ANALYSIS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Exeter City Council cuts scrutiny of executive decision-making

Constitutional changes proposed by Exeter City Council will make it more difficult to hold the ruling political group to account.

Exeter city council  Democratic deficit  Accountability & transparency 

Exeter City Council’s executive, the group of leading councillors who run the authority’s business, have agreed a package of changes to the current scrutiny arrangements set out in the council’s constitution.

Taken together the changes weaken everyone’s capacity for challenging the executive. They will go for approval to a meeting of the full council next Tuesday 15 October.

Scrutiny committees were introduced as part of legislative reforms to local government which allowed councils to replace the old system of decision-making by committees with “executive arrangements”. First introduced in 2000, the legislative basis is now in a schedule to the Localism Act 2011.

Most councils have since set up executives or cabinets which effectively run the council’s business, with some decisions reserved for approval by the full council.

To counterbalance this centralisation of control, councils are required to establish at least one scrutiny committee of councillors who are not part of the executive to scrutinise the actions of the executive.

An alternative interpretation is that scrutiny committees exist simply to give non-executive councillors something to do.

The key changes now proposed in Exeter relate to the composition and functions of scrutiny committees and to public participation at council committee meetings.

They will also mean the leaders of opposition political groups are no longer entitled to a seat on the executive.

Changes of particular interest to people concerned with openness and accountability follow.

Exeter City Council cuts executive decision-making scrutiny

Changes to scrutiny committees

The current three committees will be reduced to two, one covering “strategic” issues and the other addressing “customer focus”. The allocation of individual services and policies to the committees is not yet fully clear.

There is no specific remit in the new committees’ terms of reference to hold the executive to account, though doing so is not a marked characteristic of the current committees.

The practice of scrutiny committees commenting on officer proposals before they are considered by the executive will cease. This means that councillors on the executive will take decisions based solely on advice from the council’s officers, without any formal input from non-executive councillors in advance.

It also reduces the time available for public scrutiny of proposals because papers will only be published by the council a week before each executive meeting. At present, scrutiny papers are published a week before scrutiny committee meetings, and so are available a fortnight or so before the executive meetings at which decisions are taken.

Both chair and deputy chair of all three scrutiny committees are currently selected from the ruling political group. In future deputy chairs will be elected from opposition parties. While their election at full council gives the ruling political group an effective veto over their appointment, it is not clear whether the ruling group would choose to wield this power.

A new Scrutiny Programme Board will supervise the work of the scrutiny committees and set their priorities. The chairs and deputy chairs of the scrutiny committees will be members of the board, and its chair will be nominated by the leader of the council.

As a board rather than a statutory committee, it is likely that it will meet in private session.

Public participation at council meetings

Members of the public can currently only ask questions at scrutiny committee meetings. In future such questions will be allowed at full council meetings and, provided they relate to agenda items, at executive meetings. However, the same question will not be permitted at more than one meeting.

The changes place other new restrictions on questions. No more than fifteen minutes will be allowed at each meeting for public questions. This is in line with East Devon and Teignbridge district councils, though Mid Devon and Devon County Council allow 30 minutes.

This limit may unreasonably restrict public participation where a single issue of major public concern dominates the agenda. It will also limit questions at meetings with full agendas. The next full council meeting agenda contains seventeen items of business: the new rules would allow less than a minute of questions (and answers) for each.

Questions will also have to observe a 50-word limit. This arguably favours those with a stronger command of English because of the challenge of framing a question precisely enough to avoid an evasive answer.

Questioners will in future be restricted to one question per meeting. They will be able to ask one supplementary question, though the current right to make a two minute statement to the committee appears to have been dropped, and the supplementary question must be based on the response to the original question.

Council leader Phil Bialyk commended the changes, saying the current arrangements dated from a time when the balance of power was more evenly distributed between parties, and that now Labour held 29 of 39 seats the situation had changed.

Neither of the opposition members of the executive, Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative) or Kevin Mitchell (Liberal Democrat), was present but Councillor Bialyk assured the meeting that both were “supportive” of the proposals.

In response to a comment from Green Party councillor Diana Moore, Councillor Bialyk gave an assurance that no one would be disadvantaged by the 50-word question limit, saying that the council secretariat would assist people who were having difficulty complying.

Exeter residents with views on the proposed changes can send them to their ward councillors before the full council meeting on 15 October.

Should the changes be approved at that meeting, they will take effect immediately.

Contact information for councillors is available on the city council website.


 is a contributing editor of Exeter Observer.

Recent stories
University of Exeter full-time academic staff salary distribution 2020-21

University of Exeter lags behind on female pay and employment terms

Student houses in multiple occupation to let in Raleigh Road, Exeter

Information Commissioner to investigate university over student accommodation numbers refusal

Exeter ticket zone map

Stagecoach escapes major sanctions over service failures

University of Exeter Streatham campus picket line

University of Exeter staff strike in largest walkout in sector history

Devon County Council 2022-24 capital transport programme allocations

Motor vehicle infrastructure continues to dominate Devon transport spending

More Analysis
University of Exeter full-time academic staff salary distribution 2020-21

COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

University of Exeter lags behind on female pay and employment terms

HESA figures show poor performance compared with Universities UK members and only incremental changes over past five years, mostly since staff began industrial action over pay, pensions and working conditions.

Exeter ticket zone map

TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

Stagecoach escapes major sanctions over service failures

Traffic commissioner decides four days of free weekend travel in Exeter Plus ticket zone is sufficient penalty for poor performance despite public inquiry hearing severe criticism of company.

Devon County Council 2022-24 capital transport programme allocations

TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

Motor vehicle infrastructure continues to dominate Devon transport spending

New active travel infrastructure to receive just 5% share of capital allocations this year and next, with new roads capital expenditure to increase from 74% to 86%.

All Analysis
News
Student houses in multiple occupation to let in Raleigh Road, Exeter

PLANNING & PLACE

Information Commissioner to investigate university over student accommodation numbers refusal

Compliance failure follows university admission that nearly 39,000 students based at Exeter campuses in 2021-22, suggesting around three quarters of city's private rented housing stock occupied by students.

University of Exeter Streatham campus picket line

COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

University of Exeter staff strike in largest walkout in sector history

Dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions continues as universities generate record income.

Reclaim the Night protest in Bedford Street

COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

Reclaim the Night protest against sexual violence and harassment of women and girls in public space

Exeter event takes place after survey finding that 85% felt unsafe or very unsafe when walking alone in city centre at night, with police figures showing violent and sexual offences exceed 35% of all recorded crime in city.

All News
Comment
Exeter City Council outline draft local plan site allocations crop

PLANNING & PLACE

Will council seek investment zone status for Liveable Exeter sites?

Government growth plans combine tax breaks with planning deregulation, putting affordable housing provision and environmental protections at risk with little evidence that promised investment zone benefits would result.

Extinction Rebellion UK tour bus outside Exeter City Council's Paris Street offices

CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

World car free day ignored in Exeter as Extinction Rebellion challenges council climate inaction

Protestors gathered outside council offices as CEO Karime Hassan posed for photo with construction company development manager at Princesshay promotion.

Exeter City Futures Exeter Development Fund presentation slide

PLANNING & PLACE

Exeter Development Fund: rent extraction, unaffordable housing and gentrification, but not net zero

Exeter City Futures' private debt-driven Liveable Exeter property development financing scheme is under fire from councillors who say it is based on insufficiently-evidenced assumptions and won't meet Exeter's housing needs.

All Comment
On our radar
On our agenda
New Exeter Local Plan

New Exeter local plan

A consultation on the outline draft version of the new Exeter local plan, which will guide development in the city until 2040, is now taking place.

At the same time changes to the national planning system that are on their way could require significant revision to the new plan before it is submitted to the inspectorate.

All topics

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY   AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY   COP26 COP26 COP26   COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19   CITYPOINT CITYPOINT CITYPOINT   CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE   CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS   CO-LIVING CO-LIVING CO-LIVING   CONGESTION CONGESTION CONGESTION   COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX   CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE   CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING   DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT   DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN   DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL   DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND   EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT   EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL   EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL   EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES   EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING   EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE   EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE   EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND   EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION   EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER   EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN   EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX   EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE   EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK   EXETER ST DAVID'S EXETER ST DAVID'S EXETER ST DAVID'S   EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY   EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE   FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION   FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER   GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS   GUILDHALL GUILDHALL GUILDHALL   HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS   HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP   HOUSING CRISIS HOUSING CRISIS HOUSING CRISIS   LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+   LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD   LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER   LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY   LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS   MAKETANK MAKETANK MAKETANK   MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON   MET OFFICE MET OFFICE MET OFFICE   MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER   NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS   OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE   PARIS STREET PARIS STREET PARIS STREET   PARKING PARKING PARKING   PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT   PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY   PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY   PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT   PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION   PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH   PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM   PUBLIC TRANSPORT PUBLIC TRANSPORT PUBLIC TRANSPORT   RAMM RAMM RAMM   REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING   RETROFIT RETROFIT RETROFIT   RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK   ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST   SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET   SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION   SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER   SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY   SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT   ST SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE   ST SIDWELL'S POINT ST SIDWELL'S POINT ST SIDWELL'S POINT   STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST   STUDENT ACCOMMODATION STUDENT ACCOMMODATION STUDENT ACCOMMODATION   TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL   UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER  

More stories