Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

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 include:

    —  The decisions of the executive (probably single party) will not have to be ratified by the Council or another multi-party body.

    —  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 be extensive.

    —  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, and accountability.

  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 if:

    —  there are failures of co-ordination across services;

    —  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 advice;

    —  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.[8]


  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.[9] 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 be.

  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 express support.

    —  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 suppressed.

    —  If the mayor is from the council's majority party, as will often be the case, scrutiny may not be vigorous.

    —  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 candidates.


  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 of all.

  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.

    —  Access to information.

    —  Mayoral models in practice.

    —  Turnout in referenda and generally.

    —  Regulation of referenda, including campaign funding.

    —  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.

January 2000

8   Ev. not printed. Back

9   Ev. not printed. Back

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