Can the Council be a leader?

Exeter City Council’s default position is to look inwards on itself, but it can’t show the necessary 21st century leadership until that culture changes.

Most people from the City Council who’ve read as far as this will already be outraged at what they see as a misrepresentation.  They will argue that Council consults on proposed policies, publishes information about spending and services, holds most of its committee business in public and has a network of ward councillors to feed in residents’ concerns.  Well, that’s all true.  But is it sufficient?

Let’s explore further the notion that the Council is inward-looking.  As always, examples are illuminating.

The non-development at the bus station site

I’ve blogged at length about the planned redevelopment of the bus station site [1] and the subsequent refusals of the political leadership to reconsider the publicly funded flagship leisure centre project.  This, despite rising costs, public scepticism and the plug being pulled by the private sector developers on their part of the site. A recent external peer review of the Council pointed out that the status quo is more than a bit dodgy, reaching such conclusions as [2]:

  • “many stakeholders – external and internal – are not clear on the purpose and priority of [the redevelopment project]”
  • “there is an ongoing need to engage with partners and stakeholders to reiterate the purpose and benefits of the scheme.”
  • “it may be worth the council developing contingency plans and keeping an open mind about the best use of this site (and alternative potential locations for a new improved leisure centre), in case better redevelopment proposals come forward.”

Couched in the polite language of these reviews, this is a serious slap on the wrist for the Council’s tunnel vision.

Lack of public clarity on spending plans

The 2018/19 budget for the City Council is set out in a 130-page report, including many financial tables.  So when a member of the public asked at a recent scrutiny committee what would be the impact of the 30% reduction shown in spending on advisory services, she was told that it wasn’t a reduction because the way in which accounting for overheads had been changed [3].  Our sole Green Party councillor received a similar response from the Chief Finance Officer when he asked about an apparent cut in the recycling budget.  No doubt this was explained in the small print, but there is no way a busy non-expert could easily work it out.

So I asked another scrutiny committee if they would support a rule change which required future budget tables to explain, for each budget line, whether spending changes were real changes or accounting changes, and if the former what would be the impact on services.  The response set out the various opportunities councillors had for scrutinising and questioning draft budgets in detail.  Nowhere in the response was there any suggestion that the wider public – whose money is being spent – might have an interest in understanding these tables as well.

Disrupting the community grants arrangements

Exeter Community Forum is a City Council-supported bottom-up initiative aimed at strengthening the voices of community-led organisations in the City [4].  Among its activities is the operation of the Grass Roots Grants scheme, a function delegated to the Forum by the City Council.  The grants panel includes one councillor from the Executive and is serviced by the Council’s communities programme officer.  The Chair and 3 other panel members are drawn from the Forum’s community membership.  Award decisions require ratification by the Council, so there is no loss of control over public funds.

Earlier this month, and completely out of the blue, some Labour councillors on a scrutiny committee of the Council proposed that a review should be carried out of the Grants panel “to consider whether there was a need for greater accountability and scrutinisation (sic) of its processes and to examine if a change of approach through increasing the involvement of Members was desirable” [5].  The recommendation was rubber-stamped by the Executive the following day.  No evidence was brought forward to justify the review, which by implication slurs the competence and integrity of the volunteers on the current panel.  No one, including the Council’s own programme officer and the officers of the Exeter Community Forum, was involved in any prior discussion.  But then mature informed engagement is not the Exeter City Council way.

Lack-lustre approach to improving air quality

Then we have the draft Air Quality Action Plan currently out for comment [6]. The Council proudly laid on a consultation exhibition at the Guildhall.  It consisted of half a dozen uninformative poster boards, and the usual questionnaire of the “do you agree” tick box variety, which didn’t even have a return address on it.  But perhaps the most telling example of how the Council sees itself was the first line in all the publicity: “Exeter City Council has a statutory duty to measure air pollution and to produce an Action Plan with measures to control the air quality in and around the city.”  In other words, it’s all about them the Council, and not about us the citizens.  Couldn’t they have opened with a line like “Exeter City Council is asking for your help to find new ways of making our air cleaner” ?

Top down planning policy

Public involvement in planning policy consists of being given an opportunity to comment on draft plans for which the main themes have already been agreed behind closed doors [7].

The leaking Housing Development Company

The Council’s plans to set up a Housing Development Company to build much-needed housing are public only to the extent that we know they want to set one up, and that they have commissioned further studies into the extent of private sector involvement in the company.  A FOI Act request to see the business case has just been turned down by the Council, although the peer review report had already leaked – inadvertently or not – a very useful summary of the business case into the public domain [8].

 

These illustrations of how the City Council does its business are not meant to suggest the organisation is inefficient.  Indeed, deciding things internally and pushing them through with a minimum of public involvement can be held up as an efficient process: low input, big output.  But it is most certainly far less effective in achieving Council and community priorities.

It’s the lack of real community engagement that seems central to the Council’s problem.  All the examples above show that the Council is set in a way of doing things that relegates community engagement to a low priority, if indeed it acknowledges it all.  Nor is this an issue confined to Exeter: the Local Government Association found that across England satisfaction with levels of council-community engagement was relatively low compared to other satisfaction indicators [9].  The survey identified that the four most popular changes councils could make were:

  • Explain more clearly how it is using your money
  • Make it clearer how residents can get involved in decision-making
  • Demonstrate more clearly how it is acting on residents’ feedback
  • Explain more clearly its decisions when they affect you

These are very modest changes, though very much in the right direction.  Yet Exeter City Council could – and should – go much further.  Its vision for the city is [10]:


Our Economy

  • A prosperous city
  • A learning city
  • An accessible city

Our Society

  • A city with strong communities
  • A city that is healthy and active
  • A safe city

Our Environment

  • A city that cares for the environment
  • A city with homes for everyone
  • A city of culture

This is a good vision, and if realised would be transformative.  To get there, strong civic inclusive leadership will be needed.  A style of leadership which is far removed from the current ways of doing public business and which will overcome not only the inwardness culture but also the “old politics” I described in The Old Politics no longer serves us well.  Over the next couple of months, and drawing on the strengths that do exist in Exeter City Council, I will try to set out what this leadership might look like.

 

NOTES:

[1] See Off the Buses and Scrutiny can work.

[2] From the report of the Exeter Corporate Peer Challenge, one of a programme of reviews sponsored by the Local Government Association, is available at item 35 of the minutes of the Executive meeting on 13 March 2018 at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=5305&Ver=4

[3] People Scrutiny Committee, 12 March 2018, item 12 of minutes at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=626&MId=5976&Ver=4.  To get the full question and response, you need to download the pdf of the “Printed Draft Minutes”.

[4] For information on the Exeter Community Forum, see http://exetercommunityforum.net/who

[5] People Scrutiny Committee, 12 March 2018, item 16 of minutes at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=626&MId=5976&Ver=4

[6] See https://exeter.gov.uk/aqap/

[7] See my post Our Planners’ Cat is out of the Bag.  Further evidence that GESP is already done and dusted is on page 9 of the Corporate Peer Challenge (see note 2 above) where Exeter’s housing need is summarised.

[8] Also on page 9 of the Corporate Peer Challenge (see note 2 above)

[9] See survey findings at https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Feb%202017%20Resident%20Satisfaction%20Polling.pdf pages 15-16.

[10] As set out in Exeter’s Sustainable Community Strategy 2009, aka the Exeter Vision.  It is no longer available on the Council’s website, but is referenced as Appendix 5 of the Core Strategy adopted in 2012 (https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/local-plan/core-strategy-development-plan-document/ ).

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