Memorandum by Chester City Council (LGA
The Local Government Act 2000 brought into force
provisions relating to:
A duty for local authorities to promote
economic, social and environmental well-being
New arrangements with respect to
executives, including elected Mayors and the Cabinet model
Provisions relating to the conduct
of councillors and officers, and
Provisions relating to local authority
Like many local authorities, Chester City Council
had already recognised the need for change during the 1990s. It
was one of the first authorities to establish a strong local multi-agency
partnership and was working towards developing its own model of
political management arrangements. The Act has been embraced enthusiastically
by the political leadership of the Council and has been used as
a means of ensuring continuing organisational development.
The City Council welcomed this new duty for
the very good reason that it reflects the reality of what the
role of an effective local authority has been, if not since they
were created, then certainly for a very long time. For instance,
800 years ago, the well being of the citizens of Chester depended
on the city having effective defensive walls which the City Council
provided and maintained. The well being of our residents today
depends on a more complex mix of factors but the City Council
is still involved in either providing them or securing them. Local
authorities have a wide range of service responsibilities, but
these are for a purpose, which we believe is reflected in this
There has been a debate throughout local government
over the years about "statutory" duties, which we must
do and "discretionary" powers, which we may do. The
wide recognition now given to the community leadership role of
local authorities which is underpinned by this duty plus the general
power of well-being has changed the whole landscape. We believe
this is helpful in the whole debate about the role of local authorities
in their communities and also helps them meet the challenge of
planning strategically for their areas. For instance, again to
use a Chester example, tourism promotion is a "discretionary"
service; there is no duty for a local authority to do anything.
In many places, including Chester, it would be inconceivable for
the local authority not to invest heavily on promotion of our
area. Given our duty to promote the economic, environmental and
social well being of our area (which depends heavily on the income
earned from tourists) we feel the new power sets out more clearly
the legislative and policy context within which local government
works and within which we must plan, raise local taxes and deliver
Chester City Council was already working in
a different way in the mid 1990s with a lot of business being
done by members and officers in informal sessions which then had
to be formalised through the traditional committee system. This
involved members from all groups because we have been politically
hung/balanced since 1990. Members had already recognised the need
to change how they worked and a panel had been set up in early
1997 to find an answer to this.
So change in how members carried out their business
was on our agenda at the time of the 1997 general election. When
it became clear what the new government's thinking was, we developed
new arrangements which would take us in the direction of the eventual
requirements. So from May 1999 the City Council had an executive/review
split plus an Ethics & Standards committee. On the executive
side there was a Leadership Board of eight members, which was
a cabinet in many ways. It was supported however by seven Boards
of approximately seven members each who had executive functions
which have subsequently been transferred to our cabinet. There
were also eight review committees to undertake the scrutiny role.
Additionally we set up nine local panels to help members develop
their local community roles further.
While it did not comply with the final legislation,
this move proved to be a very effective learning experience for
the whole organisation. We had set up a group (Leadership Board)
which had some of the responsibilities of a Cabinet and helped
members and officers begin to work in a new way. We had a members'
Scrutiny/Review mechanism for the first time which enabled us
all to begin to learn how to do this. We have had a similar experience
to most local authorities with problems of resourcing these, developing
the skills needed and reassuring members that this role had value.
But we also had some successes in carrying out effective reviews,
introducing training and changing mind sets.
Initially, our local panels were purely consultative
and advisory. However, as they developed, small budgets were made
available to them and we are now actively looking at delegating
some executive decisions to them as allowed for in the Act. This
long lead-in time has proved beneficial in developing a sense
of community and allowed time to engage residents and partners.
By the time the Local Government Act 2000 came
into force we therefore had over a year already of working with
very different arrangements to those which the City Council had
been using for decades, if not centuries. We carried out very
extensive consultation on which of the new options was right for
the City Council for the future and the clear preference was for
a cabinet form of local government in Chester. That was set up
in September 2001 and is working well though many members have
resented the restriction to a narrow series of three options from
which to choose. Some lessons from the Chester experience are:
Some of local government was already
open to change and to looking at how to replace the traditional
committee system, and this might have been encouraged more, rather
than the prescription of three narrow options.
That openness to change will be the
key to success of the whole modernisation agenda for any local
authority. Despite misgivings here by many members we have embraced
the new structure and will make the most of it. The first signs
are encouraging, with a new political administration in the Cabinet
able to make swift and visible changes to how things are done,
for instance in street cleanliness.
Being able to trial the new arrangements
(albeit in modified form) proved to be very beneficial to us in
learning new roles, making a start on the new culture needed to
make a success of any new arrangements, making the inevitable
mistakes and beginning the training and development needed to
give people new skills for new roles.
The new arrangements for members
need to be recognised as part of a major change management programme
which the whole organisation is going through, with Best Value,
Community Planning, forming an LSP, contributing to a joint PSA,
the new ethical framework and initiatives on democratic renewal
all contributing to the change agenda. Senior members and officers
need to understand this and be seen to lead their organisation
through it, with wide and extensive communication being essential.
Training for new roles and development
is essential. This includes structured training (we have used
IDeA for instance) but also less obvious things like workshops,
planning days or informal panels where people (whether members
or officers) are able to behave differently to their habitual
roles, so as to model new behaviours which will be part of their
making a success of the very different roles which we have seen
Flowing from all of this is the statement,
which, while obvious, bears being made: you do not just change
structures when you change, you must also change culture, systems
and if necessary, people. Perhaps too much attention from everyone,
Government, LGA and individuals has been on the whole structural
debate, and insufficient attention has been paid to these wider
issues around the change agenda. We still have plenty to do but
believe we have made a greater success of these aspects here in
The Council has always taken these issues very
seriously and already had in place codes of conduct for members
and officers. In anticipation of the Act, in 1999, an Ethics &
Standards Committee was established with responsibility for introducing
the new ethical framework.
The Committee began to meet and co-opted two
outside members (a circuit judge and a former county council chief
executive). It began to look at a range of issues such as a whistle
blowers policy and amending existing codes of conduct. Again,
the work undertaken proved to be a very good foundation for the
statutory framework which we have since adopted. It also enabled
early inter-action and communication with the parish councils
of our area.
Chester took advantage of the pilot schemes
in 2000 and introduced early voting for all Wards in the district
having an election in 2000. The aim of the pilot was to encourage
more people to cast their vote in local elections.
Chester was one of the first places to give
people the chance to cast their vote before the traditional polling
day on 4 May. A mobile polling station (a caravan with awning)
was provided on the Town Hall Square from Tuesday 25 April to
Friday 28 April from 9.00am to 5.00pm.
This year Chester is amongst 30 Local Authorities
to try out new hi-tech ways of voting in May 2002.
Up to 13,600 voters in three Wards will have
the chance to cast their votes using touch screen machines instead
of putting a pencil mark on a piece of paper.
The introduction of rolling registration has
helped with registration. Electors do not now have to wait for
up to 12 months to register and can do so when they move house
making the Register of Electors a more up to date record. However
rolling registration has not significantly increased registration.
The key thing about these new arrangements which
we and other authorities are involved in is that, at last, the
whole area of elections and electoral registration is open to
new ideas and experiments in how to exercise our right to vote.
In due course we will know that some things work better than others
and we will be able to make adjustments. But we should at the
same time have finally blown the dust out of a system which would
have still been familiar to Charles Dickens if he had returned
in recent years.
The government is to be congratulated for having
allowed this experimentation and made these changes. The key thing
is to ensure for the future that the electoral system is never
allowed to ossify in the way it did before the recent changes.
It must remain an impartial, highly accurate and trustworthy means
of electing our democratic representatives, but it needs to be
able to change to reflect new technology, demographic and social
changes at the same time.
As well as an up to date means of voting, people
also need a reason to vote. It is imperative that local government
is seen to be capable of making a difference to people's lives,
in order to give them an incentive to vote. The role and functions
of local government, including the right to raise taxes locally,
therefore needs to be considered in any review of voter turn-outs
for local government.