Battle lines drawn as councillors challenge “secretive” County Hall, wondering how elected cabinet members can reclaim power from unelected senior officials
31st July 2018
By Graham Smith
There are signs of a new power struggle developing between Cornwall’s elected councillors and their full-time officials at County Hall.
An extraordinary meeting of the council’s Constitution and Governance Committee will today (Tuesday) try to agree a new definition of the powers enjoyed by their £220,000-a-year* chief executive, Kate Kennally.
The council’s “Scheme of Delegation” is an arcane document, little known below County Hall’s fourth floor open-plan office where senior officials plot strategies which are not always in line with those who triumphed at elections.
Today’s meeting is being encouraged to “clarify” the role of the chief executive and limit her powers.
Some councillors also have serious concerns about the council’s multi-million pound Investment Programme, particularly the major house-building ambitions of the Strategic Director for Economic Development, John Betty. The wording of any new protocols designed to guarantee democratic oversight and scrutiny of the Investment Programme is particularly controversial.
Other councillors point to the catastrophic “public consultations” in relation to adult social care, and to the officials’ failure to persuade a sceptical public, and many health professionals, that County Hall’s desire to take over a restructured National Health Service was anything less than benign.
The decision to send a delegation of officers to a champagne-soaked property conference in Cannes, south of France, also drew criticism when it emerged that the council’s cabinet had known nothing about it until it was reported by Cornwall Reports. The Cannes adventure had ignored the existing Scheme of Delegation, as officials do not have the authority to book overseas travel.
Even council leader Adam Paynter is known to have concerns about how much senior officials spend on external consultants without reference to the appropriate cabinet member. Ms Kennally is an enthusiastic supporter of outsourcing and the use of consultants.
Officials are also resisting attempts by some cabinet members to involve them in decisions which are of low financial value, but which have the potential to be contentious politically.
Today’s meeting seeks to make several amendments to the Scheme of Delegation, generally tightening up language and definitions and emphasising the need for consultation and due diligence.
An attempt by officials to expand their power to spend large sums of taxpayers’ money without cabinet approval was blocked last month. They had sought to raise their spending limit from £500,000 to £2 million, but councillors insisted that £1 million was sufficient.
Some officials feel hamstrung by the snail’s-pace of scrutiny committee meetings and warn that commercial opportunities are sometimes lost because of unnecessary delays. Councillors counter this by reminding the officials that the primary function of a local authority is the provision of public services, in accordance with a democratic mandate.
A key part of the revised document, intended to reflect councillors’ concerns that too often they do not know what is happening because information is held tightly by a very small group of officials, says: “That all members of the Council’s Leadership Team be reminded annually by the Chief Executive and/or the Monitoring Officer of the requirements of both the Scheme of Delegation and the Protocol for Member/Officer Relations and that they be asked to cascade that information to their staff.”
Another crucial revision, seeking to “clarify” the powers of Ms Kennally, attempts to limit occasions when she might make executive decisions in place of or on behalf of some of the other senior officials.
While some councillors want her role to be clearly defined, the report to today’s meeting recommends granting her flexibility in how her job should be interpreted. “Officers’ view is that it would be inappropriate to frame those powers, or indeed any other powers, by way of a detailed list of statutory provisions as there will be a need to constantly review and update, for even the most minor statutory changes.”
Council leader Adam Paynter expressed concern about the use of expensive external consultants without prior cabinet member approval – but chief executive Kate Kennally is a big fan of outsourcing. Below, Strategic Director for Economic Development John Betty organised the trip to Cannes. The council’s elected cabinet knew nothing about it.
On the fourth floor, a dwindling number of senior executives grow individually more powerful
Another battleground is the councillors’ enthusiasm for “due diligence” and the view of some senior officers that such process is unnecessarily bureaucratic and timid. The report adds “it is appropriate for officers to be charged with the responsibility for undertaking that due diligence without necessarily having to refer the outcomes to cabinet or council for review and endorsement.
“It is, of course, open to council or cabinet to require matters to be referred back to them once due diligence has been undertaken. However, to establish that as a general principle would result in avoidable delays and use of resources. As members can ask for any matter to be referred back to them no amendment is proposed to the Scheme of Delegation to reflect this as it is considered unnecessary.”
The current Scheme of Delegation allows unelected Strategic Directors far greater powers than any elected cabinet member. But one senior councillor was gloomy about the prospects of today’s meeting resolving any issues.
“It’s a fudge,” he told Cornwall Reports. “Today’s meeting is just going to kick the can down the road. There are some very serious issues about democracy here, and they are not being addressed.
“The officers are completely out of control. We need to bring them to heel. I didn’t fight and win an election just to be told that my opinions and judgements carry no weight.
“Some of these officers are very highly paid. Maybe they think they would do very well in the private sector. I spent a 40-year-career in the private sector and I can tell you that no group of shareholders would ever put up with the secrecy that we have to deal with at County Hall.”