Boundary Changes

David Miliband has said that it is up to Councils to come up with their preferred options for local government. In West Lancashire we can look forward to a difficult debate on what is best for the different areas of the district.

When the boundaries were considered last time there was a backlash against the possibility of the district being split between Sefton and Wigan. This led to the “out of lancs, no thanks” campaign amongst others. Labour had two preferred options, a South Lancashire authority taking in West Lancs, South Ribble, Preston and Chorley; and the split. There were strong arguments for the split – in particular Skelmersdale moving into an area that had more urban experience, rather than the current setup where the council is more interested in the rural areas and market towns.

The likelihood is that the Tories will run a strong “hands off west lancs” campaign, calling for the District to be a unitary authority in it’s own right, and ignore a lot of the good that the government is saying about devolution down to communities and stronger, more strategic, authorities.

How can such a short-termist view be countered? First, we’re not stuck with the boundary committee’s proposals this time, which gives us a clean sheet to come up with something much better for the people of West Lancs. Secondly, whatever we come up with must improve service delivery, accountability and local leadership – and it has to be easy to demonstrate the advantages. Finally, we must then go out and win the arguments.

Overview and Scrutiny

We had a training session last week about overview and scrutiny – this is the process by which councillors are able to (a) scrutinise what the cabinet is doing and (b) work together to inform and suggest direction for the council. Of course, locally it doesn’t work, despite a wonderful document “Overview and Scrutiny works in West Lancashire” which was passed around to us all – just in case we thought otherwise.

There are many problems with the system in West Lancs, but it can be summarised as follows: there is absolutely no trust between the two groups. Despite the best intentions of many people to make O&S work locally, it has to be built on an element of trust. Without that, the system breaks down into a slanging match between the two groups and nothing gets done.

Currently, we have three committees: Overview and Scrutiny, Internal Review and External Review. The external review committee is considered to be the least important of the committees and hence we, the opposition, are allowed to chair it. It looks at issues within the district which the council doesn’t deal with. Internal review looks at internal council issues and the O&S committee looks at the work of the cabinet.

With the political balance in the committee, the O&S committee virtually always agrees with the cabinet. One time, there were more labour than conservative councillors at the meeting and so we sent back a decision to be reconsidered (which is all the committee can do) – cabinet ignored O&S and continued as normal.

The current system promotes old-fashioned adverserial local politics. I don’t mind that too much, except it does nothing for Skelmersdale since all the decisions tend to go against the Labour (ie. Skem) councillors. Without changing the way O&S works, we will do nothing for the people in Skem.

External review works quite well. There have been a couple of reports since the process started, most recently on the healthy schools initiative in West Lancs. The committee has gone out to schools in the area and to other councils to see what’s being done elsewhere. This is how Overview and Scrutiny should really work. Unfortunately it’s limited to the one forum where the final report doesn’t make that much difference.

The challenge is to make O&S work so that it achieves what it’s supposed to. The whole process is supposed to be “member led” but in reality it responds to the cabinet’s agenda. Instead, the existing arbitrary boundaries between internal / external and O&S should be lost. Keep the O&S committee, but make it a management committee setting the agenda for O&S work through the year and reviewing the forward plan. Then choose some specfic issues that councillors should investigate through the year and set up the structures to reflect the scrutiny.

If the management committee was able to respond to issues as and when they came up – such as the alternate weekly collections, when it was first being considered by the cabinet, then it could set up working groups or commissions to investigate how they would work and perhaps even make suggestions to make it better. In the wheelie bin case, the committee could have investigated what the problems are in the different parts of the district and perhaps pre-empted some of the difficulties now faced.

We’ll know if O&S is really bedded into the council structure when the budget process is properly considered through O&S instead of just at the council meeting. That day must surely come, and hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later.