Memorandum by the Local Government Information
Unit (LAG 20)
Generally, local government has taken a positive
and innovative approach to the introduction of new structures.
There is, quite rightly, considerable diversity in the approaches
different councils are taking.
Local government has shown its considerable
capacity for innovation in developing new structures in advance
of the Act. Over the last two years a large number of councils
have moved to new structures with a clear executive or cabinet.
However these are not full pilots, as they had to be carried out
within a framework of the existing legislation.
The Select Committee request for evidence comes
at a time when no councils in England or Wales have yet introduced
the new constitutions under the Local Government 2000 Act.
There are significant differences between what
these interim arrangements have been able to do and what will
be possible under the new legislation. The new constitutions could
The decisions of the executive (probably
single party) will not have to be ratified by the Council or another
The decisions of an elected mayor
or individual executive members taking decisions under delegated
powers will not have to be ratified by others. Individual decision-making
by politicians, which does not happen formally at present, could
New structures such as a separately
elected mayor, with or without a council manager, will be allowed.
Petitions and referenda could introduce
structures which are not chosen by the council.
These and other factors mean that the hybrid
cabinet arrangements so far have not explored many of the implications
of the Act, useful and welcome as their experience has been.
However, in the period before the Act came in,
there have been experiments with cabinets, individual portfolios
(without individual decision-making), staff support for cabinets,
the inter-relation of executive and area based structures, new
forms of policy development and scrutiny.
The Select Committee asks whether these new
arrangements will contribute towards efficiency, transparency,
It is very early to answer these questions.
Most councils appear to be implementing new structures successfully.
However there are some issues to keep under review.
There is a danger of having an inappropriate
model of "efficiency" in decision-making which simply
consists of individuals or a small-unified group acting rapidly.
Decision making under the new structures will not be efficient
there are failures of co-ordination
there is continual "stop-go"
and conflict, for example extensice use of call-in;
decisions once announced are strongly
opposed by those they affect;
the decisions in themselves are poor
and not based on the best available information and professional
if most councillors feel marginalized
from the council's work.
The new structures also depend on most councillors
playing an active role in holding the executive to account. Strong
single party dominance of the council may restrict this accountability.
Although, as we discuss below, scrutiny is developing well, in
some councils party politics may restrict this. However, the Act
probably reaches the limits of what legislation can do to affect
the complex interrelationship of formal political structures,
informal decision-making, and the role of party politics.
We have concerns about accountability in relation
to the many hybrid structures which now exist to deliver council
services, such as partnership boards, contracted out services,
and local authority companies such as housing companies. These
forms are being encouraged but their relation to executive decision-making
and to scrutiny need to be considered.
There is a need to give greater attention to
the very great scope for individual decision-making, by an elected
mayor, a council manager, individual cabinet members or senior
staff. This is something new introduced by the legislation. In
addition, the new structures feature one executive group taking
all the decisions previously taken by a large number of committees.
The sheer weight of decision-making will encourage greater delegation
by the executive. Councils need to be careful how this is done.
Delegation to individuals may be less visible
and accessible to the community, for example community groups
who have been used to attending meetings. Individual decision-making
may result in less joined-up decision-making across the council.
There is a need for tight regulation of the rights of individual
executive members to enter into contracts, partnerships and so
on. This has been emphasised in evidence to the recent review
of Local Government. Commissioning and Procurement.
The issue of openness and access to information
has been of concern to LGIU, and we were pleased to see the government's
response in amending the Bill. We believe there are still some
problems with the regulations on this issue. We believe the (English)
regulations and guidance should be reviewed after a year of operation,
to see in particular how the definition of "key decisions",
and the forward plan are working. It is vital that this debate
focuses more on securing openness for individual decision-making,
and not just decisions at meetings.
The English regulations also seek to prevent
key decisions from being discussed in private even when a decision
is not to be made. We believe this overcomplicates the operation
of executives. Whilst supporting the benefits of openness, we
do not think it is realistic to try and use legislation to regulate
the quality of public discussion. We have advocated public decision-making,
and with prior notice of issues to be considered. It is not realistic
or enforceable to try and prevent private discussion.
It is important in the design of new structures
to envisage them working as a whole. Separation of roles and checks
and balances must be considered together. Ministers have not helped
by continual emphasis on leadership/executive roles. The impression
which has been given is that what matters is the executive. Other
structures are presented, unhelpfully, as a way of finding things
for other councillors to do. Non-executive councillors have been
concerned about marginalisation, and offended by the claim that
community involvement and casework will be new roles, when they
have been longstanding.
However, there are increasingly interesting
developments of the scrutiny role, discussed below. Greater attention
needs to be given by many councils to how non-executive councillors
contribute to policy development; to how the council supports
the representative role; and to the role of the full council.
The role of area committees in the new structures
needs attention. An increased number of councils are setting up
area structures. These could have executive and non-executive
functions. This could be a positive development, although the
delegation will need to be cery clear. It could be difficult for
members of the public to understand what an area body can decide,
and what the cabinet or mayor can decide. How area based structures
relate to partnership structures such as the new neighbourhood
renewal proposals needs more attention. The DETR has recently
described these multi-agency neighbourhood boards as providing
a new role for non-executive councillors. Careful thought needs
to be given to executive and non-executive roles (given that decisions
about service implementation will be needed) and to the relationship
of council and partnership structures representing the same areas.
One of the components of the new structures,
which have perhaps received less attention, is the changed role
of the full council. There is a need to develop new ways of operating
as a full council, including informal deliberation by all councillors,
and new forms of policy development.
Member support is vital to the success of structures.
If all the attention is given to the executive, then structures
will not be effective.
In many councils, staff are focussing on support
for the executive. It is important that all member roles are supported.
There are a variety of different structures developing, such as
scrutiny teams; specific chief officers or senior managers being
given an additional role as a "champion" of scrutiny,
specific cabinet support, and so on. The scrutiny and executive
split may cause some pressures regardless of staffing structures,
as detailed research and information will need to come from the
department under scrutiny. Good practice in this area includes:
protocols, clear staffing, organisational ethos, scrutiny having
access to specific staff, budgets, and independent advice.
Some scrutiny work draws on the parliamentary
select committee model, and this may be an area where the Committee
could offer its own advice.
Attention needs to be given to staff consultation
and to how industrial relations are managed within the new structures.
New structures will need to ensure the council maintains a role
as a good and consistent employer. The executive arrangements
will need to oversee the council's role as an employer including
negotiation and consultation with employees. Employees have a
positive role to play in service development and delivery. Decision-making
and scrutiny should take account of that. A paper on this is attached
as background evidence.
Many councils have run active and imaginative
consultation on the new structures, and on democratic renewal
more generally. However, it has proved difficult to interest a
wide section of the public in these issues.
Poor electoral turnout is a serious problem.
It is not clear new structures will have a significant impact.
We believe a wider programme of change is needed, and this might
be a useful subject for the Select Committee to investigate on
another occasion. Factors include weakening of local government
powers and responsibilities; voting systems; public cynicism about
politics; declining local media; declining local political activity,
and increased targeting of political campaigns on "marginal"
areas; dominance of national over local issues in party campaigns
and media coverage. Councils have taken part in pilots of new
approaches to voting and campaigns to increase turnout. Other
factors are not within their control. This is not simply a local
government problem as low turnout in parliamentary by-elections
and European elections shows.
Scrutiny bodies are showing increasingly positive
developments in many councils. The different activities within
the heading of "scrutiny" all need attention.
"Call in" of executive
decisions will be changed by the new constitutions not requiring
executive decisions to be ratified by any other body.
Subject based reviews are a positive
development, allowing members to investigate issues in depth,
hear evidence, involve community organisations and expert advisers,
review local issues which go wider than the council's responsibilities
and respond to urgent issues.
Policy development by scrutiny bodies
is an area which needs development.
It is important that "scrutiny" develop
links with best value reviews, other performance management including
value for money audits and review, external inspection, to ensure
a co-ordinated approach.
It is vital that scrutiny bodies have powers
to call to account any body that is providing services for or
with the council, such as contractors and externalised services
such as partnerships and care trusts. Examples exist at present
of contractors refusing to attend scrutiny bodies.
Scrutiny of external bodies is being developed,
and the new Health and Social Care Bill includes a specific health
scrutiny role. It is vital that there are sufficient powers to
get information and access, and for scrutiny recommendations to
have impact. We attach as a background paper some more detailed
comments on the proposed scrutiny role in relation to health.
We must recognise the limits of council scrutiny in tackling the
problems of fragmentation and democratic deficit created by the
growth of quangos and externalisation.
Implementation of scrutiny recommendations needs
further attention. Scrutiny will fail if it cannot be shown to
have an impact. Executives and other bodies subject to scrutiny
need to understand and respond to the role. Scrutiny could fail
if it is either too adversarial or too passive.
Political parties will play a vital role in
the success or failure of scrutiny.
Separate Guidance has been issued for England
and Wales, although the Welsh Guidance is not yet finalised. It
has been useful to be able to comment on draft versions of the
guidance. At the implementation stage, it is understandable that
councils are seeking advice on many issues. However, it is important
for statutory guidance to be kept to a minimum, to maintain local
choice and diversity.
So far only a limited number of authorities
have expressed clear intention to hold a referendum for a directly
elected mayor. This may change, but this will probably depend
in part on the experience of the "early adopters", for
example, level of turnout and result in referendum, party selection
issues, the emergence or not of non-party candidates, the interest
of local media, the apparent effectiveness of mayors, and so on.
Although in a few localities, community petitions
have started; it is also too soon to say how widespread this will
The advantages of having a directly elected
mayor could include:
A clearer separation of the executive
and non-executive roles, which could lead to more vigorous scrutiny.
An individual leadership figure,
who could have a higher profile.
This more prominent role could encourage
a wider range of high calibre candidates.
The public and media may prefer having
a clear leadership figure, and this could make the decision-making
process clearer to the public.
This may encourage non-party candidates,
standing on more purely local issues, for which many of the public
More high profile leadership figures
from local government on the national stage, who might lobby on
behalf of local government politically, and lead to greater interest
in local government in the national media.
The disadvantages could include:
Given the wide responsibilities of
local government, a mayor could be overstretched, or could focus
too much on limited areas of personal interest, compared to a
more collective leadership.
A wider leadership group, such as
a cabinet, would draw on a wider range of skills and interests
(a mayor could establish a strong cabinet, but is not required
to do so).
One person leadership cannot reflect
diversity in the way a collective leadership can, for example
of ethnic group, age, gender, or representing different places
within the local council boundary.
A single person executive will contribute
to "winner takes all" politics, with minority views
If the mayor is from the council's
majority party, as will often be the case, scrutiny may not be
One person could be more corruptible
than a structure where decisions have to be taken by a wider group,
although measures could be put in place to contribute to probity.
With so much political emphasis on
the mayor, other councillors could feel downgraded, which may
discourage them from standing for election.
An excessive belief in strong leadership
from an individual could encourage an autocratic management style
and devalue the importance of team-work and empowerment.
Party selection processes will clearly have
an impact, and will affect the level of autonomy mayors will have
in the national context. How non-party candidates will secure
funding and support is a factor. There is scope for considerable
media influence, and an inbuilt advantage for wealthy would-be
In our experience, councils have made a positive
start to implementation of the Act. Structures are only one aspect
of local government modernisation. Success will depend partly
on the wider picture of evolving local government service provision,
powers and finance. Central government already has very strong
powers of intervention. Problems in a limited number of councils
should be addressed without forming a pretext for restriction
However, it is very early to make an evaluation.
We suggest the Select Committee support a thorough evaluation
of the changes by the Department of the Environment, Transport
and the Regions, in one or two years time. This could include
identifying changes which are needed to the legislation.
It would also be helpful for the Select Committee
to return to this subject at a later date when there is more experience
of implementation. Issues to look at would include:
The impact of individual decision-making.
Mayoral models in practice.
Turnout in referenda and generally.
Regulation of referenda, including
Whether scrutiny is having real impact,
within council and in relations to external bodies.
Relationship of council structures
to externalised and "partnership" provision.
Our comments here draw on our general experience
of English and Welsh local government, and our specific comments
on the Guidance refer to England. Given that the primary legislation
affects both England and Wales, but there will be two sets of
Guidance and Regulations, it would be helpful for the Select Committee
to clarify their terms of reference for this inquiry.
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