Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Philip Coleman (L 48)

1 Introduction

I am Member Services Manager at Chichester District Council. My career spans over 40 years in local government, much of it in democratic services posts at Somerset County Council, West Sussex County Council and now Chichester District Council.

The evidence below sets out my own views, although I doubt that my current employers would dissent from it.

2 Summary

The Bill limits local authorities choice of governance arrangements to:

· executive arrangements,

· a committee system, or

· prescribed arrangements.

These are over-prescribed and do not achieve the Secretary of State’s claim that "The Bill will let councils decide the best way to organise themselves"

It would be preferable to empower Councils to decide for themselves (with appropriate safeguards) what powers they wish to delegate to their Executive, rather than, as at present, to prescribe in statute and secondary legislation the functions of Executives.

3 Evidence

1 In moving the Second Reading of the Bill, the Secretary of State said:

"Councils have been drowning in red tape and rules and paralysed by a culture of centralism. Those that want to break the mould and innovate continually run the risk of legal challenge. The Bill will restore town halls to their former glory…

"The Bill will let councils decide the best way to organise themselves, whether through cities having mayors, through local council executives or through the committee system."

2 Clauses 10-12 relating to Governance take up less than a page of the main statute, but Schedule 2 which prescribes the new arrangements with respect to governance of English local authorities runs to over 50 pages. This suggests a degree of over-prescription. The Bill falls a long way short of truly "letting councils decide the best way to organise themselves".

3 The Bill specifies the forms of governance a local authority in England can operate. (Schedule 2, Section 9B) These are executive arrangements, a committee system, or prescribed arrangements.

· Executive arrangements are those currently operated in most local authorities. They take either the "Executive Leader and Cabinet" form, or the "Directly- elected Mayor and Cabinet" form. The Bill re-enacts large parts of the Local Government Act 2000, virtually unchanged (although there are substantial additions about the mayoral management model, with which I am not concerned in this evidence).

· The Committee system prevailed in most Councils up until the 2000 Act, after which only a few small district councils were allowed to operate it.

· "Prescribed arrangements" are arrangements approved by the Secretary of State. Local authorities may apply to the Secretary of State for approval of arrangements they wish to operate, but the need for central government approval is hardly "letting councils decide the best way to organise themselves".

4 In the second reading debate, the Secretary of State said:

"The cabinet system has many advantages, but it means that a number of councillors are denied the opportunity to be involved. We do not take a strong view on that matter, but the Bill will enable councils to go back to the committee system if they want to do so"

5 The possible re-introduction of the committee system was heralded as a liberalisation, but it appears it will be constrained by regulation as much as any other form of governance, with a degree of detail which did not exist before 2000. Many councils probably would not want to return to a full-blown committee system, which would mean, for example, that they could not operate a single-party executive committee.

6 However, many Councils, including my own, would agree that "Executive arrangements" do restrict involvement of councillors outside of the few (a maximum of 10) who are on the Executive. Many Councils, therefore, would like a hybrid arrangement, which has the benefits of the Executive arrangements in stream-lining decision making, but allows wider participation by the body of membership rather than just a small elite. Yet, unless the Council goes for a 'prescribed' arrangement with permission from the Secretary of State (itself contrary to localism), there seems no such empowerment.

7 In my view, the basic flaw derives from the rigidity of the statutory separation of the functions of the Executive from the functions of the Council, which is enshrined in the 2000 Act and regulations by the Secretary of State, and continued in this Bill.

8 Thus, anything not specified in the regulations is to be the function of the Executive (Schedule 2 9D (2)) and may not be discharged by the authority (9DA (3)), but can be discharged only by the executive, a member of the executive, a committee of the executive, or an officer (9E(2)).

9 Perhaps an example will illustrate my point:-

For many years my Council had a "Discretionary Grants Panel", comprising a mix of executive and non-executive members that considered applications and made grants to voluntary organisations etc. This operated perfectly well, until we realised that making these grants was an executive function and the Panel was not a committee of the executive.

As a result, instead of the Panel making the grants, it now makes recommendations that require endorsement by the Executive, causing double-handling and delay, and clogging up Executive’s agendas.

10 The fact that Council Executives draw their powers and responsibilities directly from the Statute and secondary legislation, rather than by delegation from the Council, causes this problem.

11 I would recommend the repeal of most of these provisions, and the simple empowerment of the Council to delegate such functions as it wishes to the Executive. Appropriate safeguards should be retained, preventing the delegation to the Executive of regulatory functions (planning and licensing applications), or major decisions such as approving the budget and setting the Council Tax.

January 2011