Tuesday, 30 October 2007

"Scrutiny" Committee

On my bike today for a ride up to Whinbush Way for the new Neighbourhood Services Scrutiny Committee. A small, crowded room, with no space for local residents to squeeze in, even if they'd wanted to - so why did we drag 20 or so people up there instead of a comfortable room in the Town Hall?

The meeting itself could have been really interesting, but the agenda was too long and the reports too detailed to be properly considered. The problem was compounded by this Scrutiny Committee starting its meetings at 9.30 am. Those of us who work have to take half a day off, and then some left early to get back to work. If we met in the late afternoon, say 4pm, most people could do their day's work and get to the meeting, which could go on as long as needed, without half the councillors looking at their watches all the time.

The long and detailed reports on crime, anti-social behaviour and youth justice deserved far more time for proper consideration. Perhaps the main thing which came across was that, although the published figures showed a strong downward trend in crime and ASB, there was much scepticism about the figures. Everyone who spoke said the figures did not match their experience in their wards; there is non-reporting of crime and ASB; why was the reporting period April to September 2007 against April to September 2006? Why not full annual figures?

So diverse was the agenda in such a short time that we also had time (or not!) for reports on CCTV in bus shelters, service planning, housing and climate change. As well as all that, there was still time for Cllr Gerald Lee, who is a steadfast defender of the interests of his rural constituents, to question the Council's decision to remove wardens from its sheltered accommodation and provide cover from a central control room.

I left with a feeling of dissatisfaction: potentially interesting reports were skimmed through because there was just not enough time. This isn't "scrutiny" as I think it should be.

5 comments:

miketually said...

Do you get the reports to read in advance, or is the meeting the first time they're seen? If they were distributed in advance, a lot of simpler questions could be answered before the meeting by email.

Mike Barker said...

We do get the reports in advance. The point about Scrutiny is that the officers responsible are there in the room. They present the paper and talk to it and then councillors can get stuck in with questions and discussion.
It's the face-to-face contact with the officer which makes the difference. Getting bland responses by email is not the same thing.
This does require a Chair who is prepared to allow free-flowing discussion and it requires sufficient time for discussion to unfold.
Our Chair is pretty good, though there is an oft-repeated refrain that party politics has no place on Scrutiny Committees. This can lead to discussions being cut short when there is any whiff of disagreement between members or when controversy arises.
For me, Scrutiny should be challenging and controversial: disagreement is healthy. Not everyone agrees with that position!
By the way, this morning I have received notice of a special additional meeting of this Scrutiny Committee, to discuss one of the agenda itemns from yesterday. So it looks like the Chair also felt that there was not enough time to do the job properly yesterday.

miketually said...

Getting bland responses to the blander questions might speed up the meeting a little.

From the list of agenda items you've posted, it looks like it needs at least five meetings of a couple of hours each!

Mike Barker said...

http://www.darlington.gov.uk/Democracy/Political+Management/Meeting.htm?id=754

This is the link to yesterday's agenda and reports. On top of this, there were two additional presentations from officers, one describing the work of the Housing Department, which is a new area of responsibility for this Scrutiny Committee and one on the impact of climate change on house building regulations.

miketually said...

That's a very full agenda for one meeting!