Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Rose tinted committees!

A perennial call by some council members is for a return to the old committee system in place of the current cabinet. Unlike a number of current members I have had the benefit of working under both systems and am amused by the simplicity of their argument. They yearn for the days when members would turn up to meetings, review a few papers and make real decisions! Of course the reality was that the ruling administration would appoint all committee chairs and vice chairs as well as having a majority on all committees. In addition the leading members of the Administration would meet in private on a regular basis, and in advance of the scheduled meetings, to discuss policy with officers before the papers were released. In the meantime the Committee Chairs would work between meetings with the lead officers in a role pretty similar to the current cabinet holders dealing with day to day issues and providing input to the management of the relevant department. If done properly by opposition members the chance to effectively scrutinise is more effective under the current system with plenty of opportunity to contribute to the development of policy through the working parties etc – probably in a more “hands on” way than under the old system. One major difference is the changing role of local councillors in local government now as opposed to then. Being a cabinet member is equivalent to a part time (or sometimes full time) job with an abundance of meetings both internal and external, in Southend and elsewhere, as well as constant working with officers to oversee the provision of services. If we revert to committees the new committee chairs will simply take over from the current cabinet members as to do otherwise would result in an undesirable tipping of control and responsibility from locally elected members to officers. In a recent internal e mail exchange one member (who will remain nameless) opined that the removal of the cabinet would save the council £100K+ per year as all the special responsibilities paid to cabinet members would be saved! It did make me wonder if some councillors have any idea of the amount of time spent by cabinet members in doing their jobs – time which would be needed even with a change of system. In addition the increase in meetings under the committee system would inevitably increase the amount of supporting officer time with resulting cost ramifications. So a rose tinted view of committees indeed!

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