Returning to the Back Benches

Councillor David Smith

After eleven years as leader of Lichfield District Council it was with some feelings of uncertainty that I embarked on my role as a back bencher.  As Leader I had reluctantly been obliged to introduce the system of cabinet with overview and scrutiny panels and I still hold the view that this system moves members from community activists to being disenfranchised observers.

It is therefore interesting to see that as part of the Localism Act councils are now starting changes to new forms of delivery that, far from going back to the old slow and cumbersome committee system, are developing new approaches based on cabinet committees.

I understand that Kent County Council are amongst the trail blazers out of the large authorities but I am told talking to the leader of Tandridge District Council, which was not required to change to the cabinet system, that they have themselves developed a highly successful Leader and committee system that I would commend, certainly to districts.

It may be said that idle hands are a source for trouble but with the massive talent that we have amongst our councillors they are surely wasted in overviewing the decisions of others. It can also be said that councillors are probably closest to the ground roots of our communities and in their new changed role from community representative to community leader they can now respond to that challenge.

The Localism Act has essentially changed the way we do business.  Councils like to be told what to do by national Government so that it gives them something to push against.  By removing these constraints members can look again at what drove them to become councillors and how they wish to develop their changed role. Developing the LDF in many councils is going to present a major challenge that will push the back bench leadership role to its limits. The balance between the “needs analysis” of what a council will need to deliver and the “not in my back yard” situation will cause significant stresses.

All councillors must also come to terms with the need to actively participate in the planning system, no one will be able to say  “I don’t do planning.”  The need for all members to fully understand and be involved in early planning discussions on major applications is new territory for both members and  officers and in some cases opens the door of the planning department to what has been seen in the past as a forbidden area.

Indeed in some councils (not Lichfield) I was amazed to discover that planning officers were barred from speaking to members about applications.  I am sure the Localism Act will develop a new openness that will bring about a refreshing change to many areas within our councils.

Since giving up my role as Leader I have completely refreshed the relationship I have with my electorate.    My rolling case load of around eight has not changed but I now am able to spend more time in the local community.

The Localism Act gave me the opportunity to work with residents to prepare a 10 year strategy for the village I represent and on the advice of Greg Clark we submitted it for Government funding.  No one was more surprised than me to find we have been granted £20,000 to progress the plan.

Back in June of last year we developed a wish list for our community that developed into ten challenges and from this a group of 17 residents came together to develop the plan.

In November we submitted our plan to CLG as a front runner and also took it to our second village meeting.  I don’t know whether it’s just village communities or if we are something special, but each of our public meetings have packed the village hall with over 100 residents and with a total of 1,200 electorate we consider that there is a mandate for us to follow.

Amongst the nationwide applications for funding I am not sure that many came from community led groups, but I would commend any member to look at what they can achieve by a strategy that involves the entire community.  Surprisingly, for a village that sits in a vulnerable Green Belt location where no new development is proposed, the plan recognises the need to address the requirement for affordable homes and some sheltered accommodation.  Transport, highways, a new tree lined Jubilee Walk, a low carbon plan and a wish to find sites for 1,200 trees are all part of the challenges.

So my advice to members is to look at your new role, role up your sleeves and get stuck in.  It’s great fun and very rewarding.

Cllr David Smith is the former Leader of Lichfield District Council and plays an active and influential role in Local Government policy making and implementation at a national level.  David is the Chairman of the Local Government Research Partnership and has sat on the Local Government Association Environment and Housing Board.  In addition, he has joined the practitioner board of INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham.