Representations to the GREG (Governance Review External Group)
I am a member of the Conservative Group. I was group leader from the time that the previous Leader of the Council stood down towards the end of 2012 after a vote of no confidence in him (relating to the proposed strategic partnership with BT) until June 2014.
I stood down as I found the role of Leader of the Opposition too large and time consuming a responsibility with my family and other commitments. My position was made more acute by the lack of any officer or administrative support for someone in my position. I also felt that the job would become even more challenging in the light of the call by the Council for more devolved powers.
I am a lawyer by background. I was first elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2013. But have no other local government experience.
The cost of democracy
Democracy is, of course, very important but also expensive. I think that the single thing that would make the most difference to the efficient operation of the Council, an increase in public confidence in its work and value for public money would be for the Council to recognise that officer resource is expensive and valuable. In contrast it is considered to be free. This results in a culture of endless and often pointless meetings which do not really advance public services in Cornwall.
A diagram produced by the Council to explain which committees will take which role in the current Governance and Electoral Review makes this point perfectly.
The number of meetings, often called at short notice or with single item agendas on different days of the week make it difficult for a member who has other commitments to participate. We squander our own time as well as that of officers. It is also more difficult to keep an eye on important things that are happening because we are wading through treacle with so much paperwork.
I understand that the totality of agenda pages produced per year is around 3,000,000. Very many papers (understandably) go largely unread by most councillors.
The fact that the Council has so many independent members makes the scope for team working, whereby likeminded members can spread their resource between different issues, very limited. A council with less members would reduce this issue. It would make members less local but I think it wd also make members more accountable. They would then mainly have political labels and the public would know who was in charge.
Pragmatically, I do not see the Council being prepared to alter the way it does business in a material way. They did not take the advice of the previous GREG.
So against that backdrop I would like to make the following observations:
This can be a rather unedifying grand standing occasion (assuming anyone is watching). It would be interesting to know the numbers watching the webcast, provided these exclude officers and members.
Members go to some trouble to think up motions so that there is something to grand stand about. This often simply results in a letter to the Government but the impact on officer resource from dealing with these motions should be examined to see whether it is really worthwhile. The estimated hourly rate of officers sitting through these occasions would be interesting.
With the benefit of only a few months in the Cabinet at the end of the last administration, I wd say that this works reasonably well.
However, there is a problem where, as now, there is a dual party administration. This is because the Leader is given a list of nominees by the groups which form part of the administration and he then has to find those nominees a portfolio that suits their expertise.
And it is only in very unusual circumstances (such as, in this administration, where there were allegations of child pornography) that he can require those nominees to stand down. From an outsider's perspective the current portfolios have to be looked at with that in mind. I wonder how they work in terms of organisational effectiveness.
These can be very useful but there are a lot of them on different days. I have to wonder whether a podcast would not work better in many cases. It wd be interesting to know the attendance rate.
Policy Advisory Committees
There are too many of these. They often have very thin agendas. The fact that they are not on the same day of the week makes it difficult for working members to participate.
As a member of the opposition they seem to be pretty ineffectual in some cases. We do not chair them. They have no power to commission work (unlike Scrutiny). Therefore, you end up trying to advise the portfolio holder on something about which you are unlikely to know more about than they do.
They were introduced so that we all felt involved in policy formation (so 10 committees with 10 seats each). That appears a little like the tail wagging the dog. I am sure that there are honourable exceptions such as the Planning PAC.
The Scrutiny Committees would probably work better if they were opposition led.
I have no knowledge of licensing. Planning seems to work reasonably well but I know members of the public find these committees very remote and would criticise them for not listening to locals' views.
I have no direct knowledge of the LEP but the idea of it and the fact that it is private sector led seems sound, as it aims to promote the economy.
There are so many other boards now, with the advent of devolution, that it is very difficult to keep a track of them. However, partnership working is the future and I would suggest that the Council needs to pull back and perform more of a scrutiny role on these rather than duplicating their work.
Community Network Panels
I would say that these were a sop to localism to obtain Government agreement for the formation of the unitary council. I have reservations about them as they have no democratic mandate being a mix of, Cornwall councillors and parish councillors. But I recognise that some see them as a useful bridge across the gulf between Cornwall Council and the 200+ parishes. There are often initiatives to try to find them a role.
Local member role
This is variable but it is an all hours service. If there are to be less members (and I can see a case for that on grounds of organisational effectiveness) , there would need to be more support for members especially those with large divisions - for example, a recognition in the allowances scheme of their need to travel within their divisions.
With devolution, we are going to need to feel our way. I cannot see public support for a mayor in Cornwall. I would certainly not wish to return to the committee system as it wd not be organisationally effective. The Cabinet model is probably our best hope but my comments above are designed to make it more effective.