Scrutiny or performance review?

Over the last few months I’ve had a number of discussions with different politicians about the changing role of councillors and the role of scrutiny. There seemed to be general agreement that whilst a new system of governance has been introduced in places like Bristol, little thought has been given to the impact this might have on elected politicians. With the introduction of the mayoral system, and arguably the election of an independent mayor, the role of the 70 councillors elected to Bristol Council has now fundamentally changed. It also appears that this change has taken place within a vacuum of knowledge about impact and the subsequent change needed to the systems and processes of the council. It is an issue that the current Mayor has tried to address by changing the way Full Council meetings are run and how the Cabinet/Scrutiny split works. But it would be fair to say that many councillors are disillusioned with the way the council works and the way their role has changed.

Indeed, if you look at the research findings of the Bristol Civic Leadership Project, then it is clear that councillors are far more sceptical about the impact the mayoral system has had in Bristol than other groups tend to be. Perhaps not surprising as the role and responsibilities of the Mayor are drawn directly from those previously held by councillors. However, part of the problem could be down to the lack of time, resource and consideration given to getting the structures and processes right before the Mayoral model was introduced. That means councillors and officers have been left feeling their way through a new system, defining boundaries and adopting new approaches whilst the Mayor gets on with things.

One of the issues raised during my discussions was how ineffective scrutiny is in actually providing robust and effective challenge to the Mayor’s decisions or policies. In my view this has been a problem in Bristol since the change to Cabinet/Scrutiny took place in 2000/01. The role of scrutiny has stumbled along, doing some good work, but against a tide of resentment and powerlessness. Whilst I’m certainly no expert on scrutiny systems or how things are now working in Bristol, I am a firm believer in drawing on experience to solve existing problems. With this in mind, back in the old days of committees we had a wonderful sub committee in Bristol called Performance Review. This committee was certainly not for the faint hearted and was consistently capable of generating immense amounts of paperwork. I spent a couple of years on the sub committee and what it did incredibly effectively was scrutinise performance on a department by department basis and against corporate cross cutting issues. In those days it was largely scrutiny of officers but there’s no reason why this type of approach couldn’t be used to scrutinise the performance of the Mayor and the council as a whole.

It worked on the basis of a set of annual performance targets, some statutory, some prioritised and selected by politicians and officers in each department. These were then monitored monthly by officers and quarterly by councillors on the sub committee. It was a terrifying experience for lead officers as they were basically grilled on every aspect of their plan both when it was initially agreed and as we went through the year. The initial discussions were a good check on the realism of targets, whether or not they were too soft, whether they covered the right things and whether all key political priorities were adequately covered. The quarterly meetings then focused in on where targets were not being met and why. Each member of the committee, across all parties, took the lead on a particular department or cross cutting issue, and led the grilling. It was incredibly effective in identifying progress, or lack of, and in keeping track of a lots of policies and targets.

I’m not sure if something like this still exists, but perhaps is should? I know it’s certainly not the answer to the problems of scrutiny but it might provide part of the solution to some of the currently perceived problems. What do you think?

My housing wish list for 2015

DSCN0159The start of a new year is a good time both to reflect and think ahead. It’s a good time to be visionary, to think longer term and to overcome the mistakes of the past. So it seemed to me like a pretty good time to consider where next for housing? What would I do if I had any influence or responsibility for housing in Bristol. What would I do differently? What would I change and how could the system work better? Now, of course, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and come up with ideas, because it isn’t actually my job to implement any of this, or make the changes, or take the difficult decisions. So I’ll start with that as a caveat, I know it’s harder than you think and local politicians, the Mayor and others face tough decisions over budget cuts, prioritisation and are lobbied from all sides. I also know lots is being done locally to make changes for the better. But I also know more could be done!

In terms of local housing provision now is the time to be bold, to take some tough decisions and to prioritise the delivery of new, affordable, sustainable housing in the numbers that are needed to meet demand. It’s no good playing around the edges of this any longer, it absolutely has to be a priority for funding, land, resources, time and energy from all involved. Forget the excuses and start delivering.

My wish list includes both local and national changes, and will undoubtedly miss out lots of things that could also be done, but these would be my priorities.

First and foremost I would take a local decision to scrap the Right to Buy (RtB) on any new build council homes and to reduce the discount available for existing homes. I would challenge the government on their policy, as Brighton Council are, and ask that this be controlled locally. It might only be a temporary decision, that can be revisited in a few years, but for now, we are losing more social homes every year than we are building – how does that make sense? Many of those sold under RtB end up with private landlords, renting them back to people at higher rents, subsidised through housing benefits – again, how can that be right? So come on George, Mark and others, be bold, push for local control.

Secondly, another ask of government, that is, to increase the limit on borrowing capacity so local councils can borrow more against existing housing revenue. Current limits are too low and greatly restrict the ability of councils to build new social housing, or to use the funds to support affordable housing through other providers. Subsidised housing requires a public subsidy, and this needs to be in the form of capital investment not through the benefits system as is currently the case. If greater powers and resources are available to cities, then this is one that we should shout loudest about. Give councils the ability to build/fund new social housing.

Thirdly, the council has a responsibility to use its land to support council priorities, so prioritise housing and find the land and buildings to enable more new homes to be built. This land needs to be available at the right price and in the right places, so new affordable houses can be provided, close to jobs and transport infrastructure, where people want to live. I’d like to see some pilot schemes to show what is possible, to bring new ideas, innovation and creativity to the housing market in Bristol. During 2015, the year Bristol is European Green Capital, why not showcase some custom and kit build houses, using more efficient construction processes and providing sustainable homes at affordable prices? Why not illustrate how conversion of empty office buildings can provide new affordable homes in local neighbourhoods, as well as focus on empty homes and bringing those back into use? Why not use land in public ownership to do something different, to move away from volume build new estates that could be anywhere, and choose local designers and builders with a bit more vision to provide quality homes at affordable prices? Above all, prioritise council land for housing and get on with it!

Fourthly, do something to toughen up our planning officers. All too frequently over the last couple of years we have seen planning agreements renegotiated on key sites so affordable housing provision is either totally removed or reduced to negligible numbers. All developers have to do is threaten to stall development and we roll over and do anything they want just to get things moving. We are also too slack when it comes to design and quality issues – Bristol is a fantastic city but we are slowly ruining it with poor, ill thought out design on many new developments. A plea to our planners to do more, challenge more and say NO! Otherwise we’ll end up with more institutional, brash architecture, where any notion of local design and quality is sadly lacking, and the end result is just horrible.

Finally, let’s have a comprehensive plan for housing. This ‘wish’ applies both locally and nationally, but here the focus is on Bristol. We need a plan that covers all sectors and opportunities, that is proactive, that shows leadership and commitment, above all we need a comprehensive, long term plan for addressing Bristol’s housing crisis. Only then can we see the solutions, the resources and the decisions that are needed to make a difference in the short and medium term. Elements of this plan exist but we need more – more decisions, more resources, and more affordable homes.

The Bristol Mayor – You know it makes sense!

IMG_2115As the first Directly Elected Mayor (DEM) for Bristol enters his third year of office, what can we say about this new role and the changes we have seen during the first two years? Has it worked, has the role made a difference? To some degree it depends on your starting point. If you were one of those who supported the idea of a DEM and voted Yes in the referendum, and/or voted for George Ferguson in the election then you are likely to be more positively disposed to both the role and the incumbent (or at least I would imagine that to be the case). Those who voted No in the referendum and were opposed to the role of a DEM for Bristol and/or subsequently voted for another candidate in the election (or didn’t vote at all) may well be likely to look for more negatives and be more critical of the system as it is working now. It is difficult to be objective when you start from a particular position.

Equally it is highly likely that you were one of those who didn’t vote in the referendum and didn’t vote in the subsequent election, one of the majority in fact? So whilst the political elite and the powers in central government believe DEM are an important issue in terms of how our cities are run and managed, local people seemed to be less than convinced, either by the proposals at the time or more likely were just disillusioned with the political classes generally – “they’re all as bad as one another” or “they’re all the same” being an often quoted reason for not voting.

It seems to me that the idea of a DEM before the experience of one was not enough to convince people it might be a solution to the negativity and disinterest surrounding local democracy – it didn’t catch on with most of the public, wasn’t interesting enough or different enough? It will be interesting therefore to see in 2016, when the Bristol Mayor is up for election alongside all 70 local councillors, whether or not people have been more or less convinced by the experience of having a city mayor, how the role works and what difference it makes.

One thing is clear, George Ferguson is far more visible as a council leader and champion for the city than any other recent leader of the council. This view is supported by the work of Bristol University and UWE in their research on civic leadership, which clearly found that  the mayoral model in Bristol provides high profile, visible leadership. But is visibility enough, what more did we expect from this new role? Issues and benefits of the role talked about at the time of the referendum included, clarity of decision making, more power and resources to come from government, ability to take the difficult decisions and ability to be more strategic and develop longer term plans because the role was not tied to the annual election cycle. So have we seen a difference in relation to any of these issues? Has George Ferguson delivered on any of these aspects any better than the council and party leaders have in the past? At the time the arguments for a DEM were quite compelling  – we’d get more power, more money, more responsibility locally as a result of going along with this government promoted strategy. The practice however is less compelling, have we really done better than any of the other core cities when it comes to devolved power and additional resources – from where I’m sitting it doesn’t look like it. In fact other cities are now beginning to steal the march on us – Manchester with it’s combined authority and the promise of a metro mayor, Leeds and Birmingham likely to follow soon, all look set to achieve more. So what difference has having an elected mayor really made to Bristol, beyond increasing the visibility of the role and the city, which are major achievements in themselves, but is that all we can expect?

Which brings me to the Mayor’s Annual Lecture and State of the City address. Around 900 people gathered in the Great Hall at the Wills Memorial Building last night (10th Nov) to listen to George’s second annual lecture, and I was amongst them. Overall what we got was a speech that delivered many of the right statements, rhetoric and promises but was a bit light on detail and actions – probably to be expected of these kind of events? George opened by talking about his commitment to turning promises, hopes and aspirations into actions, all very commendable, but has he delivered on that? He talked about raising the profile of the city, attending lots of meetings and events all over the world and about the leadership role which he admitted he didn’t always get right. He also talked about Bristol as a prosperous city but also a city of contrasts, where not everyone feels the benefit of progress. There was a clear recognition that whilst we can hail and promote the success of Bristol we also need to recognise that in a prosperous city those with less who do not benefit from this prosperity are relatively poorer. Again, the rhetoric was certainly there, but what of actions? I was less convinced when it came to understanding quite what we were going to do differently to address problems of inequality, the detail was certainly lacking, although reference was made to the Mayoral Commissions, including the Fairness Commission and the need to take on board their recommendations.

George talked about housing, transport, jobs, economy and infrastructure, including some big projects like Filwood Green Business Park, Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and of course, the Arena. Decisions about transport have probably created the greatest controversy in Bristol so far during George’s term of office, with residents parking and 20mph zones generating the most debate and criticism. I’m with George on the notion that he is there to take the difficult decisions and to make things happen that other leaders have been to hesitant to implement, and I’m with him on the need to do something about traffic and congestion. But I do think he has shied away from some of the tougher options, like Workplace Parking Levy and Congestion Charging, both of which could bring in the funding needed to pay for a real tram scheme in Bristol and which could make the biggest difference to congestion and air pollution in the city. These are difficult issues and challenging for business but need to be put back onto the agenda as part of a longer term strategy that puts people first in terms of accessibility rather than cars! Sadly on many of the big issues raised there were few solutions and little detail offered. I was left feeling like things hadn’t really moved on much from last year’s speech, but maybe I was expecting too much.

One area where we did see some real commitment was on the issue of devolution and the need for a combined authority for the Greater Bristol area. George threw down a challenge to his fellow leaders across the West of England, making it clear that there is a window of opportunity there for the taking, if we don’t gear up for this change it will be a major opportunity missed for the area and we’ll lose out compared to other cities. The changes proposed in Manchester are likely to be followed up in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, with new powers on transport, skills, homes and strategic planning all available if only we can get our act together round here. This means going beyond the trite statements about ‘working together’ that we all too often hear from council leaders in the surrounding authorities and instead those leaders need to accept that being part of a Greater Bristol city region is the way forward, with clear commitment across party lines and artificial boundaries. As George said – “You know it makes sense” – a good note to end his speech on!

Overall I was left feeling rather conflicted, positive about some elements of the debate and uncertain and unsure about other elements. The mayoral role has helped but not enough, yet? For me we are still stuck on short term plans and spend too little time on longer term, strategic planning. We try to affect the here and now, but ignore the bigger issues. We also pander to government initiatives rather than trying to impose our own agenda. I would like to see the promise of this new role pushing our city agenda with government rather than merely responding to government agendas and funding rounds – with a clear, long term plan, addressing the key issues locally we would have a platform to approach government from and a local agenda to pursue. The next year or so will be critical if we are to see the real change having an elected mayor could bring – over to you George to lead the way!

The difference a Mayor makes?

DSCN0159With all this talk about devolution and the centralised power of Westminster, it got me thinking about cities and city regions, and about the role of directly elected Mayors and the difference they could make to this agenda. If there is any chance of greater devolution to the local level in England, at the city or city region level, then is Mayoral governance an effective form of leadership to take on this new, more powerful role? As it happens I spent a couple of days last week at the Policy & Politics Annual Conference* where I attended three separate sessions on “what difference do directly elected mayors make?” as well as several plenary sessions about leadership and collaborative governance – critical ingredients for successful mayoral leadership perhaps? I wrote up each of the plenaries for the Policy & Politics blog – take a look if you want to know what all these academics were talking about!

I also recently attended a debate organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas about ‘leading the green city’ which I wrote up for Bristol 24-7. The critical point from that discussion about leadership suggests that with the potential for more power to be vested in one individual at the centre of City Hall (the Mayor), there comes a responsibility to share that power with local communities.  A potentially important lesson for all areas embarking on new forms of city governance?

The academic debate about directly elected mayors is interesting, it starts from the premise that this new model of urban governance provides more visible leadership, can better handle the complexity of local government, partnership working, and collaboration. It also accepts that there is little evidence to prove that this is the case from either the UK experience or from abroad. So does having a directly elected mayor really make a difference and is it a positive difference? I don’t intend to recount all of the discussion and presentations from the two day conference, but I just thought I’d pick out a few issues that struck me as important and where there is still so much to learn about this new form of local governance and the impact it has on decision making, collaboration and leadership. This becomes even more important if there are moves for greater devolution of power to the local level, we need to be confident that the model works and can handle this extra responsibility in the right way.

Whilst there seems to be little doubt that having an elected mayor provides for a more visible leadership role and there is better clarity over who is actually making the key decisions, there are equally some key questions raised by this new model in terms of the operation of the local council, local politicians and local communities. One of the issues raised during the conference discussion was about the role of scrutiny and whether or not this is being carried out effectively where there are elected mayors. It struck me that this is part of a wider debate that goes back to the Local Government Act 2000 where proposals to move from the old committee system to new models of local government were first introduced. The model most popularly adopted was that of cabinet and scrutiny, where a cabinet was formed (normally from the majority party) to take decisions and the rest of the councillors were organised around a series of scrutiny commissions to hold cabinet members to account.

What this new system did was remove policy development from the role of ordinary councillors, it created a 2-tier/class system of councillors, and left many wondering what their role was to be. Where in the past backbenchers might well have led on topics of interest to them and have played a key role to play at committee meetings, now they were told to focus on representing their constituents and providing some scrutiny to those now responsible for taking decisions. I was a councillor at the time of this change and it was a challenging and difficult time for many of us. I didn’t seek to become a cabinet member because I had a full-time job and didn’t think I could do both justice. So I went from committee chair to scrutiny member – quite a tricky transition for me and one I didn’t particularly enjoy, and I certainly wasn’t alone in that. My reason for going over old ground and history is that I don’t think the problems associated with lack of scrutiny of Mayoral decisions is anything new, it’s not just down to the mayoral system. The problem of scrutiny has been there ever since it was first introduced, when no one quite knew how to deal with it and where councillors and officers alike struggled with the concept and how to make it work – I wrote about this a while back in a blog suggesting we should bring back the committee system because actually it worked quite well! I think the same problems persist now, scrutiny in Bristol is not well developed, it never has been. I don’t know if it works better elsewhere, but there seems a real gap between the original intentions of this change of approach to governance and the reality of how it works on the ground.

What we have instead in places like Bristol, even before we had a Mayor, is a group of councillors who wonder quite what their role is beyond local representation. It seems to increase the oppositional nature of local politics and bring out the worst in many. The new model of directly elected mayor certainly exacerbates this process, particularly where the mayor is an independent with no reference back to a specific party group. The decision making power is vested in one person, and in Bristol that means the role of the majority of the other 70 councillors has changed even more, to one of local representation and trying to hold the mayor to account. But what does scrutiny actually mean and how does it work, can it be effective when the Mayor can choose to ignore it, and are councillors well equipped to deal with it – I have my doubts, same as I did back on 2000 when the initial changes were made. So there’s certainly an interesting academic debate to be had about the changing role of local councillors and how new models of local governance can work most effectively for everyone involved – the mayor, the councillors, the officers, the community. But nothing I’ve come across so far really answers those questions, that’s not to say the research doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t found it yet!

Like many of my blogs this started as a discussion about one thing and ended up as another – my approach to discipline in writing seems to be lacking. I started thinking about the difference mayors make and ended up talking about the need to think carefully about the role of councillors and scrutiny. It’s all part of the same discussion and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave that for another time.

*Note – if you want to know more about the discussion at the Policy & Politics Conference, Prof Alex Marsh & Dr David Sweeting talk about the contributions on directly elected mayors in this podcast – Talking Mayors