Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Gateshead Council (LGA 04)


  It is difficult at the present time to give a definitive verdict on the success of the Local Government Act 2000. This is for two main reasons:

    —  many of the Act's key features, such as new constitutions and the new ethical framework, have yet to be fully implemented;

    —  the Act forms just one part, although a significant part, of the Government's modernising agenda for local government; it needs to be looked at in conjunction with the local government White Paper, the reform of the local government finance system, the Representation of the People Act 2000 and numerous other initiatives.

  That said, the Council generally welcomes the provisions of the Act, which it believes will help to foster a system of local government that is more open and accountable and more fully engaged with local people and stakeholders. The comments that follow should be read in this context; they draw attention to certain points which may need more thought.

  This submission takes each Part of the Local Government Act in turn.


  The general power to take action to promote the economic, social or environmental well-being of the authority's area is, of course, a power which has long been sought by local government. Gateshead Council welcomes this power, which recognises the Council's role in promoting the welfare of its residents. The new arrangements allow for greater flexibility than the previous rather restrictive arrangements.

  The Council looks forward to early delegated legislation giving effect to the promised clarification of local authorities' powers to charge for discretionary services.

  The Council also views positively the duty to prepare community strategies and consult with local communities. It is important that the Government, in issuing guidance on these issues, recognises that conditions vary from one authority to another and does not try to be too prescriptive in its approach.


  In Gateshead Council, as no doubt in many other authorities, the new constitution under this Part of the Act does not take effect until May 2002. However, the Council has found the process of preparing a constitution to be a very worthwhile experience. We believe that this has enabled us to draw up a form of constitution which will bring many benefits, not least the fact that consultation with local people on all significant issues will be built into the new arrangements.

  It is interesting to note that to date the concept of the elected Mayor has attracted support in relatively few authorities. There have, however, been suggestions that the Government might wish to "force the pace" on this issue. This Council would be opposed to any attempt to impose elected Mayors on authorities where local people have not expressed a preference for this form of constitution. As the legislation stands, a petition signed by five per cent of the electorate is sufficient to trigger a referendum on an elected Mayor; if this degree of support is not forthcoming there should be no grounds for taking the matter further.

  This Part of the Act has given rise to a plethora of secondary legislation much of which is of greater than usual obscurity. While a degree of complexity may be inevitable in dealing with matters of detail, part of the problem seems to lie in an over-prescriptive approach. An example can be found in the rules which specify which members may or may not be appointed to joint committees; these rules have now been amended but only after authorities had spent a great deal of effort trying to make sense of the original, highly prescriptive, rules. It is not a mark of good legislation that regulations have to be amended by further regulations before the primary legislation is fully in force.


  This Council is fully committed to promoting the highest standards of conduct and is happy to work within the framework laid down by the Act.

  How effectively that framework will operate in practice is something that still remains to be seen. At its best, it should provide local people with the reassurance that standards of conduct in local government continue to be very high—as was found by the Nolan Committee. At worst, it could provide encouragement for a spate of politically motivated complaints which will do nothing for local people's trust in their Councillors. The situation is not helped by the inclusion in the Members' Code of Conduct of a clause requiring every Councillor to report to the Standards Board for England any breach of the Code of which he/she becomes aware—a provision which has been described as Orwellian.

  There will be a heavy responsibility on the Standards Board to handle complaints in a fair and proper manner but also to deal robustly with complaints that are ill-founded or vexatious.


  The Act empowers the Secretary of State to change the frequency of local authority elections.

  This Council sees no particular reason for the Secretary of State to exercise this power, certainly as far as metropolitan authorities are concerned.


  Section 99 of the Act allows provision to be made for the payment of pensions to such members of a local authority as may be prescribed in regulations.

  As the sub-committee will no doubt be aware, the Government issued last year a consultation paper on pensions for elected members. This proposed that eligibility should be restricted to executive members and chairs of overview and scrutiny committees. This Council expressed the view that this proposal is not only divisive and unfair but fails to address disincentives to serving as a Councillor, which the Government has stated should be an objective of members' remuneration schemes.

  The Council believes that all Councillors should be eligible to join the Local Government Pension Scheme and hopes that the Government will reconsider its proposals.


  The Local Government Act 2000 marks a significant step in the modernising agenda for local government. The Council now looks forward to the introduction of further modernising measures as outlined in the recent Local Government White Paper, such as:

    —  a simplified, more transparent and fairer system of funding for local government

    —  greater discretion over borrowing and greater freedom to invest

    —  a streamlined, integrated and proportionate review and inspection system

  These and similar measures will ensure that the executive arrangements created under the Act are effective in delivering improved public services and speaking for local communities.

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