The Role of Cambridge City Council Executive Councillors

Saturday, September 19th, 2015. 8:59am

Cambridge City Council Executive Councillor for Finance and Resources George Owers chatting on the fringes of a full council meeting - sitting in chairs behind the other councillors.

Cambridge City Council Executive Councillor for Finance and Resources George Owers chatting on the fringes of a full council meeting, waking in and out, ignoring debate on council investment. April 2015.

The leader of Cambridge City Council, Labour’s Lewis Herbert, has offered to speak to me about the role of “Executive Councillors” in Cambridge. I am writing this article in advance of our discussion; after we’ve spoken I will provide an update below.

Role of Executive Councillors

Each of the seven councillors who are members of the Cambridge City Council executive are responsible for an area of the council’s operations.


Where decisions are not urgent they are considered, before they are made, at scrutiny committees. The executive councillor’s role at such committees is to listen to the discussion and recommendation of the committee and at the end state if they agree with the committee or not. Invariably their contribution is to state merely: “I do”.

Answering Questions

Another public role of executive councillors is to answer questions from the public, and other councillors, on their areas of responsibility at full council meetings. Often executive councillors pass on questions to their officers and read out an officer response without making clear what their views on the matter are.

Budget Setting

When setting the council’s annual budget, and considering the annual statement of what the council will do the executive councillors take the lead in their areas and support the council leader during the debate.

Meetings of the Executive

According to information published by Cambridge City Council the executive councillors meet as a body just once a year.

Quotes in News Releases

Officers include quotes attributed to executive councillors when drafting council news releases. For details see Section A of Appendix F to Part 4A of the Cambridge City Council Constitution.


Cambridge City Council offers its executive councillors a £8,346 bonus allowance on top of the £3,199 allowance offered to every councillor. The deputy leader of the council, executive councillor for the City Centre and Public Places Cllr Carina O’Reilly has complained the public money she takes home from the council doesn’t cover her rent.


Sometimes suggestions emerge that executive councillors are doing other things outside of public meetings of the council. These are the areas about which I would like to find out more, and in respect of which I would like to see greater transparency:

My View

I don’t want councillors spending many hours and days in private meetings. I want councillors setting strategy, taking decisions and overseeing the council in public.

I don’t want councillors working in the council sitting next to officers and directing them on a day to day basis especially when that then leads to councillors wanting to be paid public money for doing a job.

One comment/update on “The Role of Cambridge City Council Executive Councillors

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve just spent around forty-five minutes speaking to the council leader Lewis Herbert about the role of executive councillors in Cambridge City Council.

    Key points

    • Cllr Herbert said there are no routine, regular, meetings of the Cambridge City Council executive; there really is just the one meeting per year which is publicised on the council website. There are though monthly meetings of executive councillors and the senior leadership team (Directors and Chief Executive) at the council, after which the executive councillors have a brief, informal, “wrap-up”.
    • Labour’s proposed council leader, executive councillors, and representatives on other bodies are elected at a meeting of Labour group councillors held after Cambridge City Council elections.
    • There is still a lack of clarity over who writes, and is responsible for, the content of, reports to scrutiny committees. Cllr Herbert said they are 95% the work of officers but executive councillors will have indicated their agreement to, and may have amended, recommendations before they appear in the report.

    Cambridge City Council’s Decision Making System

    Cllr Herbert wanted to start by talking about the decision making system used by Cambridge City Council and why it’s better than that used elsewhere. Cllr Herbert said the system was cleverly put together by Liberal Democrat David Howarth in the early 2000s; and it tries to take the best elements from both a “committee based” and “cabinet led” council. The current arrangements were the local Liberal Democrat’s response to constraints imposed by national government.

    Example of important benefits of Cambridge City Council’s system, which can be summarised as committee system but with executive councillors, were listed:

    • giving all councillors a role (rather than focusing too much power in executive councillors and creating two tiers of councillor)
    • enabling public input.
    • getting as many decisions as possible made in public

    Scrutiny by a committee of councillors before, rather than after, a decision is also an important element of the system. Cllr Herbert said that urgent decisions, which are not subject to pre-scrutiny, are rare and that all significant decisions were made in public.

    Cllr Herbert said: “pre-scrutiny rocks” adding that his choice of words might make him: “appear more trendy than I actually am”.

    After extolling the benefits of committees Cllr Herbert said executive councillors had factors in their favour too; primarily the identification of a clear “go-to” person for the public able to take the lead in a certain area. The executive councillor position means someone is clearly responsible and accountable for an area of the council’s operations. Cllr Herbert said a committee system alone diffuses authority and accountability.
    Cllr Herbert mentioned he had served on the Greater London Council in the 1980s when it was run under a committee system so has direct experience of other ways of operating. Other councils in the region operate different systems and Cambridgeshire County Council has recently moved from the “strong leader” and cabinet member model to a committee system.

    Role of Councillors

    Executive councillors can pick up issues raised by the public and councillors and get things addressed said Cllr Herbert but while stressing the importance of delegation and devolution and urging the use of the quickest route – contacting officers where appropriate.

    Cllr Herbert said he gets 150-200 emails per day as council leader.

    Huge confusion created by different councils having responsibility for different things in Cambridge was raised as a problem by Cllr Herbert who said ward councillors often find themselves operating a “message centre” pointing people to the right place.

    Cllr Herbert said the most important role of councillors is to make good decisions.

    Executive Councillors’ Monthly Meeting with Senior Leadership Team

    When discussing the monthly meeting of the executive councillors with the senior leadership team at the council Cllr Herbert described the arrangement as “normal and common”. He said that officers provide papers for discussion at the meeting and the meeting considers a wider range of options than those which are eventually put to councillors at scrutiny committees. Cllr Herbert said the meetings with the senior leadership team were used to “thrash out options”.

    The lack of a regular executive meeting reflected real devolution to executive councillors said Cllr Herbert; though he claimed a power of over-ride as leader.

    Executive Councillors and Their Departments

    Cllr Herbert said that executive councillors will have one to one meetings with their directors but executive councillors do not have offices within their departments and do not look over the shoulders of their officers. Officers are paid good salaries and are largely left to get on with their jobs he added. Cllr Herbert explained that executive councillors can, working with officers, forensically analyse what is going on, and obtain information they can then use as a basis for proposals for improvements.

    Labour Party Group Meetings

    On Labour party group meetings, meetings of Labour councillors Cllr Herbert noted that decisions facing local councils are rarely party political decisions on which the party nationally has a policy so they have to decide their own views locally. Group meetings are also somewhere executive councillors and the leader are held to account.

    Report Authorship

    On who is responsible for reports and recommendations to scrutiny committees Cllr Herbert said “the executive report is from the executive councillor”.

    I think this is still unclear. For example a report on a new fencing policy for council houses is going to a committee next week. That is headed as being “to” the executive councillor and “from” an officer.

    I asked Cllr Herbert more about this and he said, it’s important not to put 10-15 options to a committee, and to make a clear, reasoned, recommendation to target the work of councillors and make their workload manageable. I fully agree. Cllr Herbert said that officers do 95% of the work [on reports making recommendations to executive councillors via scrutiny committees]. Cllr Herbert said that before a recommendation makes it to the committee papers it will have already been ratified and amended by the executive councillor.

    I think greater clarity, transparency, is needed over the role of executive councillors in the drafting officers’ reports.

    Carina O’Reilly’s Rent and Allowances

    On the subject of Carina O’Reilly saying that her allowance as executive councillor didn’t cover her rent Cllr Herbert said she had been merely commenting, not complaining.

    Cllr Herbert said allowances are required to get quality councillors and he claimed to know of people who don’t stand for election as the allowances are low.

    Cllr Herbert said nationally the average age of councillors has risen to 59 and the majority are retired; he said there was in particular a lack of middle aged women and he’d like to attract more people in that demographic to serve in Cambridge.

    Cllr Herbert said the prevalence of more younger councillors on Cambridge City Council than there are on average nationally reflected the city’s demographics.

    Cllr Herbert said he wasn’t complaining at all, and he’d made his choice, but he noted he’d previously had a well paying job which he now couldn’t do as he is spending time being the council leader.

    Elections With Labour Group

    When explaining how Labour’s proposed council leader, executive councillors, and representatives on other bodies are selected at a meeting of Labour group councillors held after an election Lewis Herbert said the elections are carried out via a secret ballot using a single transferable vote. Such elections take place every three out of four years – in line with when elections to Cambridge City Council are held.

    Cllr Herbert said he thought all party groups (from all parties across the country) operated in the same way.


    Asked about councillors voting along party lines Cllr Herbert said that councillors were expected to vote with the party and to indicate if they were unhappy.

    Councillors on a committee, or an area committee, usually decide among themselves what stance to take. In respect of committees Cllr Herbert said that sometimes the decision on which way to vote would be taken at the meeting.

    My view is that if councillors are not deciding which way to vote for themselves, after taking part in the debate, at council meetings then there’s no point in holding the expensive charade of the public debates. By voting for political parties people are deciding to allow crucial debates to be made behind closed doors in party group meetings rather than in public at council meetings.

    Questions to Executive Councillors

    On questions to the executive from councillors at full council, Cllr Herbert urged the use of written questions when appropriate eg. to ask for statistics. [One problem with written questions though is the lack of any ability to ask a follow up question - perhaps if the option of an oral follow-up was introduced the popularity of written questions would increase].

    Cllr Herbert noted that executive councillors answer questions at committees too and that every councillor has the right to get a matter considered by a committee.

    My Thoughts

    The main thought I’m left with is if the “senior leadership team” meetings ought be held in public and if their papers ought be published. They appear to essentially be meetings of the executive where, as with other committees, officers are invited to contribute.

    It would be interesting to know who chairs the meetings; if the council leader or the chief executive.


    Following the discussion I’ve got two suggestions:

    • Allow oral follow-ups to responses to written questions at full council. (Written responses are currently distributed on paper at the meeting and online afterwards, pre-publication would be required to make best use of a follow-up). This would enable councillors to more easily hold the executive to account based on the basis of more detailed information including statistics.
    • Make clear what role executive councillors have had in producing a committee report headed as being from an officer to the executive councillor.

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