In that time each committee has met eight times, and by November 2012 the five committees had spent just £2,276.40 of their budget of £240,000. They had committed to spend a further £28,868.60.
Meanwhile the committee chairmen have trousered £3,745 each per year – a total of £18,725 a year!
The council maintains that Area Committees should not be judged merely by their largesse, but instead should be considered for the impact they have had on the community they serve.
This has varied widely between the five Area Committees, and it is clear that when there is a large local issue there will be a much better turnout.
A council report for the overview and scrutiny committee claims that on average 24 people have attended each meeting, but some meetings – such as one held by South West Area Committee to consider Wind Turbines – have had significantly higher numbers, over 100 members of the public in that case.
One concern raised was the lack of involvement with these meetings by outside bodies. In several areas the police only attend for their segment, and there is concern about the lack of involvement by Suffolk County Council. Although several county councillors do attend, usually in an informal or twin hatted capacity, the council report says “There is a concern that partnership support will ‘not helped by the current economic climate, which is typified by retrenchment and withdrawal.’”
However Suffolk County Council were much more involved with the Area Forums, which were unceremoniously dumped by the incoming Labour administration, with no consultation, back in 2011. It may be that the organisation feels once bitten, twice shy.
On a more positive note, it appears as though consideration will be given for more delegated powers to be given to the Area Committees. So far they have considered reports on Dog & Litter bins and traffic regulation orders. A recognition that “powers need to be devolved to maintain the development of the Area Committee as a decision-making body and to increase the functions available for the public to get involved”, is to be welcomed.
One small criticism could be levelled at the report going to scrutiny, and to be fair this is acknowledged in the report. Councillors and officers were consulted on how they feel Area Committees were achieving their aims and objectives. But there was no consultation done with members of the public who actually attend the meetings – let alone any attempt to determine why those who don’t attend feel that it isn’t for them.
The most telling comment has to be this, from an unnamed consultee: “I think area committees are absorbing more effort than envisaged, both in terms of supporting them and their activities. For me this highlights a need to redirect resources to them. I am not sure anyone – councillors or staff – fully appreciated the implications of a move to more area-based decision making. For this to be truly effective the council will have to become more area focussed in much of what it does.”