Something is wrong with scrutiny at Bristol City Council.
Guidance issued in May 2019 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government described scrutiny within local government as “fundamentally important” to the successful functioning of local democracy and delivery of public services.
Effective scrutiny, the guidance asserts, is even more important in local authorities with a directly elected mayor, where particular attention should be given to: rights of access to documents by the press, public and councillors; transparent and fully recorded decision-making processes, especially avoiding decisions by ‘unofficial’ committees or working groups, and; powers to question and review, including the legal requirement for the mayor, members of the executive and officers to attend overview and scrutiny committee sessions when asked to do so.
Bristol’s constitution does contain the building blocks for effective scrutiny.
There are currently four scrutiny commissions – Growth and Regeneration (G&R), Resources, Communities, and People – plus an Overview and Scrutiny Management Board (OSMB) responsible for overseeing council business and managing the Scrutiny Work Programme.
Responsibilities of the various scrutiny commissions include: analysing policy documents; scrutinising decisions; reviewing the council’s performance against policy objectives and targets; producing reports and recommendations; questioning the Mayor, cabinet members or senior officers, and; exercising the right to call-in, for reconsideration, decisions made but not yet implemented by the executive.
Citizens can, and arguably should, contribute to the scrutiny process.
Bristol’s constitution states citizens have the right to: attend meetings of the full council, executive and its committees (except where confidential or exempt information is likely to be disclosed); find out which key decisions will be taken and when; see reports, background papers and records of decisions made (except confidential or exempt information), and; inspect the council’s accounts.
As well as accessing information, citizens have the right to ask questions, submit statements and present petitions.
So far, so good. But, in practice, is effective scrutiny being supported or undermined?
In August 2018, Marvin Rees was accused of holding the scrutiny process in contempt when members of OSMB said they were not given enough time to read 842 pages of papers for their meeting. Adding insult to injury, the Mayor cancelled his attendance at the relevant OSMB meeting to prepare for a full council meeting later that day.
Relationships continue to be strained.
In November 2019 the Chair of OSMB complained about the process surrounding scrutiny of Bristol’s clean air proposals. Delays in publishing papers meant members had only three days to examine more than 1,000 pages of reports. The delay also undermined public engagement, despite considerable interest in the topic.
Further concerns were raised about exempt papers which should be discussed and agreed in advance. The chair, who had received a telephone call on publication day informing him there were exempt papers despite his not having had time to assess them, argued “the established process is an important check and balance to prevent abuse of the exempt status and members would like assurances that this breach will not be repeated”.
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Lack of commitment to scrutiny may be infectious.
In October 2019 the chair of G&R Scrutiny Commission questioned whether scrutiny was being marginalised after six members and an invited cabinet member failed to attend a meeting.
A month later, members of the People Scrutiny Commission agreed to submit a formal complaint after senior education officials and an invited cabinet member were absent, leaving junior officials struggling to respond to questions.
In response the mayor has criticised “efforts to throw mud and create fake debates”. But is it a fake debate?
The new year has not started well as far as scrutiny is concerned. The agenda for January‘s meeting of the G&R Scrutiny Commission includes the Temple Island Regeneration Approach – a topic of interest since the cancellation of Bristol’s city-centre arena – but, again, the relevant report has not been published in time to meet the council’s own deadlines.
Under the circumstances it seems important to repeat the functions of scrutiny for local democracy: rights of access to documents by the press, public and councillors; transparent and fully recorded decision-making processes, and; the powers to question and review.
Suzanne Audrey is a Bristol resident with an interest in local democracy.
Main photo by Ellie Pipe