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Act 2000 there was plenty of discussion about how the committee system didn’t work, how it was old fashioned and out of date.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.

Scaling Up – Community led housing

Sea Mills

There appears to be little to argue about when it comes to community-led housing. It’s a good idea, it puts local communities front and centre of the housing debate, helps to deliver what local people want and provides some great opportunities for us to de-commodify housing. There are some brilliant examples from across the country and elsewhere in Europe and Scandinavia. Yet somehow this approach to housing is still seen as small scale, pilot schemes and show schemes. It’s not considered as a key part of the mainstream delivery of housing in England. Most schemes have so far been small scale demonstrators of what is possible. Many of them use different approaches to building houses, with off-site manufacture, design and build schemes more prevalent than the bricks and mortar approach of the volume house builders. They could all be scaled up to help solve the housing crisis but we don’t appear to be geared up to embracing new models of delivery. The barriers are always there when it comes to doing something different.

We have some excellent examples and ideas being developed in Bristol, as I found out at a recent Festival of the Future City event where Melissa Mean talked about the concept of “we can make” which has been developed by the Knowle West Media Centre in collaboration with White Design. They have developed a housing modular unit that can be used to infill on large garden plots and micro sites across the Knowle West estate. This is an area I know quite well as I was the local councillor for Knowle for 7 years. A large part of the estate is made up of 3-bed semi-detached houses built around Garden City principles at very low density, with plenty of open space, large gardens and roads with wide grass verges. A large proportion of the estate is still in council ownership. There are significant opportunities to densify the estate, working with the local community to identify need and provide solutions that work. That’s what ‘we can make‘ is all about, it’s about putting people and communities at the heart of housing to develop the micro sites that exist but with the community as the developer and meeting local housing requirements at the point of need. In Bristol there are many other similar estates to Knowle West, so the potential across the city is immense. The particular housing unit designed so far, and on show locally, is a straw bale construction, that is flexible and adaptable to changing needs, that could be made in a factory locally, using local labour.

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This is just one example of what is possible if you look beyond the mainstream to provide the local housing required to reflect local community need.  The Bristol Community Land Trust is another organisation working with local people who need an alternative route onto the housing ladder. They have completed one scheme in Fishponds and are about to start a co-housing scheme in Lockleaze. Both schemes provide an opportunity for local people to access housing in a different way, through self-finish and cooperative housing, with shared space and shared living. But still these schemes are small scale and seen as outside of the norm.

There are other offers on the table too, using alternative construction methods to provide cheaper more affordable homes, that meet the highest of environmental standards. One example is the recently developed Snug Homes brought to you by Ecomotive, an organisation dedicated to promoting self-build as part of the solution to the housing crisis. There’s also the potential offered by Apple Green Homes, a fast build, affordable, sustainable wooden framed home, partially built in a factory. But all too often these innovative, affordable homes have difficulty competing with the larger volume house builders. They get squeezed out of the market and find it difficult to secure the land to provide much needed affordable homes. Council’s themselves are often the main stumbling block, with local bureaucracy never at ease with doing something different. The barriers are all too often insurmountable, even if the will is there, the ability to find a way through the red tape just takes too long, to the point that even the most committed social entrepreneur may well give up.

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What can council’s do to make things happen and make it easier for those with the solutions? It’s actually quite simple in concept but difficult in practice. All that is required is a change of attitude. Instead of constantly responding with “no that’s not possible” or “we’ve never done that before, so don’t know if we can”, we need politicians to respond positively with “ok, we’ll find a way“. That’s it! I remember only too well the conversations I used to have as a councillor with the legal team at the City Council, all too often their response was ‘sorry councillor we can’t do that’. My response was always the same – “yes we can I just need you to work out how!”

The other important thing to remember is that the council cannot solve this problem alone. Even with its plan to set up a housing company and build more council houses itself, more is still needed. Working in partnership and collaboration is a key theme of the current Mayor’s approach, and there’s no where we need it more than in ensuring the delivery of affordable housing.

If the commitment and desire is there, then it can be done. Bristol has some great examples already, as well as some brilliant social entrepreneurs willing to put time and effort into a new generation of community led housing. It’s about time the Council played a more positive enabling role to help make it happen. Otherwise we may find the people with ideas and creativity give up and/or go elsewhere and Bristol once more falls behind as a result of the ‘deadhead of the council’.

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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