Dealing with the logistics, and resource constraints
Resource constraints continue to loom large for many CA scrutiny functions. This is a challenge linked to the difficulty in articulating scrutiny’s role, and relates in part to a struggle to prioritise the scrutiny workload.
Every Mayoral Combined Authority looks different. Their duties are different, their staff complement is different, and their governance arrangements are different. While this doesn’t mean that every combined authority has needed to reinvent the wheel in how it organises itself, it has led to some challenges for scrutiny in particular, as the practical realities of conducting scrutiny work have needed to be grappled with without the benefit of comparison or support from elsewhere.
Officer support arrangements
All of the six areas have put in place officer arrangements for scrutiny support – in some areas this involves a dedicated scrutiny officer, all of whose time is devoted to supporting scrutiny members and their work.
In some areas this is complemented by support offered by officers of constituent authorities of the CA. Where such support is made available by constituent authorities – and it is managed equitably – it clearly has the potential to make scrutiny more effective (both in terms of managing resource constraints better, and ensuring that scrutiny at combined authority and local levels are aware of each others’ activity, if not necessarily aligned). This is a strong feature of the two CA scrutiny functions which have been in place for the longest – it is noticeably less apparent elsewhere, although developing. Developing close relationships between combined authority scrutiny and local scrutiny is therefore important, but not at the expense of the independence of either function.
Commitment and composition
From some on the officer side, there is a fear (as yet largely unrealised) that members will make “unrealistic” demands. This fear may yet be realised, if members fail to effectively grapple with their role in the near future.
From all sides, there is a similar concern about members’ ongoing commitment. In all areas, there are some members who are disengaged – for various reasons. Logistical challenges, other commitments and a general disengagement from the work of the combined authority (including, in some instances, a continued antipathy to the idea of a Mayor in the first place) combine to make having a “critical mass” of active scrutiny members a challenge.
Where committees are large (by virtue of the need to ensure that all areas are represented in a way that is politically proportionate) a couple of areas have attempted to engage the bulk of members (and substitutes) by involving them in task and finish groups (which we have mentioned earlier).
Recognising that it is unrealistic that a committee will be able to develop a collegiate sense of purpose if it meets only infrequently, some have started to use technology (Skype and e-mail discussion lists being two principal examples) to make informal dialogue easier between meetings. These tools aside (and there are plenty of other ways, such as WhatsApp, for members to keep in touch) the Chair and members do have a difficult job in directing and participating in the scrutiny process, given the range of other duties they will have at local level.
A couple of areas have attempted to make their scrutiny committees peripatetic, moving around the area on a regular basis (in part to encourage more public attendance). However, in areas where transport connectivity isn’t great, this has led to further attendance problems. On balance it may be that the drawbacks of moving meetings around the area outweigh the benefits.
Quoracy requirements for scrutiny committees also appear to be causing problems in some areas. Concerns were raised about these at the outset – those concerns appear now to be bearing fruit. Some areas are attempting to use substitution to manage this risk – although this does raise parallel concerns about continuity of membership from meeting to meeting. Ensuring that members (and the councils nominating them) fully understand the implications of the quoracy requirements, and that substitution arrangements are robust enough, is vital.
It's been suggested that the agreement of special responsibility allowances (SRAs) for chairs, vice-chairs and ordinary members of scrutiny committees would be a way to acknowledge that the CA scrutiny role places unique demands on councillors. This would be a difficult sell as an allowance for all members (not to mention substitutes) but there are strong arguments in favour of SRAs for Chairs and Vice-Chairs.
Differences in points of view deriving from politics and geography could have loomed larger than they in fact have done. There is a shift in mindset between working at local authority level (where tactical and operational decisions often have an immediate, tangible impact) and working at the combined authority. At the CA, politics and geography combine to make the viewpoints and opinions of individual members unpredictable. Added to this is the dynamic of the Mayor and Chair being from different parties, and the situation (for example, in Tees Valley) where the Mayor is of a different party than the vast majority of the committee. As yet, members seem to have had success in leaving politics and geography at the door – a concerted effort made by Chairs and ordinary members to make this happen.
A word on gender balance
We published earlier in 2017 on the subject of gender balance on combined authority scrutiny committees (http://www.cfps.org.uk/combined-authority-scrutiny-gender-balance/). The position remains pressing. 2018 may provide an opportunity for areas to reflect on their membership and nominations, and to increase the proportion of women being appointed to sit.