Leeds City Council is not a particularly democratic nor effective organisation, but we try to make the best of it because it is the only one we have.
The council's greatest strength are the people who work for it. They aren't all angels, but many are prepared to go an extra mile to get a good result. Most councillors and council staff still share a concept of public service, and try to keep the system working.
The council's greatest weakness is ignorance. In any large organisation, it is difficult to get the information that people need to the people who need it. When the public see wasted effort (and we can see plenty from the inside) the most likely reason is poor communication between the staff at the centre and the people delivering services on the ground.
The council's greatest opportunity is the possibility of working with the public to build a responsive and caring organisation, fostering local initiatives and delivering services where they are needed, without meddling when they are not.
To do this, we must overcome our greatest threat. This is a rising tide of corporate management, which is arrogant, secretive and unaccountable, prefers form over substance, sees the public as passive clients rather than active partners, and often delivers private benefit instead of public good.
At its best, local government was a formidable force for good, efficiently providing sanitation, clean water, roads, schools, housing, gas, electricity, police and emergency services, recreation, town planning, social services and public transport. Many of these functions have been either nationalised or privatised, for reasons that remain obscure, since the new providers are often less effective than the councils they replaced.
Most of the time, Leeds City Council performs close to the national average. This is hardly surprising because Leeds is the second largest provincial city after Birmingham. Its population of 715404 (1.2% of the UK total of 61 million) comes from a diverse mixture of urban and rural areas. Leeds has more or less its fair share of problems and more or less its fair share of wealth and talent.
At its worst, the council behaves like a little totalitarian state, manipulating the flow of information to its own members and the public in order to achieve some desired outcome. We don't understand who starts or who benefits from these activities, but it will not be Joe Public, that is certain. To defend ourselves against the abuse of power, we know what is really happening. Here is how to find out:
By law, the council must advertise its meetings, admit the public to observe proceedings, and publish its decisions and accounts. Nowadays this information is normally published electronically using the Internet, but it is still possible to get paper copies from the Civic Hall. Unfortunately the public's right to know has been undermined by a long series of "get out clauses" which allow the most important business to be conducted in secret, behind closed doors. Even the elected councillors find it difficult to discover what is going on.
Starting from the Leeds City Council home page http://www.leeds.gov.uk
Click first on "Council and democracy" in the left hand column -
Click second on "Councillors, democracy and elections" in the left hand column -
Click a third time on "Council - minutes, agendas and reports" in the left hand column -
Now you have two options in the middle column: to browse the published papers, or to run a keyword search. To use either option effectively, you must understand how the council is structured and how decisions are taken.
The main policy decisions are made by the Executive Board. Eight portfolio holders who are drawn from the ruling political parties are elected at the council's Annual Meeting each May. Each of these members is responsible for a particular area of council business. The Executive Board is modelled on the cabinet system in Parliament, and often meets privately as a cabinet to decide policy in advance of the public meetings. In addition to the ruling group, three members of the Executive Board are nominated by the main opposition parties. These opposition councillors have no portfolios, and are easily outvoted by the ruling parties, but they are able to see all the Executive Board papers, including ones that are hidden from the other councillors and the public.
Less contentious decisions may be delegated to senior officers, who may in turn delegate them to more junior staff, although the senior officer retains overall responsibility. There are systems for advertising and reporting these delegated decisions, and like the decisions of the Executive Board and the Area Committees (see below), some of the officers' delegated decisions are open to limited challenge by the Scrutiny Boards.
There is a complete list of decisions on the council website, although this can be difficult to find, and a little tricky to use. To locate this page, first navigate from the home page to "Council and democracy" as explained above. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "Decision making" in the middle panel. Scroll down once again, and click "View details of delegated decision" in the middle column, and you should find yourself in the decisions list.
By default, this page displays only the published decisions made in the last 14 days. It is possible to change the dates and the drop-down menus at the top of the page to display either elected members' decisions, or officers' delegated decisions (or both), either published or unpublished (i.e. not yet taken), or falling within various other categories, for any period since May 1999. The server may sometimes "time out" on complex searches, but this may be overcome by breaking the search into smaller sections. You can click on each decision to see the relevant detailed reports.
There are some bugs in this system, and a few decisions have plainly been allocated to the wrong year, but on the whole it is fairly accurate. It lacks a keyword search facility, but you can get this feature as described in "Admission to meetings" above. This system does not include planning decisions, which are described separately below.
Executive decisions are scrutinised by seven Scrutiny Boards, currently Adult Social Care, Central & Corporate, Children's Services, City & Regional Partnerships, City Development, Environment & Neighbourhoods, and Health. These boards are also elected at the Annual Meeting and reflect the overall political composition of the council. Scrutiny Boards contain more opposition councillors than the Executive Board, so the ruling parties may have only a small majority, or possibly no majority at all. They have limited powers to delay Executive decisions, and may also suggest amendments to the Executive Board. In addition they review the effectiveness of previous Executive decisions, conduct inquiries and publish reports. Scrutiny board members can see all the confidential papers that relate to their area of business, but they cannot see confidential papers outside their remit. This can make it difficult to pursue "cross cutting" issues in an effective fashion.
There is a procedure whereby contentious decisions by members and officers can be challenged and "called in" for review by the appropriate Scrutiny Board. The board may release the decision for implementation, or refer it back to the Executive for reconsideration. The call-in procedure must be invoked within 5 working days of the original decision being published. Five signatories are required when the objectors are all from one political party, but two are sufficient when more than one party is involved. There are very few examples where the call-in procedure has been used succesfully: the dice are massively loaded in favour of the Executive, so that obviously flawed decsions that ultimately end in disaster will nevertheless survive the call-in procedure completely unscathed.
Decisions on individual planning applications are taken by the Plans Panels, currently City Centre, East and West which are also elected at the Annual Meeting. Each panel is responsible for a particular area of the city. Plans Panels are "quasi judicial" bodies where there is no party whip. Their decisions are legally binding (subject to external appeal procedures) and cannot be called in. Most of their members are normally drawn from the areas that they administer, but this does not have to be the case. Planning decisions are increasingly delegated to officers, leaving the elected members with a progressively smaller role.
Planning decisions are stored separately from other council decisions, and are most easily accessed by clicking the Quick link to "Planning Applications" at the right hand side of the council home page. There is a detailed explanation on the first page, but to actually search for planning applications and consents you must click one of the options on the Public Access site.
The council provides the public with some very basic search facilities, by application number, street address or map. These are a pale shadow of the search facilities available internally through the CAPS system to officers working within the Planning Department. Users should also be aware that the public system does not necessarily find all the "hits". It is far from clear why the public should receive a markedly inferior service to the council's own staff. There is nothing secret about the Planning Register. It is one of the documents that the council is legally obliged to publish.
In addition to the Area Plans Panels there is a Development Plan Panel generally composed of more experienced councillors. This panel drafts the future development plans for Leeds, which are ultimately endorsed by the Full Council. The council does not take many decisions. Most of the real power lies with the council's senior officers and the Executive Board.
Local decisions affecting a restricted area may be taken by one of the Local Area Committees. Kirkstall ward is in the North West Inner Area, which also includes Headingley, Hyde Park & Woodhouse, and Weetwood wards. The twelve councillors representing these four wards make up the area committee. Area committees have only small budgets and limited powers, but they can and do hold the central departments to account. They have major effects on policies and services for the people they represent.
Each area committee meeting includes an "open forum" where any member of the public can raise matters of local concern. This is among the quickest ways to get a local issue discussed. North West Inner Area Committee also encourages members of the audience to take part in debates, although this is not the universal practice across the city. If a vote is necessary then only the 12 elected members can take part, but there is often a local consensus about what should be done.
Many councillors feel that the reform of Local Government in 2002 was a terrible mistake and that the "modernised" system is far worse than the one it replaced. Nevertheless, the area committees are seen as one bright spark in an otherwise dismal picture. Other agencies such as the Emergency Services and the Police may attend and report to area meetings, and this is one of the few occasions when the public can get all these different bodies together in one room and hold them all to account.
North West Inner Area Committee meets on a rotating basis in each of its four constituent wards. Anybody who attends the meetings and signs the register will be added to a mailing list and automatically notified of the dates and locations for future meetings. Otherwise people can discover future meeting details from the council website. All these meetings start at 7pm. The next two meetings will be on 5th February 2009 at Hawksworth Wood Primary School, Cragside Walk, Leeds 5, and on 2nd April (venue to be confirmed).
North West Inner Area Committee also promotes local forums in each of the constituent wards, and nominates various sub-committees and working groups which consider Planning, Transport, Youth Work, Shared Housing and Student issues. All these meetings are theoretically open to the public, providing they can discover where they are taking place! The simplest way to keep abreast of these is to telephone the Area Manager's Office on 3950966 and ask to be added to the relevant mailing lists. The next meeting of the Kirkstall - Burley forum has been fixed for 7pm on 17 February 2009, at Queenswood Social Club, Queenswood Drive, Leeds 6.
This legislation applies to central government departments and to a wide range of other public bodies, including Leeds City Council. Any member of the public can submit a written request for information (email or paper) and providing the request is clear and not too onerous, they must be told whether or not the information exists, and if does exist then they are entitled to receive a copy. The public body must normally respond within 20 working days, and is under an obligation to assist the public in formulating their questions in the most effective manner.
There are 23 exemptions listed in Part II the Act. This is where difficulties are most likely to arise, and there is free advice available to assist the public. The full text of the act can be downloaded from the OPSI website. Further advice can be downloaded from the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) and from the Ministry of Justice website.
In the 1980's Leeds City Council won national awards for its policies on open government, but it has become increasingly secretive, and apparently seeks to frustrate or evade the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. A common technique in Leeds, especially when a question precisely hits the target, is to make no response whatsoever. In theory members of the public can appeal to the Information Commissioner, but in practice there is around a 6 month backlog before ICO can consider the matter. The council may calculate that it can afford to delay for this period, conceding only at the last possible moment, by which time the information may be worthless.
Here is some advice that will maximise your chance of extracting useful information from Leeds City Council.
Keep the individual questions very simple. You can always ask several separate questions about complex issues.
Make sure that your questions can be answered by disclosing existing information, without additional research.
Do not give a reason for your inquiry, and avoid being drawn into any arguments about its merits.
Remind the council as the time limit approaches, but do not amend your request or it will reset the clock.
Keep your temper, no matter how absurd the official response. Do not allow the council to wind you up.
If your initial request is refused, note the reason and immediately seek an "independent" Internal Review.
You cannot appeal to ICO until this Internal Review is complete, unless the council delays unreasonably.
Do not accept verbal responses. These must all be in writing, and ICO may ask to see copies.
Make sure that ICO has properly registered your appeal, and you have a reference number.
The greatest weakness of the FoI Act is the "public interest test". Requests for information will probably be referred to senior officers responsible for council policy in the relevant area. The questions may involve activities that have not gone according to plan, where officers may feel pressure to conceal mistakes under one of the 23 exemptions to the Act. These same officers must also decide whether or not it would be in the public interest to disclose the embarrassing information. This seems to require an almost superhuman degree of objectivity, which is unlikely to be achieved in practice. It costs nothing (except delay) to challenge these decisions through ICO. A more effective challenge might involve the courts, but few people have the means to exploit this route.
Last updated 26 January 2009 at 00:55. Back to the top
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