Please note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.
As I have blogged previously, I rashly made a promise to myself after the election to use this blog after significant council meetings to help open up, in some small way, the workings of our local democracy to more public scrutiny. Scrutiny is in fact the theme of this update, after a week in which I have dipped my toes in the waters of a (to me) new, under-reported yet important side of council business…
Scrutiny is also one of those words or phrases – like Full Council – that many councillors too often bandy about sagely, fully expecting everyone in the room to know what on earth they’re talk about (note to self: mustn’t fall into that same trap over the next four years…)
In a nutshell, the scrutiny system, put in place as part of the last Labour government’s overhaul of local government in 2000, sees councillors who do not serve in the council’s executive (i.e. the Leader and Cabinet Members) meet to – you guessed it – scrutinise the executive’s decisions, and make recommendations on different courses of action based on its investigations and questioning of decision-makers and the Officers who implement those decisions. In Greenwich, this work is carried out by the Overview & Scrutiny Committee and six scrutiny panels, of which I sit on two – Safer & Stronger Communities (broadly speaking, community safety, police, fire etc) – and Finance & Public Services (looking at how council services are run). Think House of Commons Select Committee, on a vastly smaller scale, with fewer green chairs and wooden panels and blessedly, no grandstanding appearances by Keith Vaz.
There’s very little power involved – the executive can totally disregard any recommendations that Scrutiny Panels make, and because of proportionality rules, in Greenwich there are stonking great Labour majorities on every panel. By majority, I mean they hold all but one seat on every panel. Ahem. However, it would be a mistake to write them off.
The phrase that keeps cropping up in our induction presentations is that Scrutiny Panel members should see themselves as ‘critical friends’ to the administration – and indeed, this is the side of council business that is perhaps the least partisan. I sometimes think party politics gets a bad press – and I have no intention of losing sight of the need to vigorously oppose this new administration when necessary (as I and colleagues have already done in the chamber this term). Nevertheless, there are times and issues that call for party lines to be allowed to blur – and on both of my Scrutiny Panels this week there was a welcome sense that this is an opportunity to genuinely contribute to the work of the council, despite being in opposition.
On the Conservative benches we are particularly grateful to Cllr David Stanley, who as chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee has accepted several work programme proposals from myself and my colleague Cllr Nuala Geary, and who in general has shown a refreshingly bipartisan approach to his new role. Cllr Stanley clearly believes strongly in the role of scrutiny in holding the executive to account, and has made a good start at beefing up the scrutiny function to allow members – both Labour and Conservative – to do that more effectively.
Even though I have very strong doubts as to whether we will see any real change from this new administration from the Chris Roberts era, there are some signs, at least, that (a couple of) new Labour councillors such as Cllr Stanley are making something of a difference. It will be interesting to see how that develops.
Safety, strength & a coup d’état
At Wednesday night’s Safer & Stronger Communities Panel meeting, we agreed to focus our programme for the year on reviewing the work of the council (and, through the Safer Greenwich Partnership, the work of its partner agencies such as the Police) in particular on domestic violence, hate crime and stop-and-search. There was a useful and interesting presentation from Bob Selby, the Borough Commander for London Fire Brigade, including welcome signs that response times since the closure of Woolwich Fire Station have been better than the LFB’s pre-closure projections, thanks to the hard work of our firefighters to improve cover despite the loss of one station.
There were some quite startling facts and figures in the fire chief’s presentation – including the big trend towards hoarders (that beloved subject of BBC Three documentaries) causing serious fire incidents in Greenwich and the rates of incidence of different types of fire in our borough compared to others in London. One point I intended but neglected to make in the meeting (and will be following up on) was in praise of the firefighters at Eltham station who recently attended the Coldharbour & Avery Hill Housing Panel meeting to give residents a community safety talk. Their talk really brought home how crucial home fire safety is, most importantly in reducing deaths and injuries from unnecessary fires, and also in terms of cost to the taxpayer (they pointed out that their new model smoke alarms costs £10, versus £1600 for four engines to attend a single fire).
At Wednesday’s meeting I was also interested to hear that the Fire Brigade are also looking to establish a Cadet force in the borough, which is proving challenging given resource constraints. I suggested that they might be able to collaborate with the police, who run an excellent cadet scheme (which I will be visiting in September) with which some back office costs might be able to be shared. I was pleased that both Borough Commanders in the room seemed open to the idea, which I hope to return to later in the year.
(I would say this item was the highlight of the meeting, but then I did stage an unlikely coup d’état at the beginning by sitting in the Leader of the Council’s seat for the first and quite probably last time – scrutiny panel meetings are being held in the council chamber while the regular venues are renovated!)
The nitty gritty of council services
This was followed in quick succession by yesterday evening’s Finance and Public Services Scrutiny Panel – ably chaired by newly-elected Peninsula councillor Chris Lloyd. I wanted to serve on this panel to gain a wider appreciation of how the council works at an operational level, and from the evidence of this first meeting I picked the right place. We had a long and fruitful exchange with officers in charge of the council’s various customer contact centres, including progress on the new Greenwich Centre and their efforts to bring down waiting times for dealing with residents’ enquiries in person and by phone.
They presented a strong set of figures showing substantial improvement, but also revealed a growing trend away from residents contacting the council via the less costly telephone and online channels towards expensive face-to-face visits, which I found somewhat surprising. In the light of future population growth this a trend that obviously needs to be reversed in the interests of the taxpayer. There is also an acknowledgement that a significant piece of work needs to be done to integrate online systems to ensure that website transactions and enquiries are facilitated at the lowest cost possible (at present, it seems that most of residents’ customer service interactions with the website need to be re-entered manually by a member of staff into different computer systems, at significant and unnecessary expense). I look forward to observing progress on these two fronts – issues that might seem mundane to some, but that this “systems”-brained person finds surprisingly interesting…
I also questioned officers on how incoming enquiries via social media are handled, raising the point that in the interests of fairness we need to ensure that he or she who shouts the loudest on Twitter and Facebook is not necessarily prioritised over residents with equally or more pressing issues who contact the council in traditional ways. I can see both sides of this debate – but with management of the council’s social media channels sitting in the Communications team, and residents’ complaints and enquiries therefore treated as reputation management situations, there is an issue of fairness here that I don’t believe has been given enough attention. It is also an issue of process and taxpayer value, and one that if not addressed in a planned way, is only going to grow (and grow the council’s costs with it).
So, an interesting week and one that opened up a new feature of the council to me that I suspect few residents see. It would be good to get more residents and community groups involved in the work of the panels, and there are encouraging signs that this might happen over the next year so it’s a case of watch this space.
As for my blogging pledge, the next council meetings coming up are a Special Meeting on the 23rd of July and Full Council a week later, after which I’ll endeavour to share an update covering both (and hopefully, a shorter one…)