Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Professor Gerry Stoker, Chair, New Local Government Network, and John Williams, Executive Director, New Local Government Network (LAG 44)


  This evidence has been structured into five sections:

    1.  Why was the committee system in need of reform?

    2.  How effectively can we assess any of the new models?

    3.  How is political management consultation being conducted?

    4.  What are the threats and opportunities of the new arrangements?

    5.  Why either mayor model is overwhelmingly attractive


  The Government brought forward legislation in 1999 to address the perceived shortcomings of the "committee system", which was the only formal decision making structure available to councillors in British local government.

  Until the passing of the Local Government Act 2000, Britain was one of the only countries in the western world whose decision-making structures in local government were organised in such a fashion. The committee system had several fundamental flaws:

    —  Conflict of interest: a fundamental flaw ripped through the heart of the committee system that involved councillors occupying two roles at the same time. On the one hand they were decision-makers—agreeing priorities and executing decisions. On the other they were expected to scrutinise the performance of the local authority. When a policy was found to be ineffective or needed to be reviewed, often the very same councillors who were involved in making the original policy decision would be responsible for undertaking the review.

    —  Lack of clarity: it was never apparent to the media, interest groups or local people, who was responsible for key decisions made within the local authority. Was it the lead committee? Was it the P & R Committee? Was it the Chair? The Leader? The Mayor? The Chief Executive? The full council? Decision making structures were impenetrable to the outsider.

    —  Poor quality and illegitimate decision-making: committee meetings very rarely encouraged constructive debate and dialogue—councillors suffered from information overload and were pressured into adopting decisions taken by the party group. Major decisions were nearly always made before the charade of the committee meeting was played out. In many places a small leadership clique of councillors and officials met behind closed doors and made the decisions. The committee system too often gave a spurious legitimacy for decisions made elsewhere.

    —  Ineffective scrutiny: there was no formal mechanism for supporting and conducting the scrutiny of policy or the effectiveness of executive action. The practice and pressure of group discipline ensured that such issues would be dealt with behind closed doors and out of the public and media spotlight.

  Under the committee system, political leadership often `emerged' from smoke filled rooms, where deals had been done, horse-trading completed to position colleagues in this post or that. The electorate were, of course, the last people to know or have any influence over the outcome. Winning the leadership of the local authority meant focusing upon the needs of a certain number of your political colleagues, not necessarily the electorate. Sometimes the two may have coincided, but more out of luck, rarely out of design.

  Leadership depended upon the votes of the party group and a small sprinkling of electors. A leader, who's powers and influence were considerable but unaccountable, often drew legitimacy from a mandate of less than 1,000 electors when the total electorate could be upwards of 500,000.

  Of course all of this resulted in an impenetrable system of decision making and one of the least legitimate political systems in Europe. Turnout levels in recent years have fallen to dramatically low levels. There are a variety of reasons to explain this but we would argue that the system of decision making and the lack of scrutiny militated against local government communicating its message and providing the right framework within which it would be focused upon the needs of the electorate.


  Evaluation of any of the new political management models introduced as a result of the Local Government Act 2000 should at this point, be treated as of limited value because no council is operating any of the three models (four in the case of a district) within a proper legal framework. What is currently taking place is a limited number of experiments of the cabinet/leader model, operating a muddled system of the old and new. Moreover new institutional arrangements should be assessed after some time has lapsed in order to gauge their success. The new arrangements introduced in Oslo, Norway have just been subject to a rigorous evaluation some six years after their establishment. In the short what we require is not evaluation but good practice and support guides to enable the change to be as effective as possible.

  The official guidance has recently been published (October 2000) and it contained a number of important modifications to the Act, such as the requirement for forward plans for the taking of key decisions, which means that evaluation of this crucial aspect of the reform is almost meaningless at this point.

  Two of the three new models (elected mayor/council manager and elected mayor/cabinet) are not in operation even in an experimental form in any local authority. Referendums, which are needed to trigger a move to either system, are likely to take place in a small number of authorities in May 2001 at the earliest for example Berwick upon Tweed District Council. A larger number of referendums are likely to take place in the autumn 2001, some driven by the council and some the result of local petitions.

  A decent period of time will be needed to make a worthwhile and proper assessment of the changes in order to monitor effectiveness, impact upon relationship between the council and the public and the cultural change amongst members and officers. A worthwhile evaluation of any of the models may not be possible until 2004-05.


  Rather than abolishing the committee system and replacing it with one particular form of political management system, the Government wanted to provide local communities with a choice between three models. The local community was meant to determine what political management system should govern the locality.

  The Government believed that by engaging the community in consultation and ultimately in a referendum for two of the three models, local people would begin to become more reconnected with their local political structures. For consultation to be a meaningful and transparent exercise, it relied upon local authorities taking an objective perspective from any preferred model and organising consultation exercises that draw from qualitative and quantitative surveys of public opinion to inform their judgement. The reality has been that in many places, local authorities have a preferred model (nearly always the cabinet/leader model) and have sought to organise consultation processes to reflect this preference. A fair and objective consultation around two of the three models has been absent in a number of places, encouraging local activists to lose faith in the process and begin their own petition campaign. We have collected a range of evidence from many people, including a number of serving councillors, to testify to this view:

  "To date there has been almost no debate over the concept of an elected mayor. Such debate as has occurred has been confined to the Council Chamber and has not involved representative public participation. The Council moved rapidly to adopt a pilot Leader and Cabinet model."

Plymouth Campaign for an Elected Mayor

  "There has been a considerable amount of misinformation politically motivated to oppose the elected mayor option."

Berwick upon Tweed Mayor Campaign

  "Residents are invited to complete a questionnaire at the end of the leaflet which includes the question, `Would you support a full referendum of all 132,000 local voters on the models outlined in this leaflet (at an approximate cost of £50,000)?' This question has the potential to confuse the electorate, as what is being proposed is not a binding referendum. It also appears to be designed to discourage support for a referendum through the inclusion of cost details."

Bath and North East Somerset Campaign for an Elected Mayor

  "There is no pretence of fairness. This is perhaps the most flagrantly biased `consultation' I have experienced in 24 years in local government. This has involved circulating to every household the anti-elected mayor views of the two group leaders—the first time an opposition leader has ever had his views circulated in a council publication."

Cllr Paul Tinnion, Campaign for Elected Mayors in the North

  Why are some local authorities doing this? What vested interests are they trying to protect? It is clear that, although the Government had the best of intentions when it asked local authorities to consult their communities on which model they preferred, it did not account for a range of political and managerial vested interests forming coalitions to deliver a particular outcome.

  There has been two pincer movements taking place. At one end are the political elites who have become accustomed to managing the subtleties and complexities of a familiar system, understand its power bases and how to construct alliances. At the other end exist a group of councillors, (unfortunately increasingly tagged as `backbenchers', with all the connotations of Westminster that go with it), who are concerned that their previous `input' into decision making processes, through their place on a committee, will be erased as a result of the introduction of any of the models.

  Much of the anxiety that surrounds the introduction of either of the elected mayor models has been based on a fear of what an individual councillor's role would be under such a system. Often they believe that, unless they are the mayor or a member of the cabinet, they would have little or no role to play. The reality of course is that nothing could be further from the truth. Either of the elected mayor models provide a positive and full policy making role for every councillor, from the setting of the overall council policy framework, from within which the mayor must operate on a day to day basis, to the formulation of the budget, which the full council must approve. Too often a combination of misinformation and misunderstanding has dominated the debate thus far and has filtered its way through to councillors and is exposed in inaccurate and misleading consultation.

  Where consultation leads to no conclusive view one way or the other about a preferred model, local authorities should be under an obligation to put the matter to a referendum. Only then will local people be guaranteed an opportunity to decide and proponents of each system could argue the merits or otherwise in the full glare of the public spotlight. Indeed a small number of local authorities, after embarking upon a full and fair consultation process, have decided to put the matter to a referendum (Brighton & Hove City Council and Birmingham City Council). They are to be congratulated for acting in the spirit of the legislation, despite the reservations of a number of councillors within each of the local authorities towards the elected mayor model.


  Scrutiny—the introduction of a formal scrutiny mechanism within local government could lead to move effective policy development and evaluation of executive decision making both within and outside the local authority. For scrutiny to be effective there will need to be a less partisan approach to the conduct of investigations or policy overview. That will only come about if all political parties put an end to the practice of `whipping' on committees. Scrutiny also requires dedicated resources—both officer and financial—to execute a process effectively. Most local authorities are still unsure about the amount and the type of resources that should be dedicated to the scrutiny process. Although one of the benefits of local experimentation with the scrutiny process is the creation of a wide range of different processes and practices from which others can learn, there might be an argument for establishing a clear national baseline protocol or framework for scrutiny in the future.

  Scrutiny can be far more demanding and intensive than the old committee system and as such requires a greater input from councillors than before. If constructed in the right way and resourced properly, overview and scrutiny could be an important opportunity for bringing user groups, community activists and consumers into the process. Sometimes this could take the form of being active participants as a scrutiny committee member, but more often than not it should take the form of involvement through presenting evidence and helping to frame questions.

  Officers—the introduction of any of the three new models heralds a period of uncertainty for many senior officers in local government. For many there is a lack of clarity about future roles and responsibilities, with the distinction between policy formulation and operational management becoming increasingly blurred. During the past 12 months a number of senior local authority Chief Executives have left local government. What is unclear at the moment is whether this is the result of the early experiments with the cabinet/leader model or the failings of an old culture imposed on new structures.

  What is clear is that full or part time executive councillors in local government should not represent a `threat' to professional managerial expertise. We do not question the need for professional management within the civil service even though we have several full time politicians within each Government department. Politicians are not there to replace the professional expertise and judgement of officers. The changes should be about identifying and valuing the political role. This can take a variety of forms: an outward public focus within the community explaining decision making, reconciling conflicting needs, providing a vision for where the area should be, listening and responding, brokering between the players at the local level and between the centre and local. Only a politician, with the legitimacy and mandate of the community can perform these tasks well.

  Either of the elected mayor models in particular offers a tremendous opportunity to attract and release new officer talent and to break the established boundaries of managerialism in local government. The recruitment of Bob Kiley from New York to head Transport for London broke all traditional notions of public sector pay and demonstrated how an elected mayor, driven by a need to deliver on this most important issue for Londoners, will seek out the best professional expertise in the world.

  Open decision-making—a lot of prominence has been given to the issue of so called `secret' cabinets, where important decisions are taken in a private forum. At one level this has now been addressed with the publication of the statutory guidance on forward decision making which states that all `key' decisions (as defined by the full council) should be publicly notified in the rolling forward plan and made at public cabinet meetings.

  It would be wrong however to believe politicians in the committee system ever made key decisions in public. They may have gone through the formal process of taking them in the public, but more than likely they were decided before the meeting took place in a variety of forums (the political group, the leaders office, the lift, the pub). Politicians in the future will continue to need a space in which options can be debated in private.

  If we are to deliver a culture of open and transparent decision-making, we need to go beyond the narrow confines of the `open versus closed' cabinet debate and look to a range of ways in which the executive can be held to account. For example it is common practice in many European and American cities to hold regular press conferences, where decisions taken have to be justified and scrutinised immediately.

  Representative role—the final challenge is ensuring that the individual representative role is enhanced and promoted. Freed from the constraints of party discipline and collective `by-in' to every decision taken, individual councillors should be able to promote the interests of their community more effectively. They can speak more freely as a champion of their local ward and as a community leader in their own right. The most important point is to make sure that they are properly resourced, both personally and through office support, to ensure that they can undertake this task.


  The cabinet/leader model, if accompanied by substantial changes in culture, may lead to slightly greater transparency and visibility of decision making. But will it be enough to dramatically improve the accountability and responsiveness of local government to the needs of its communities? This seems unlikely as, indeed the evidence bears out, many councils are opting for the cabinet/leader model precisely because it is a model that is closest to the existing culture and arrangements.

  The two mayoral models are the only models that offer a radical departure from the past or recognise the primacy of the electorate in the construction of leadership within the community. It should not be restricted to unitary or urban areas: visible and accountable leadership is just as essential a requirement in rural communities and two tier councils. The mayoral model has caught the imagination of local people from a wide range of communities, challenging the widely held belief that it is only a model for large urban centres:

  "Berwick upon Tweed geographically is at a disadvantage being located on the Scottish Border with the North Sea to the east. It is essential to be accountable to the residents for good services, transparency in decisions of management and capable of regenerating the local economy in an effective, efficient and economical manner. Having consulted widely with the community we are confident that this is the way forward. A large number of people from all social and professional backgrounds have been supportive in signing the petition."

Brian Douglas, Berwick upon Tweed Mayor Campaign

  "I believe it is more democratic than the leader/cabinet system. There's a requirement for a person who can focus on the needs of all Oxford people. Someone who is accepted as the leader of the City by the private and voluntary sectors and other statutory bodies."

Stan Taylor, DEMOX (Directly Elected Mayor for Oxford)

  "I have believed for several years that the present system of running local authorities, while it may have been effective in the past, often fails to provide real local democracy and frequently lacks any real accountability. I believe this is especially true in one-party areas."

Cllr Paul Tinnion, Campaign for Elected Mayors in the North

  "Local Authorities, more than most organisations need effective leadership. They are often unable to act alone, requiring complex partnerships to fulfil local needs and balance interests. Leadership in this scenario cannot be provided by a committee or even a leader who must face an annual vote of confidence by a Council. Plymouth is a City, which is distinct in many ways. An Executive Mayor would provide a focus and a leader for the City."

Plymouth Campaign for an Elected Mayor

  "In Bath and North East Somerset no party has an overall majority of seats on Council. There is a lack of clear and visible leadership and it is unclear who is responsible for decisions. Whilst across the country most councillors and councils appear to prefer the cabinet with leader option, this appears to be less about improving local governance and more about a concern to preserve the status quo. A leader from within the council would also be a ward councillor representing Bath or one of the other areas covered by the authority. A ward councillor, concerned with ward issues, will not act as the unifying force needed to address the needs of Bath and North East Somerset as a whole."

Bath and North East Somerset Campaign for an Elected Mayor

  "I'm campaigning to give local people a direct access to council services through a leading local figure who would be visible and accountable. With time and proper constitutional checks and balances local people will see the difference a mayor can make by more responsive services. There is genuine interest and support for a directly elected mayor. In Southwark last year, in a borough-wide consultation exercise, this option came first."

Cllr Ian Wingfield, London Borough of Southwark

  However, despite their enthusiasm for change, many local activists are finding the mechanism of raising a petition a difficult and challenging task for a variety of reasons:

  "Raising a petition takes time and effort. The difficulties associated with identifying sufficient volunteers to go out on the streets and collect signatures on a regular basis should not be underestimated."

Bath and North East Somerset Campaign for an Elected Mayor

  "Sympathetic activists, especially councillors, are very reluctant to oppose their group leaderships by becoming involved in a petition. Five percent in a council of any size is a very high hurdle and should be replaced with a flat figure plus a percentage, say one thousand and one percent. The cost is also substantial."

Cllr Paul Tinnion, Campaign for Elected Mayors in the North

  Despite the difficulties and challenges that many local campaigns face, there is clearly a strongly held belief that either mayoral model remains the most effective model for delivering a radical improvement in local governance. This could be summarised as:

    —  Responsive leadership: the mayoral model is outward facing and responsive to the needs of the community. Internal party political management within the council is very much a secondary concern.

    —  Accountable leadership: a mayor is a visible political leader and is more accountable to stakeholders and the wider electorate. Under the current committee system most leaders are identified by less than 5% of the local population. There is nothing to suggest that the cabinet/leader model will significantly change this figure.

    —  New political players: the mayoral model provides the best opportunity for the emergence of a new generation of local and regional political elites. This is the only model in which `outsiders' can challenge for the post without having to serve an apprenticeship on the council. The visibility and prominence of the post is likely to attract many candidates who previously believed that Westminster was the nirvana of political experience.

    —  Electoral competition: elected mayors would put an end to the `one party states' almost overnight. Independents could challenge successfully for the position. The electorate would be more interested in the qualities, vision and competencies of the candidate rather than his or her party label. Once elected no mayor could take his or her re-election for granted.

    —  Political legitimacy: the mayoral model offers a great opportunity to resurrect the dying political legitimacy of local government. Mayors would need to be elected with thousands of votes. The power of this direct electoral legitimacy is already being seen in London.

    —  Localisation of politics: mayoral elections would be about the local community and not the performance of central government. We would return to a conversation about the local, as we did in London, with transport being the No.1 issue for many Londoners, not the general performance of the national economy.

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