

We thought our readers might be interested in some news about the Bill, and about the process to create it, which we'll look at first.

It goes something like this...

The Queens Speech at the opening of a Parliament highlights the bills that will be considered. Included in that speech last year was a 'Localism and Decentralisation Bill'

The Government timetabled a first reading of this Bill for 13th December 2010. This was nothing more than an announcement that the Bill was to be introduced and sought authority for it to be printed. Ten seconds on the floor of the House, and the first reading is done.

Then, some weeks later, comes the second reading - in our case 17th January. This was a longer session of maybe 4 hours or more, at which there is the knockabout theatrical piece as the Minister responsible for the Bill (In this case our own St Eric Pickles and his pals) says how wonderful it is, and t'other side say how awful it is without (apparently) getting anywhere. But what this session does do, is highlight some bits of the Bill that are likely to be contentious.

In this case the contentious parts appeared to include the powers that St Eric is holding in reserve to allow him to change whatever he wants if the need arises; and the matter of whether communities should be able to instigate appeals against a planning application that has been granted to a developer.

After the Second Reading, the Bill goes into the 'Committee Stage' where a big(ish) (27 members in this case) Committee takes evidence from experts, or those with special knowledge. A couple of the more notable names on the Committee are Eric Ollerenshaw, (MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood), Nick Raynsford, (former Minister and MP for Greenwich and Woolwich), and Jack Dromey (husband of Harriet Harperson, and MP for Birmingham, Erdington).

The evidence they take is either in written or oral form (technically the Committee invites comment from those with "relevant expertise and experience or a special interest").

The Committee started on 25th January for a full day (9:30am to 7:00pm) where 27 witnesses gave oral evidence. It then continued on 27th Jan for another almost full day with 18 more witnesses.

A further 35 written submissions of expert evidence with each up to 3,000 words were also received by the end of day 2 of evidence gathering session.

That's a fair bit of listening and reading.

The evidence was from people like the Chief Executives, Professors, and senior people from the Local Government Association; Centre for Local Economic Strategies; Local Government Information Unit; Civic Voice; Leader of Shropshire Council; Leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council; Society of Local Authority Chief Executives; London School of Economics and Political Science; University of Birmingham; Greater London Authority; and the trade union Unison.

Other organisations giving evidence included: Housing: (Shelter, National Housing Federation, Private Tenants Rights Group, Tenant Services Authority) Builders: (Barratts, Redrow, Taylor Wimpey, Home Builders Federation, British Land), Big Business: (CBI), Medium businesses: (Chambers of Commerce) Small businesses: (Federation of Small Businesses), Wildlife: (RSPB and others), Rural issues: (CPRE and others), Planning: (RTPI and others), Parish Councils: (NALC) Rural Communities: (ACRE).

People think MP's only sit in the House and yah-boo each other, but in fact, the serious work is done in things like Select Committees outside the chamber altogether.

After hearing from experts, the Committee begins a line by line examination of the Bill.

This is a big Bill.

Volume 1 is 187 pages and Volume 2 is 247 pages, so you can see that's going to take a while to complete, and it's just started. They aim to have the Committee stage finished on or by 10th March, by sitting two full days each week (Tuesday and Thursday in this case)

Amendments for discussion are selected by the Chairman of the committee, and only members of the committee can vote on amendments during committee stage. Amendments proposed by MPs are published daily and reprinted as a marshalled list of amendments for each day the committee discusses the Bill.

Every clause in the Bill is either agreed to, changed, or removed from the Bill.

After the committee stage, the Bill goes back to the House of Commons for its Report Stage.

This gives MPs on the floor of the House, an opportunity to consider further amendments (proposals for change) to the Bill which has been examined in committee. Here all MPs may speak and vote. For lengthy or complex Bills the debates may be spread over several days. All MPs can suggest amendments to the Bill or new clauses (parts) they think should be added.

The report stage is normally followed immediately by debate on the Bill's third reading.

This is the final chance for the Commons to debate a Bill. The Third Reading is usually short, and limited to what is actually in the Bill, rather than, as at second reading, what might have been included in it. This stage cannot make any changes so it's a sort of last chance to express an opinion if MP's wish to do so.

Then the House votes on whether to approve the third reading of the Bill. If agreed, it goes on to start a similar passage through the House of Lords (first, second, etc readings) until finally it is sent for the Queen's approval via the Royal Assent process.

So what's happened to this particular Bill so far?

Well, whilst there is much to discuss, we think one small corner of the Bill will be of great interest to folk in Fylde.

It's the option for Fylde Council to change back to proper 'one-councillor-one-vote' system of governance that could see Fylde's former Council and Committee system returning.

At its heart, the issue here is whether each councillor has an equal say on behalf of their electorate, or whether only a small number of councillors in the Cabinet make the decisions.

It was the loss of the one-councillor-one-vote system, and the imposition of the dreadful Cabinet that was at the root of all that went wrong in Fylde. It concentrated power into too few hands with little or no experience of how to manage it.

We had the Commissar imposing his tyrannical but inexperienced will through the Politburo Cabinet on a party political basis, without using all the talents and experience available from other longer-established elected members of the Council.

They had been dumped unceremoniously into the wilderness, kept in the dark, treated as though they were an annoying irrelevance, and subjected to all manner of insult, both by the Commissar, his acolytes and (in many, but not all, cases), by an officer class that was not man enough to stand up to the Commissar's civic bullying.

Nowhere did this prove itself more than in 2008 when the disaster that was Dim Tim's Streetscene's reported a loss of 700,000. That came about from inexperience in reading financial reports (as we reported in No Accounting for Fylde ).

It led directly to Fylde's worst ever Council meeting on 3 March 2008 (Travesty of Democracy) at which the Cabinet led their lemming-like followers to vote for the closure of both Swimming Pools using the disgraceful and indiscriminate closure guillotine motion to prevent other councillors from speaking on it. They then did the same with the rest of the budget.

This was no way to run a Council.

And the key point was that it could all have been avoided if better brains has also been given the financial reports and figures to look at the previous year.

Local people were very angry. They marched in their thousands - as we reported in High Performing Council ?

What was not widely reported at the time was that several community groups - chiefly in the coastal strip - who were also angered by this and  other decisions that the appalling Politburo Cabinet was making - came together to do something about it. They met with representatives of St Annes on the Sea Town Council and asked them to hold a public meeting about the concerns.

The Town Council was reluctant to do so itself, but it understood the need to gauge public concern, so it offered to host a public meeting and asked the groups to arrange it. They, in turn asked the most able and experienced of their number in organising public meetings to undertake the arrangements. Thus it was that the Fylde Civic Awareness Group assumed the mantle of organiser for that meeting.

And 200 people turned up to express their anger.

The meeting culminated with a resolution proposed by a chap called David Meldrum and seconded by Bill Whitehead - who himself had caused a Parish Poll (referendum) to be held on the pool closure, and whose daughter 'Robydoo' had led the pools anti-closure campaign for younger people. The resolution called for a return to democracy and "...the return to democratic decision-making by a majority of Councillors in full Council"

We reported that Save St Annes Meeting first on 26 April 2008, then later in May, and again when the results were published.

Finally in November, the results of the Town and Parish council's consideration of a call for a return to proper democracy at Fylde were reported. This showed that Town and Parish Councils representing more than half the people in Fylde has supported the call.

The meeting report was revised to include the Town and Parish Council data and circulated widely, including to FBC, local organisations, our (then) MP, and the main political parties.

That was in November 2008. Not a lot happened immediately.

But about three months later, (in Feb 2009), the Conservatives (nationally) published Policy Paper 9, a Green Paper on Local Government sub-titled 'Control Shift'. This paper pledged that if the Conservatives were elected to Parliament in 2010, they would, as one of their policies, allow Councils to revert to the former Council and Committee style of governance.

Whilst the St Annes Meeting Report might have had some influence in Conservative thinking, it should be noted that other Councils were also unhappy with the Cabinet system being imposed on them around this time. But whether they too held public meetings etc, we don't know.

Anyway, as we said at the beginning, the Coalition Government's Localism Bill was published on 13 December 2010. It has now had its first and second readings, and went into the committee stage. The House of Commons Localism Committee called for evidence on various aspects of the Bill and we understand that the Fylde Civic Awareness Group has submitted a report as evidence to the Committee.

That report asks the Committee to support the Government's plan to allow the change back to the Committee system.

And so it is, that the wheel turns round, and the concerns of Fylde residents back in 2008 are brought before the House of Commons Select Committee today, and could, at the end of the day, be influential in aiding the return of the Committee System at Fylde.

FBC's Leader has recently approved a working party to look into the possibility of changing back to committees, and we hope this Working Party will make a very quick start.

The anger of Fylde people, and their disapproval of the Cabinet system is clear. We could quite see it being an issue at the May elections and we'd put it toward the top of our list of changes that need to be made soon.

It's a no-brainer

In our view, the only satisfactory outcome is:

  • a return to a system with Committees that are large enough to make sure each member of the Council is on at least one (and preferably two) committees;
  • that the Committees consider the details of matters in its area of responsibility and make recommendations to the full Council; and
  • that the full Council has ultimate authority and acts as a body corporate in both making the final decisions on all matters, and performing the scrutiny function, on the basis of 'one councillor one vote'.

In the preliminary debate by Parliament's Select Committee yesterday, the section on allowing Councils to change back to Committees looks as though it will be supported by all sides of the House, and thus stand a very good chance of becoming law.

For Labour, Barbara Keeley MP said "The Bill brings in the option of councils returning to the committee system that was in place before the Local Government Act 2000. We support that change, but we do not support an enduring power for the Secretary of State to prescribe new governance arrangements without the scrutiny of Parliament."

For the Coalition Government, Andrew Stunell MP said that "The removal of the committee system under the Local Government Act 2000 was widely regarded by local government colleagues around the country as an act of vandalism"

We couldn't agree more.

Proposing an amendment to the Bill in the Committee Stage yesterday, Labour's Barbara Keeley wanted to limit the range of governance alternatives that Councils could propose. She said "We have councils that want to outsource everything they do, and councils that want to run the charging model of easyJet and Ryanair. Potential airline passengers have choice: they can always fly with another airline or travel by another form of transport. However, residents of an area cannot choose another council without moving."

We thought her description was interesting, and was probably intended as a metaphor for the budget airline 'everything is an extra' approach to service delivery where, if it was a car that was being sold, the wheels, engine, and gearbox would all be 'extras'. Some Councils are obviously moving in this direction to increase their income.

So as at today, a large part  of the Bill that addresses a return to the Committee system (called 'Schedule 2') has been agreed in the Committee Stage. The opposition withdrew several of their amendments that stood little chance of success (almost certainly in order to raise them again at the Report Stage after March), but these were mostly about trying to limit the powers of the Secretary of State to make orders that would specify what councils could and couldn't do, not about the principle of returning to the Committee system.

So we're very hopeful that the wishes of Fylde people to have a properly democratic Council and Committee system look to have been strengthened as a result of the first day of Committee stage of the Bill.

To see more you can follow this link to: download a copy of the Fylde Civic Awareness Group's submission to the Select Committee,

And you can follow this link to:
see the full, final report of the FCAG Public Meeting in 2008

Follow this link: for
a DCLG Impact Assessment of returning to the Committee System

Follow this link for:
the philosophy that underpins the Bill

Follow this link for
a Plain English Guide to the Bill's main proposals

Follow this link for:
Impact Assessments about each main aspect of the Bill

Follow this link for: all the Bill documents

Note that the Research Papers toward the bottom of this page have a lot of the technical detail in reasonably easy language.

Dated:   3 February 2011


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