Memorandum by the Labour Campaign for
Open Local Government (LCOLG) (LAG 24)
Thank you for the invitation (30 November) to
the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government to express its comments
on current LOCAL AUTHORITY GOVERNANCE. These are listed below,
using your subject headings, following a brief preamble which
describes the Campaign, its supporters and its experience of the
legislation, before and after the Royal Assent.
If invited, we would like to attend the Select
Committee to support this submission.
Lewis Baston's essay on the Labour Party in
local government, in The Labour Party: A Centenary History
(2000), reminds us that in 1900 there was a flourishing system
of largely independent local authorities administering an extensive
public sector, but few Labour councillors elected to serve them,
During the 1990s the Labour Party gained unprecedented success
in local elections, although local government by then had little
autonomy and had lost most of its powers (Ibid.) Between 1973
and 1988, local government was reorganised into larger units,
each authority with the equivalent of a cabinet (Joint Chairs
or Policy Committee) under the control of the leader. At the same
time financial independence was virtually eliminated.
LCOLG regards the Local Government Act 2000,
which has imposed the cabinet/mayor/manager models of local governance,
as a further step in the role back of democratic accountability.
The Campaign was initially established in May
1999 by a handful of London backbench councillors to make the
case for a fourth model, the retention of a modernised committee
system, in accordance with the government's avowed principles
of "efficiency, transparency and accountability, where this
was the wish of the people. It now has 350 active supporters,
mostly mainstream Labour councillors, who act as points of contact
for colleagues in their groups in over 100 different authoritiesa
number which is steadily increasing. LCOLG has been referred to
by Howard Knight (Head of the Labour Party's Local Government
Unit) as "mischievous" and "misinformed",
and by Hilary Armstrong, the Minister for Local Government at
the DETR, as "dinosaurs and oppositionists". However
its mailings and briefings have been described by councillors
across the country as constructive, analytical and as reflecting
the concerns of the backbench or non-executive councillors who
are the majority of its supporters. These elected members have
either experienced the changes to local government structures
where they have already been imposed, or are now experiencing
the consultation and debate based upon them.
Although local government reform is not an everyday
topic of conversation, the supporters of LCOLG know that whenever
members of the general public become aware of the proposed changes
in political management structures with their consequent threats
to democratic representation, and the very real possibility of
cronyism and corruption, they are universally horrified.
1. WHETHER THE
It is the view of supporters of LCOLG and members
of the public who are aware of the legislation, that the proposed
changes are very unlikely to contribute to greater "efficiency,
transparency and accountability", whereas a modernised committee
system with relaxed whipping will do so. Throughout its existence,
LCOLG has argued for evidence-based policy making instead of central
prescription based on no real evidence. In introducing this legislation,
no pilot studies have been conducted, as Professors of Local Government
George Jones and John Stewart have noted, to "test"
the "options proposed for internal political management"
and compare "how executive forms work in other countries":
hence the Act is "a classic example" of "a piece
of bad legislation" (Local Government Chronicle 19
January 2001). This legislation was made on the hoof, which is
illustrated by the fact that the government itself moved nearly
a thousand amendments during its passage, and has had to issue
endless pages of guidance and regulations before and since the
Despite the Government's acceptance in the Lords
of the Liberal Democrat peers' amendment to allow small district
councils to retain committees, and the recent decision to permit
this for all Welsh councils, LCOLG considers that the implicit
threats to local democracy highlighted by itself and others since
the original publication of the White Paper still remain now it
is an Act.
2. THE IMPACT
(a) The Role of Councillors
LCOLG has first-hand experience that the new
arrangements have already created first and second class tiers
of councillors, and the White Paper's original exhortation to
increase community leadership and be involved in scrutiny has
proved either redundant or unworkable. Most councillors stand
for election because they want to become involved in the local
community at different levels. Some may understand how local government
works and in which areas of service delivery they want to become
involved, others use particular committees as an apprenticeship
to develop a specialism, and others want to represent their constituents
as a sort of advocate vis-a"-vis the council. Nearly all
now feel that it is impossible to fulfil any of these roles as
a backbencher. Most complain that they are marginalised or isolated
as a result of the changes.
It is instructive to look at a particular category
of councillor, one that is even more marginalised than most, but
one the Government maintains that is keen to encourage.
At its conference in July 1999 the Prime Minister
told the National Association of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority
Councillors that his government's plans to modernise local government
would address the problem of the "under-representation of
women, ethnic minorities and young people in our council chambers...".
"In America", he asserted, "experience shows just
how the kind of local governance structures we are introducing,
particularly directly elected mayors, can be more effective in
putting black, Asian and ethnic minority politicians into positions
However it was later pointed out by an NABAEMC
executive member, Cllr Nirmal Roy of Camden, that only three per
cent of councillors in the UK are from ethnic minorities which
comprise six per cent of the UK population. Even when elected,
many find themselves marginalised within their political groups
and excluded from the decision-making power base. Contrary to
the Prime Minister, Cllr Roy concluded that without "improved,
open and democratic committees", the position of ethnic minority
councillors "will be even more marginalized in the future"
because "after the modernisation... power will be concentrated
in fewer hands". Indeed, where "new structures have
already been implemented, councillors of ethnic minority origin
have found themselves more excluded than before".
Cllr Roy notes that the Prime Minister's expression
that directly elected mayors will offer new opportunities "has
not been universally proven elsewhere". The Prime Minister's
listing in his speech of three directly elected US ethnic minority
mayors "is hardly a convincing argument, when 21 per cent
of the USA population is black", and "certain other
directly elected mayors of ethnic minority origin" have been
"impeached and prosecuted for corruption and financial mismanagement",
Cllr Buchan Bhalla, NABAEMC Secretary, in Local Government First
(2 December 2000), makes similar points. He also considers that
"modernisation will make things even worse and could even
reverse the limited progress ethnic minority councillors have
(b) The Role of Local Authority Officers
It is noticed that the new arrangements have
also begun to divide the roles of local officers between those
who advise the executive and those who advise the non-executive
or scrutiny function. This has led to damaging debate within the
unions about relative career streams.
LCOLG has no further comment on this.
(c) The Local Electorate
LCOLG has encountered bewilderment among even
the informed local electorate when it grapples with the implications
of these arrangements, and alarm when it considers whether it
will have a greater or lesser role in the local democratic process.
One reason for this is the "behind-closed
doors" secrecy still implicit in the legislation. An amendment
was passed which requires key decision-making meetings of the
executive to be held in public, other than for exempt business.
No definition of "key decision" exists, although two
examples have been suggested: the spending or saving of significant
funds and if the decision affects two or more wards. However the
closure of a school could be described as affecting just one ward.
Yet individual executive members are also able to take these key
decisions; complete executives are able to meet in private to
discuss key decisions; decisions deemed not to be a key can be
taken in private with reports not having to be publicly available
in advance; draft reports and decisions delegated to individuals
require no advance disclosure. Even if executive or cabinet meetings
are indeed open to the public it is obvious that, as executive
members may be from one political party, every decision to be
taken will be rehearsed in private in advance of the meeting.
This is considered even less transparent that the whipping of
It is difficult to see how this complies with
the aims of "efficiency, transparency and accountability".
Whether the new arrangements are "transparent" is a
moot point, but at least the public will now know who is "accountable"
for the decision. As far as "efficiency" is concerned,
this appears to mean little more than faster, with no room for
proper debate, consultation, or scrutiny. Even so the opportunity
for the scrutiny process to "call in" an executive decision
may delay its implementation. Effectiveness or speed is not therefore
The experience of local authorities in setting
up overview or scrutiny committees or other devolved arrangements
is extremely varied, because no two authorities have adopted the
same systems. However the consensus among members of LCOLG is
clear, and has been endorsed by a study of 290 councils prepared
for Improvement and Development Agency (September 1999) by De
Montfort University which stated that "while there is genuine
commitment to one element of the change package (ie the cabinet
or executive), other balancing elements, such as scrutiny and
the role of the (full) council, are much less effectively developed.
There remain a substantial amount of authorities that have shown
little sign of responding to this part of the agenda". In
some local authorities it is the Leader who actually appoints
scrutiny members! The study concluded "the majority of authorities,
almost three quarters, have some scrutiny system in place, but
it is not clear whether these systems yet have the teeth to hold
the executive to account".
Supporters of LCOLG experience that one obvious
effect of scrutiny has been to discard executive members from
the decision-making process. Another recently published survey
by IdeA, covering the 466 councillors who left local government
in May 2000, revealed that just over half stood down voluntarily,
and that more than one third did so precisely because of restructuring.
As the Local Government Association Conservative group leader
Gordon Keymer commented: "There's always been a concern that
you'll have the cabinet running the place and the scrutiny people
regarded as second-class citizens" (Local Government Chronicle,
3 November 2000).
Second-class citizens lose interest. Indeed,
according the LGA's magazine Local Government First (20
January 2001), Coventry City Council is docking wages from non-attending
members and Birmingham is considering doing the same.
A recent internal survey by Bristol City Council
has found that 86 per cent of the 22 councillors who responded
said scrutiny was less effective. Not one thought it was more
effective. 21 members thought the structure itself had failed
to strengthen local democracy and 20 felt scrutiny committees
had not increased accountability. Just four thought services had
improved since the changes. One member commented: "Scrutiny
has so far failed to achieve anything significant." Another
said: "Bring back the committee system. It worked and all
members were involved in the decision-making process." Cllr
Barbara Janke (Lib Dem), Leader of the opposition, said the scrutiny
experiment had been a failure. "It was clear from the start
there were major problems with the scrutiny commissions, Not least
the fact that they have no power. How can such toothless bodies
be expected to call the powerful decision makers to account?".
Professor Paul Corrigan, Executive Director
of the Public Management Foundation, concedes this point when
he states: "For some, this failure of scrutiny is no surprise
since they never believed there was anything in the new system"
(Local Government Chronicle 24 November 2000). Apart from
being the partner of the Minister, Professor Corrigan is a luminary
of the New Local Government Network (see below).
LCOLG has no comment, at this stage, under this
5. THE ADVANTAGES
As might be expected, LCOLG is alarmed at the
concentration of power in too few hands under either a cabinet
or executive system and in particular under a directly elected
mayor. Unsurprisingly, LCOLG sees very few advantages.
Many local authorities disperse budgets of hundreds
of £ millions. Decisions which affect this will be largely
taken by very few elected members. Yet it is understood that the
Government is determined to press towards directly elected mayors.
As the Local Government Chronicle (3 November 2000) has
remarked ". . . one theme stands outthe way councils
are being cajoled into the mayoral option. The Government has
in fact skewed the guidance to push councils towards holding a
binding referendum even when consultation reveals only low levels
of support for a mayor". It suggests that "even if a
petition falls short of the [5 per cent] requirement, the council
should consider going ahead anyway". The legislation also
gives the Secretary of State "reserve powers to force referendums"
on directly elected mayors. However, research from the LGA has
demonstrated that only 1 per cent of councils actually want a
directly elected mayor.
In an article in the Municipal Journal
(13 October 2000), Tom Watson of the AEEU gave certain arguments
against directly elected mayors.
The first was that they can often lead to patronage
and corruption. Recent examples include a court in Spain which
banned the mayor of Marbella from holding mayoral office for 28
years because he mixed the town's accounts with those of his football
club (The Times 12 October 2000). The following day Jean
Tiberi, mayor of Paris, was expelled from the Gaullist RPR party:
because he and 60 others were under formal investigation for accepting
kick-backs from firms seeking council contracts while President
Chirac was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995 (The Times
13 October 2000). Not so long ago almost half the mayors in Italy
were either in prison, on bail, under investigation, or fleeing
the country because of corruption on a massive scale.
The Government's intention is modelled on the
USA experience. Its lobbying arm, the New Local Government Network,
includes the directly elected mayors of New York, Baltimore and
New Orleans as examples of what it considers is "a powerful
case for mayors in this country". However the NLGN omits
to point out that corruption is an endemic problem in the USA,
where over fifty former mayors are currently in prison for this
offence. Jail is the most common abode for ex-mayors. Who can
forget the unedifying footage of Mayor Barry of Washington closing
a drugs deal in a hotel room?
Directly elected mayors will put the "vested"
back into interests. Capita's evidence to the Joint Select Committee
on the Local Government Bill stated that "it helps if the
leader is able to commit the council and to have control over
his/her group". That is, contractors prefer to do business
with one person only, without internal discussion or effective
scrutiny by democratically elected councillors.
Directly elected mayors, and indeed the establishment
of executives, will effectively remove working people from this
layer of local democracy and replace them with a brigade of career
politicians, professionals at best, and even celebrities with
little experience of anything except "stardom". It is
interesting to note that Liverpool, once keen on a directly elected
mayor, is now less keen when it was known that Cilla Black, Derek
Hatton or Phil Redmond might join the mayoral race. In Britain
the politics of personality, at least at local level, have never
had a place.
The Act states that directly elected mayors
cannot be removed by impeachment or a vote of no confidence, however,
incompetent they are, and can only be removed if there is "evidence
of corruption or other law breaking". Since a directly elected
mayor may have no prior qualifications or experience this is a
major flaw in the legislation.
Finally, one aim of the legislation is to increase
voter turnout. Directly elected mayors are unlikely to increase
turnout, because the centralisation and the reduction in the powers
of local authorities mentioned above will de-motivate many electors
who cannot see what difference their vote will make. It is salutary
to consider the meagre 38 per cent turnout that a highly publicised
and recent direct election, that of the mayor of London, achieved.
By contrast, where committees still exist, such
as in Scandinavia, turnout in local elections is regularly 70
per cent80 per cent.
6. OTHER MATTERS
The evidence could be that it is the government's
ultimate aim is to eliminate representative democracy in local
government and replace it by local administration.
In 1999 the Society of Local Authority Chief
Executives informed the Joint Select Committee that "the
number of councillors should be reduced as we move to a new model
of executive and scrutiny". Interestingly, it is suggested
that the structures may even dispense with Chief Executives. Local
authority contractors, who fund the New Local Government Network
(in 1999 the NLGN received £279,542 from "corporate
sponsors") to advance their intention, tend to support SOLACE.
The NLGN and the Institute for Public Policy
Research have jointly launched Towards a New Localism: A Discussion
Paper (19 October 2000). The paper "rejects the dominant
view of local councils as primarily producers of services"
and proposes that asset management partnerships take ownership
of local authority and public sector assets and lease them back
to local authorities at economic rents.
All the evidence of so-called partnerships so
far is that local government is invariably at a disadvantage in
dealing with private companies. Whereas private companies can
operate in secrecy and negotiate with a "hidden hand",
public bodies are supposed to be accountable to the public, the
District Auditor and ultimately to central government. Local government
budgets are published so that the private sector nearly always
has a good idea of what a council has budgeted for a service,
and negotiates accordingly. Local government is also itself governed
exclusively by statutory authority, and cannot become bankrupt
in the way that a private company might use bankruptcy to avoid
liabilities. None of this is reflected in the legislation.
LGAs are treated as equal partners in law in
relation to private bodies. The result is that Public Private
Partnerships in practice mean that usually the public sector raises
a relatively high proportion of the equity in a project and takes
a high percentage of the risk, whereas the private partner puts
up far less and effectively takes no risk. If it does it can always
evade any risk through insolvency, but it is able to recoup the
major part of any profits or assets. Thus without a properly thought
out system of administrative law governing public bodies and their
relationships with private bodies, as exists in other European
countries, local authorities will always be at a disadvantage.
Prive Finance Initiatives or PPPs will be nothing more than conduits
for channelling public money into private pockets for no, or little,
appreciable public benefit, and no, or little, real accountability.
The above defects and inadequacies will be exacerbated
under unaccountable executive members or directly elected mayors
who may be less experienced, less principled, subject to less
scrutiny and political control, and possible more corruptible.
In the absence of clear legislation on what is public and what
is private, what accounting methods should be used for mixed assets,
what decisions need to be made in public, and which decisions
should be scrutinised, the whole area of so-clled `outsourcing'
is open to abuse. Unless, of course, the real intnetion of the
present legislation is to privatise all public assets and services
and abolish public provision of anything at all.
The NGLN has long proposed that the responsibility
for education should be removed from local education authorities,
ie democratically elected councillors, and handed straight to
governing bodies and head teachers. Its paper advocates a reduction
in councillors in favour of "neighbourhood managers".
It states that "over a 10-year period the number of councillors
in all principal authorities should be reduced significantly"
because "gone is the need for a mass of councillors to represent
local people and oversee the production of local services".
They should be replaced by "talented people from business
or the voluntary sectors to take office within a cabinet on the
invitation of the leader or the mayor".
These proposals, which were first advanced by
Nicholas Ridley in the 1980s, would, if implemented mean th end
of representative democracy in local government and its replacement
by local administration. Dennis Reed, Director of the Local Government
Information Unit, notes that these proposals "come from an
organisation whose self-appointed executive is stuffed with local
government minister Hilary Armstrong's closest advisers and those
actively campaigning against the return of the business rates
to local level and for the imposition of elected mayors"
(Local Government Chronicle, 3 November 2000).
Thank you for inviting the Labour Campaign for
Open Local Government to respond to the Select Committee's invitation.
LCOLG would be pleased to also give evidence.
For your information, LCOLG's future strategy,
in consultation with its supporters, is to:
Monitor the implementation of the
Local Government Act 2000.
Champion the interests of non-executive
or backbench councillors.
Continue the fight against directly
Make new links with trades unions.
Raise awareness among the Labour
movement and the public concerning the government's ultimate aim
to eliminate representative democracy in local government, and
to replace it by local administration.
Promote a progressive agenda on public
participation, transparency, accountability and efficiency in
providing direct and improved services.