Our independent columnist Observer says Wealden District Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee should be more probing and insist on more facts and figures.
Much of the control and decision making in local government falls to Cabinet members; sometimes known, as they are in Wealden, as Portfolio holders.
Their introduction across the country early this century was designed to make councils more efficient; more business-like.
Previously, many quite minor decisions had to go to a committee meeting of councillors for resolution. This was a long-winded process and regarded at the time as inefficient.
In came Cabinets, Portfolios (and in some parts directly elected mayors) to take control and bring the 21st Century into the town halls.
It is worth pointing out at this stage that the Cabinet and Portfolio holders are also ‘ordinary’ councillors, elected to represent their constituents.
Holding to account
Their work is overseen in Wealden’s case by an Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
It is this committee’s job to hold the decision makers to account.
I have been reading the council’s documentation of this committee this week while on the slow train from London Bridge to Uckfield.
My verdict: Both the portfolio holders and the committee could do so much better.
The portfolio holder’s reports to the committee are too wishy washy; lacking in specifics and detail. You get the feeling that all is well because we say it is.
It may well be. The point is that you should be able to demonstrate that all is well.
In business life, if such reports were presented to a board of directors they would be returned as unsatisfactory.
Here’s a flavour of a recent report from a number of Portfolio holders to Wealden’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
Customer service/contact centre
Performance of the contact centre is often a ‘barometer’ of the performance of the waste contractor, Kier, and as there have been fluctuations in their performance it is unsurprising we have seen added pressure on the customer contact centre.
My comment: Fluctuations. What are we to read into that. Give us the numbers.
Performance has been up and down but generally acceptable on missed bins and street cleaning/ litter picking.
My comment: How do you measure ‘generally acceptable’? What are the figures?
Spring Budget Discretionary Relief Policies. A Single Portfolio Holder decision was made and published by 31 August to give additional financial help to qualifying local businesses within Wealden.
My comment: How many businesses will benefit. How much will it cost?
There is a surprising lack of detail in these reports. We get generalisations throughout.
However, the community safety portfolio holder was better. Part of the report read:
There has been a 13% increase of reported crime in the District between 2015/16 and 2016/17 and the figures for the latest Quarter remain at a high level. The main volumes of crime over the latest Quarter have been acquisitive crime (including burglary, theft from motor vehicles and other theft) and violent crimes (including public place violent crime).
There was also a table giving details of food hygiene ratings.
My comment: That’s more like it. It is a pity your colleagues are not as forthcoming.
So, that’s the reports to the committee.
Then I turned to the minutes of the meetings, officially recorded by council staff.
Were Portfolio holders grilled?
I was looking for any hints that portfolio holders were being grilled.
Council minutes can, of course, be pretty anodyne but there was little to make me believe that sharp, focussed questioning had been undertaken.
There was a lot about members being advised or informed.
This committee should have the hard facts and figures; not generalisations.
I would have expected the minutes to have details, such as: Cllr X asked the Portfolio for the number of missed bin collections in the last four weeks. or
Cllr Y asked for how many calls the contact centre was receiving per day and how that compared with a month ago, six months ago and a year ago.
On those facts and figures, hard questions should be asked.
If the councillors are asking those questions, that information should be recorded in the minutes. If it is not, the question then is: why? It is a question of transparency.
That’s what scrutiny committees are supposed to do: shed light on the dark corners of local government.
It is not a job for those who wish to be popular. Scrutiny means turning over the stones and discovering what’s beneath.
On the future, it would be a good idea if Wealden bolstered their scrutiny committee with some non-elected, co-opted expertise from business. It would certainly add rigour to the system.
By the way, East Sussex has a similar way of operating but it is not used by town/parish councils, including Uckfield.
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