Councils will not be able to resurrect committee systems exactly as they were 12 years ago, the Centre for Public Scrutiny has warned, after finding more than 40 councils considering such a switch.
A draft copy of a report seen by LGC said the growth in partnership working, and powers to scrutinise external services such as health, and crime and disorder, meant the former system would be poorly suited to councils’ work.
Four councils plan to return to committees next month while a further 40 are considering the move, the CfPS has discovered.
It fears that scrutiny, and officer posts associated with it, would be undermined were any large number of councils to use the Localism Act’s freedoms to change their governance arrangements.
The old committee system was scrapped by the Local Government Act 2000, except in the smallest districts.
The system used meetings of subject committees and the full council, rather than cabinets and scrutiny committees, to make decisions.
The main motive in switching back is a belief that the present system excludes backbench councillors from decision making.
But the CfPS said councils were too often designing a governance system before they had decided what they wanted to achieve.
“Our research suggests that not many authorities have properly explored why they wish to make a change in governance arrangements and have not adequately tested the assumptions they have made,” the report said.
Since 2000 there has been an “explosion in work being carried out in partnership”, the report added, which does not fit easily into a committee system.
In councils planning to return to committees, “there seems not to have been any recognition that there will be a knock-on impact on partners, and on partnership decision making, or new and different methods of service delivery”, the CfPS warned.
Every council the CfPS questioned “recognised the need to maintain a scrutiny function to deal with external and wider partnership issues”.
When contacted by LGC, those planning to return to the committee system were generally proposing to limit formal scrutiny to health.
Kingston upon Thames RBC leader Derek Osbourne (Lib Dem) said: “There will be health scrutiny and we have a scrutiny committee that can be convened if 100 members of the public petition it to be, which is useful for things where parties agree but there is controversy.”
Nottinghamshire CC leader Kay Cutts (Con) said there would be two area committees to scrutinise hospitals, while the health and wellbeing board would oversee other health aspects.
Crime and disorder would be scrutinised by the policy committee, on which all committee chairs would sit.
“If a committee makes a decision it will expect a report on implementation six months later and will scrutinise progress,” Cllr Cutts said.
She said backbenchers had found it “galling” to be excluded from decision making under the “daft” cabinet and scrutiny system.
Brighton & Hove City Council’s minority Green party administration plans a health and wellbeing scrutiny committee and a general scrutiny committee convened as needed. “The committees will be cross party and, as the Greens do not have a majority, they will be more democratic,” a spokeswoman said.
Tony Roberts (Con), leader of Newark and Sherwood DC, said he expected a system to evolve where the policy committee would look at the big picture and direction of the council, while the subject committees would make the month-to-month decisions.
“Scrutiny could sit between that or the policy committee could do the scrutiny itself,” he said.