Bristol needs a new, modern committee system

I’m a fan of local government and of the different systems used to make decisions as long as they work. In my experience it is not the system that fails but rather how it is interpreted and implemented by those in power. In the build up to the Local Government Act 2000 there was plenty of discussion about how the committee system didn’t work, how it was old fashioned and out of date. At the time instead of seeking to improve the way it worked the government decided to replace it, with councils asked to chose from one of the following options:
• Leader and cabinet executive
• Mayor and cabinet executive
• Mayor and council manager executive
• Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number of councils now choosing to go back to a committee system. In Bristol the criticisms were about the council being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, and there being no clarity over who took decisions. There was a momentum around change both locally and nationally, for a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, and more scrutiny. Many of the same criticisms were also levelled at this new system when the mayoral system was first proposed.

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. It didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members. However, what this new approach did was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised and disillusioned. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better.

The old committee system did encourage discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision. However, there were also many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote! In my view what was needed was a modernisation of the committee system, to improve the way it operated rather than the introduction of a new model that introduced a whole set of new issues and problems.

Further change in recent years means the system has continued down the route of focusing power in the hands of one person and moved away from involving the majority of councillors in decision making and policy development in any meaningful way. Since 2012 and the introduction of the mayoral model in Bristol decisions can now be taken by one person without any consultation and without any reference to other elected representatives. Yes, as a a system, it provides clear and more visible leadership, and is a role elected by the whole city rather than a handful of other councillors. But, it lacks accountability within the council, it reduces the role of councillors to ward representative and scrutiny members in a system where scrutiny seems to lack teeth!

The committee system had its strengths and was a system I enjoyed working within. It provided opportunity for debate and discussion, in a public forum. It gave backbenchers an opportunity to get to know an area of the council, to specialise, to get to know the issues and the officers involved. It enabled opposition councillors to engage in discussion and to influence decisions. It wasn’t all bad! It did, however, have it critics. It was slow, cumbersome, involved too many meetings, and could be too ‘political’ with members voting along party lines. I have fond memories of the committee system, and can even now recall some of the cross party discussion and debate we had, the issues we dealt with and the engagement we had with members of the public. I also can remember the long meetings and the frustration with how long it all took to get items onto the agenda, through the various internal processes. I do think the system got a bad press as it can be made to work and is in my view more collaborative than either of the other two systems.

The leader and cabinet system introduced in 2000 was a disaster. I don’t believe councils were properly equipped to change systems. There was no real consideration about how it would really work, how officers should operate, what it meant for scrutiny members and how it really made decision making clearer. It appeared to me a compromise between what the government wanted (a mayoral system) and what councils wanted (to stick with the committee system). One of the reasons I quit the council in 2002 was because of my disillusionment with how cabinet and scrutiny operated. The role of scrutiny was poorly thought through and under-resourced. There was little training to help councillors adapt and little thought about what it would mean for the majority of councillors. We tried a range of things, from working as scrutiny and policy development, introducing select committees, providing scrutiny leads on various issues, but with limited success.

By getting rid of committees we left a lot of councillors wondering what their role was and by bringing in an elected mayor that role was once more reduced to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy. What we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

If change is needed then needs to be relevant to Bristol, to reflect the ambitions of the city and to deliver a system that works for the city and its people. It’s a change of approach as much as it is a change of system, let’s think about how to make the system work as much as we think about what to system to have. What’s needed is a collaborative approach, a willingness to be open and debate issues in public and the ability to listen to and learn from different views. Strong leadership comes in many forms, sometimes it is powerful enough to listen, reflect and amend your views, as it is to stick to your views and plough on regardless. If I had a vote, I would vote to return to a committee system, but I would look to introduce a new, modernised committee system, that delivers leadership, openness, discussion, collaboration and debate. I believe it can if the will is there to make it happen, but as ever it depends on the people involved and how they seek to implement the sytem.

The End of a Journey (almost)

Finally, after nearly 5 years I have submitted my thesis. It was never meant to take this long and it has been quite a challenge. But I’m on the final stage of the journey now, waiting and preparing for my viva (Feb next year), whilst also taking some time out to do other things. There’s a lot about doing a PhD that is fun and interesting, I enjoyed most of it. I love writing and making sense of information, talking to people, finding out what is happening and why, and then crafting that information into something that is understandable and readable. It was a challenge for me because I’m more of a practitioner than an academic, I came into this after 25 years of doing policy and strategy for different charities and business organisations. I spent a lot of that time writing, but for non academic audiences, so moving into the academic world was a whole different discipline with a different language to understand. I met some great people along the way, who gave up their time for me during my research, to be part of it and to help me with it. I was lucky that so many people were willing to participate and support me for so long.

When I first started my PhD people used to ask what my research was about, now the question I get asked is – what did you find out, what does your research say? That’s always the trickiest question to answer. I found out so much throughout the process – about myself, about other people, about doing research, about what others have written, about different theories – and only some of it found its way into the thesis. it would be impossible to cover everything!

My research questions were as follows:

How do issues get onto the policy agenda during an election campaign?

  • How are political manifestos developed and how are priorities decided?
  • How do candidates prioritise their engagement with different actors?
  • Who do they listen to and why?

Who is trying to influence the agenda and how?

  • Who are the main actors trying to influence the election agenda?
  • What tactics and strategies do those actors use to get attention?
  • What keeps issues on the candidate’s agenda or raises them up/down that agenda?

My research used Kingdon’s multiple streams framework (MSF) to explore the issues and develop my findings. I used housing policy as the basis for discussion and developed the MSF to provide an understanding of how mayoral candidates set their priorities pre- and post-election. The impetus for the study came from an interest in why some issues grab policy makers’ attention whilst others do not and how priorities are set during an election process. It stemmed from a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections play in framing policy agendas, the role and impact of different influencers, as well as how politicians make decisions about priorities when time is limited.

The research rests on three basic premises. Firstly, using housing policy as the focus for attention was justified as it was widely acknowledged thatthere was a housing crisis in the UK generally and at a local level in Bristol more specifically. It was also a time of constant, ad hoc policy change at national, sub national and local level.

The second basic premise of the research was that Bristol provides an interesting case study for research. It was the only core city to vote yes to having a directly elected mayor in the city referendums held across England in 2012. Bristol it seemed had a particular set of local circumstances that led to this vote, including perceptions of unstable local leadership with constant changes in political control and leaders, and a lack of visibility, with the council frequently criticised for being inward looking.

Thirdly, an understanding of how issues get onto, and move up and down, the policy agenda during a period of political change at a local level is an area of research that has not received particularly extensive attention over the years. The focus of much agenda setting research is either at a national level or is historically focused, looking back at how a decision was taken or a policy change generated over a longer time period. My research looked at local agenda setting as it happened, at a moment in time, and sought to understand why it was happening, who or what was influencing the process and how those under influence responded and reacted. It focused on an election period where there was a concentration of political activity, over a short period of time, when influence, engagement and responsiveness were likely to be greater than at most other times.

The research considered how, in Kingdon’s terms, a predictable window opened in the politics stream as the election began, and how the streams came together as party agendas were produced and diverged again once the election was over, as a new, smaller window opened before the new mayoral decision agenda was set. The research identified how mayoral candidates operated across the streams, seeking ideas and solutions, from within and outside of the party system. It also highlighted the strategies and tactics used by policy entrepreneurs to bring their issues to the attention of the candidates. It identified key stages in the process where the opportunities for influence were greatest and where agendas were set.

I came up with my own diagram to highlight the process, it’s a combination of the MSF and the stages model of the policy process. I may do a more detailed blog on what this all means:

Final Drawing Discussion Final.jpg

My research drew conclusions on who and what influences the agenda before, during and after an election and demonstrated the role local political parties and policy entrepreneurs play in party and decision agendas. It illustrated how coalitions and networks bring opportunities for greater influence to the individuals and groups involved in them. The research also demonstrated the benefit of bringing solutions alongside problems, as local actors displayed a willingness to work with the council to achieve more desirable outcomes in the delivery of affordable housing in Bristol.

I identified the types of strategies and tactics people and organisations used to try and influence the candidates, using the work of Cairney (2018) and Aviram et al (2019) as a framework:

  • Positive engagement: get to know the candidates and decision makers, use existing connections, professional credibility and reputation, demonstrate willingness to work in partnership;
  • Framing a problem: understand how best to position an issue, use emotional connections and stories from real people to demonstrate impacts;
  • Indicators and evidence: provide clear, accurate data to demonstrate the extent of a problem. Use simple visuals to highlight a problem. Simplify research information into short briefings. Suggest targets for candidates to include. Engage with others to present the extent of a problem.
  • Providing solutions: understand the cause of a problem and provide a range of solutions, and offer to be part of the solution;
  • Networking: join with others, coalitions of interest, policy communities, network of interests inside and outside of government;
  • Triggering events: use crises and events to focus attention. The election itself provided that opportunity;
  • Media attention: tap into the public mood, maximize size of audience, use media to promote policy and attract attention to an issue. Use of publicity stunts, visuals and stories attract media and public attention;
  • Salami Tactics: divide policy into stages, provide less risky steps towards policy change, simply the problem and the solution to make it more accessible and acceptable.

I plan to write a more detailed briefing note to send out to all those involved in my research, highlighting the more practical elements of my findings.

Housing – a political priority?

DSCN0141Why is housing important? Firstly and quite obviously, it’s a human right – everyone should have the right to a decent home that is affordable. This obvious statement has been discussed before by many better than me – see “Making the case for housing” by Prof Alex Marsh and work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on housing and poverty.

Secondly, it’s important to our economy, an undeniable fact. Just consider the size of the construction sector and of the housing sector and you begin to understand the impact and importance it has on the economy. Construction contributes 6% of UK GVA and there are 280,000 companies that make up the construction industry, providing nearly 3 million jobs (2013 figures). Obviously not all these are in housing but when construction and house building slumps; so does the economy. When house building stalls during a recession; we stay in recession.

We are currently building less than half the number of homes we were 10 years ago and many fewer than we need. The demand for homes is increasing but we are building fewer. That means more people on housing waiting lists, higher rents, more people on housing benefit, more homelessness, more people priced out of the market and more people living in overcrowded and unfit housing. Government and local councils seem either clueless or powerless to do anything to resolve these problems, other than come up with short term schemes that provide partial solutions. If housing is so important to the economy in jobs, GVA and GDP terms then why aren’t we doing more?

Housing is also important to business, for obvious selfish reasons it must be – how can we attract inward investment, new companies and new opportunities to trade if we can’t house the workforce? How can we attract the right people with the right skills if we can’t house the workforce? The cost of housing is identified by businesses in the Bristol city region as a major barrier to growth; businesses consistently say the cost of housing is stopping them from expanding and growing their business, whilst others complain about not being able to attract people with the right skills. So not having enough of the right houses, in the right place at the right price is a major barrier to business growth. The West of England has one of the highest house price to salary differentials outside of London and the South East. Bristol is ranked the 9th least affordable city to live in Britain according to a recent Centre for Cities report “Delivering Change: building homes where we need them“. Housing is important to business because it helps to attract the right people with the right skills and helps to remove barriers to growth and inward investment, but with unaffordable prices our ability to compete is reduced.

For less selfish business reasons housing is an issue for health and wellbeing because if we are not providing sufficient housing close to jobs, then we are forcing people to live further away from their work. That means more time spent travelling and less time spent with family/friends – getting the work-life balance right is harder if you spend 2-3 hours a day travelling to and from work. It also adds to traffic congestion and creates additional environmental problems. I saw a statistic the other day, can’t remember where, that said a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Stop and think about that for a minute and the impact that must have on people’s lives. 

Now’s the time, with a general election in 2015 and a Bristol mayoral & council election in 2016, to make sure housing is firmly on people’s agendas; to raise the critical issues and provide the solutions that can be implemented locally. It is easy to sit back and be critical of the inability of local and national political leaders to take strategic long term decisions. We criticise them for having to be sensitive to electoral cycles and for not tackling the difficult issues. Housing is one of those issues that needs a short, medium and long term plan, where the difficult issues need to be faced head on.

Everyone has the right to a decent home. By restricting housing growth and refusing development we are denying people that right. In a prosperous city such as Bristol it is ridiculous that we have around 14,000 people on the housing waiting list, too many people in overcrowded and poor accommodation; and others with nowhere to live at all. So the question remains – what more can we do to deliver the housing that Bristol desperately needs at a price people can afford?

We need local politicians who are brave enough to stand up for the rights of individuals, to provide the homes we need, cut through the politics of housing growth and do what is right for Bristol, the economy and the people who live and work here. And now’s the time to do it!

On Being a Councillor

I seem to have had quite a few comments and discussions recently about politicians and planners, and several people have asked me why I became a politician, what it was like on planning committee and what I think of politicians now. So I thought I’d have a go at writing a blog about it!

I was a Bristol City Councillor between 1994 and 2002, representing first Southville Ward and then Knowle Ward, at a time when Labour controlled the council (with a pretty big majority when I first got elected). It was also a time of constant change, as after my first year we transitioned to being a Unitary Council, with the abolition of Avon County Council, operating with the same tight city boundaries as before, but taking on massive new functions including Education and Social Services, with massive new budgets. We also took a decision to remove the post of Chief Executive and restructured the council on at least 3 occasions during my 8 years as a councillor. Just to add to all that, the government also inflicted upon us the Cabinet/Scrutiny system, moving away from a traditional committee system that had operated in local government for many years, to one which no one was familiar with and which many resisted. So a lot was packed into my 8 years, a lot of change and even more learning.

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Time for grown up politics?

Photo - Bristol1st

Photo courtesy of Bristol1st.com

I am writing this blog after reading an article in the Bristol Post by the Mayor of Bristol about what it’s like to be Mayor and the extent of the abuse and vitriol he has to put up with on a personal level everyday. Now, having been a politician myself  in Bristol, I am more than aware that local politics (and national politics) frequently descend to the petty and personal. But it does seem to me that the position of Mayor has exacerbated this side of local politics in Bristol, because it does exactly what it was meant to do, it focuses everything in on one person, it makes them the centre of attention and deflects from the other 70 councillors elected to represent people.

If you look back at why Bristol wanted a directly elected mayor all the talk was of having clear leadership, one person to act as a figurehead, and clarity of decision making. It strikes me that that is exactly what we have – we have someone who is willing to take some of those tough decisions, we all know who is responsible, there is clarity over leadership and decision making, and that’s now part of the problem. But really, why all the fuss, why the negativity and why make it so personal?

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