Agenda item

Public Questions and Petitions

To receive any questions or petitions from members of the public.



The Committee received 4 questions from a member of the public, prior to the meeting




Ruth Hubbard




1.      Is the committee able to articulate clearly and succinctly the overall purpose of the review (that is what you are trying to achieve and why), and its key aims (that is, its main or priority goals or targets)? I’ve asked these kinds of questions before and expressed concern about the lack of clarity of purpose and aims (even if these need to be refined a bit in situ), that helps to focus activity and evidence, and against which you can measure progress and evaluate the work. At the moment it's described as an “holistic” review. And then in describing the scope there’s this very wide ranging list of lines of enquiry. Is this what the committee intends? (And why?) is it practical and realistic to do all this well, and within the resource and capacity available? Are there specific priorities that it might be useful to articulate e.g. to rationalise councillor and officer workloads where possible (and examine the potential for cost-savings)? Or to identify improvements to the quality of policy and decision-making? Or to identify gaps and overlaps and propose specific improvements/rationalisations? Or to examine the role of the finance committee? Or to improve alignments to strategic contexts? Or to assess approaches to cross-cutting issues? Or to improve LAC-policy committee links and revisit decision-making roles and remits of each? At the moment the report gives the impression the committee is intending to do all this and more. Or is the report more of an initial exploratory document laying out all the possibilities rather than the “proposed approach” (as stated) and from which a concise scoping document and workplan will clarify the review goals, requirements and activities? If it’s intended to be rather scattergun at this stage then there are at least potentially four things missing. Firstly, alignment with design principles. This is what full council charged the committee with doing for the six-month Governance Review, but this was not done at all. The report does mention the design principles later in the document but only as a point of reflection rather than action or constitutional tweaks to tackle the great gaps between principles and practice, rhetoric and realities. I also suggest for this that it’s worth looking back and relooking at stakeholder input and intentions on these because much of this was decimated by the Governance Committee in the name of brevity but threw away the baby with the bath water in the process. As they are now, Design principles 1, 11 and 16 may be particularly relevant anyway. Secondly considering best or innovative approaches, solutions or practices elsewhere is absent (including relevant statutory interventions) which gives the report an insular or parochial feel. Looking up and out a bit certainly might be important if there’s any desire to be at the forefront of thinking and practice for policy committees in a committee system. Thirdly, the lack of attention to identifying and embedding clear scrutiny functions and processes in transition to the committee system represents, at least to me, a current and considerable risk. Though the word scrutiny is mentioned it should arguably have greater prominence in a review of policy committee remits. Fourthly mechanisms for the integration or embedding of stakeholder voice or influence is absent (as is consideration of public information and communications about policy committees and their work). I note the GC has consistently rejected this and, as a result, stakeholder involvement in formal committee bodies has actually decreased in the new system - very occasionally, at least, the old scrutiny committees did bring in the odd relevant stakeholder, though this didn’t necessarily always appear particularly functional or best-used. A related consideration here might also be the very variable amount of public questions across different committees. So, if the review is to be “holistic” as stated - the equivalent of a 360 degree appraisal - then can I please request these omissions be included? (Alternatively, even if the review remains described as “holistic” I suggest much clearer aims still need to be identified to focus work etc - and there will always be limitations on what can be done (as well as ensuring alignment with resource to see it through).


2.      I must mention another longstanding but unaddressed or rejected concern that I’ve raised several times before. Sheffield has created the most bloated committee system anywhere, currently standing at 9 policy committees. I remind the committee of statutory interventions at Wirral council at the end of 2021 requiring a reduction from 7 committees, backed up by a subsequent LGA review in 2022 - because of challenges of coordination, risks of fragmentation, and Officer workloads. I also consider the Governance Committee to have misrepresented and/or clearly cherry-picked (for whatever reason) from the evidence they collated, and in stating they believed committee sizes of 8-10 were best. Brighton, for example, has 10-14 on its committees and Cheshire East 13, and both function perfectly well. (And personally, our committees regularly simply feel too small to me.). Whilst I can actually see certain advantages for citizen scrutineers in the current bloated system, if there is any suggestion to rationalise workloads for councillors and officers, achieve efficiencies or potential savings, or reduce overlaps/better coordinate, then fewer and slightly bigger committees will also, at least, make us not the extreme outlier we currently are. I can only think that political party (and the holding of roles) considerations have steered towards the relative monster of a system we currently have, and I probably think revisiting this should be an important consideration for the review.


3.      It looks like Bristol, however, are about to make the same mistake in creating a bit of a monster. Bristol council papers report that Sheffield has provided advice and support on their transition to a committee system. Can I please ask if this is council officer advice and support, or political advice and support (and/or through core cities)?


4.      In respect to item 8 (Citizen Participation and Community Involvement)


I note the report is suggesting a rather rigid or fixed, fairly resource-heavy, potentially unwieldy, and unimaginative model for citizen and VCFSE involvement in its proposed working group to “lead the transformation of citizen participation and community involvement”. Can I please ask why this model was considered appropriate and what other models were considered?




The Chair of the meeting (Councillor Sue Alston) confirmed that questions 1, 2 and 4 would be picked up as part of items 7 and 8 on the agenda. She explained that the Chair of the Governance Committee (Councillor Fran Belbin) would be responding to Ms Hubbard regarding question 3.