What local politicians really get up to in meetings

Wetherby Coun John Procter (Con) at the development plan panel meeting on housing allocations across the Leeds region.
Wetherby Coun John Procter (Con) at the development plan panel meeting on housing allocations across the Leeds region.

Local authority politicians busily go abou their daily tasks representing residents as Wetherby Councillor Alan Lamb reports in his monthly column.

It is responsible for many, many things that affect our day to day lives and spends huge amounts of our money on our behalf.

The overwhelming majority of decisions are taken by the council’s cabinet and leader system known as The Executive Board.

It comprises eight members of the councils ruling administration, including the leader of council, plus two opposition members.

An increasing number of decisions are now delegated to council officers, in many cases this is perfectly sensible as it enables decisions to be taken quickly.

Personally, I’m rather uncomfortable with the amount of decisions that are now taken away from the public gaze.

One of the key roles of local councillors is to hold the executive to account for the decisions it makes.

We can exercise this function in a variety of ways and frequently do but the official forum is through the council’s scrutiny process.

There are a number of scrutiny boards, similar to select committees in Parliament that align loosely to the councils directorates.

I have sat on the Children’s Services scrutiny board for six of the eight years that I’ve been on council other than two years when I had some responsibility for Children’s Services and it was, therefore, not appropriate for me to effectively scrutinise my own performance. During that period, I sat on the health scrutiny board.

The scrutiny boards are made up of members of different political parties and are often joined by members of the public who can be co-opted because we feel they have a particularly relevant experience or expertise generally or in a subject we are looking into.

While I am a very political person with strong views and opinions, I particularly enjoy scrutiny because in the main, we collectively manage to leave our politics at the door.

We are able to forensically look at the detail of a wide variety of issues of the boards choosing, with the ability to call and question witnesses as we seek to gain a deep understanding of whatever we have chosen to investigate before producing a report and making recommendations to the council leadership.

It is serious work and regularly produces significant outcomes that can make real differences to people’s lives.

My drive and passion in politics is all about improving outcomes for children and young people.

I firmly believe that if we give every child the best possible start in life, regardless of their background, and ensure that we equip them with the skills they need to get on in life, play an active role in society and are able to take responsibility for themselves and their future families that over the long term, we will deal with many challenges our increasingly troubled world faces.

In scrutiny, I sit side by side with political opponents and while we do differ in our approaches to many of the issues we are trying to face, we are frequently united in the outcomes we are trying to achieve.

The beauty of the scrutiny process and the way it operates is that the normal rules of political engagement are cast aside, the political point scoring and posturing is gone and often replaced with a problem and a blank piece of paper as we try to first understand all the complexities of the issues before exploring all the conceivable solutions.

The fact that the final reports and recommendations are put forward by people of all political parties makes them very difficult to ignore.

We have had big impacts on council policy on many occasions and from time to time, we have impacted national policy.

One example of this was a piece of scrutiny I asked for into private fostering which was ultimately taken up in Westminster by education minister Edward Timpson MP.

At times I get frustrated that the general public do not see this side of political work.

The meetings are held in public and anyone can attend. I suppose that because we don’t spend our time falling out and trying to focus on what divides us the press don’t often attend and report what we do.

The flip side of this is that I wonder if we would operate as effectively and subjectively if we undertook our role in the full glare of the media spotlight.

Scrutiny is one of my favourite parts of the council role. If you ever get the chance come along, it might just change your perception.