Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by London Councils


1. London Councils recognises that the work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee offers the potential for a radical reconstitution of the relationship between central and local government.

2. Establishing and codifying a set of principles that acknowledge the constitutional legitimacy of elected local government and provide for its financial and operational autonomy would create a significant opportunity to reverse the drift towards centralisation seen over the last thirty years.

3. However, producing a written statement that simply sets out the status quo is unlikely to encourage local authorities to act with ambition or address the demonstrable tendency of central government towards command and control. It is also vital that new provision will have appropriate teeth to ensure confidence in the new approach.

4. With the Localism Bill currently making its way through the Commons and with the Department for Communities and Local Government’s recent review of the statutory duties placed on local authorities, London boroughs are conscious of the potential benefits of real devolution and of the extent to which these benefits might now be secured.

5. At the same time, they are also aware that Government remains cautious, apparently reluctant to trust local authorities to simply get on with the job and deliver for their communities.

6. Set out below are our thoughts on the essential principles of a draft code and our initial reactions to the document circulated by the Committee. Broadly speaking, we feel this code represents a sound basis for future work and reflects many of the points given as oral evidence at recent meetings of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. In particular, the proposed financial independence of local government comes as welcome recognition that a mature and sustainable relationship between central and local government is contingent on local financial autonomy.

7. We would be happy to develop these proposals further and discuss our ideas at a date convenient.

Essential Components of a Draft Code

8. In considering recent prospects for greater devolution and our overall approach to localism, London Councils is guided by the following:

(i)A general presumption that those elected by an area are best placed to do what is needed for the interests of that area and that central government should allow local democratic institutions to operate with the fullest possible discretion.

(ii)A firm belief that decisions should be made at the lowest possible democratic level, closest to the people who will be affected by the decision. Local government should be the first option to be considered for functions or activities that need to be organised below the national or regional level.

9. On this basis, we believe the following are essential principles of any code governing the relationship between central and local government:

(i)Local authorities are autonomous and locally accountable institutions of government responsible for enabling the wellbeing of their local communities.

(ii)As such, local authorities should be given powers and resources commensurate with this role and function. They should be able to exercise a considerable degree of control over public expenditure in their area, possess the ability to set the parameters of local taxation and raise income through any mechanism deemed acceptable to their local electorate.

(iii)Local councillors are elected to make decisions and to govern in the interests of their area. It follows, that they have a clear role in the leadership of their communities and other public bodies operating locally and that they should be afforded the freedom to self-determine arrangements for decision-making, management and delegation.

(iv)Given these principles there should be a general presumption against defining the role and function of local authorities through statute. Statutory duties should be restricted to specific, high profile areas, where it is generally accepted that central Government has a specific interest or those instances where there is an identified high risk to individuals.

(v)Central government should ensure that the monitoring and regulation of local government is concomitant with these principles and aimed simply at ensuring compliance with the law.

10. With these in mind, our views on the proposed articles of the draft code are as follows:

Preamble: we strongly support the principle of local authority independence in both powers and finance and the statement that local government is of comparable not subordinate status to central government.

Article One: we welcome the proposed entrenchment of the fundamental rights and duties of local government through amendment to the Parliament Act and the establishment of a joint committee of both Houses to scrutinise and protect these principles. In addition, we would propose that all new primary legislation would required to have a “statement of compatibility” with the proposed Code and that the joint committee monitor and report annually on the extent to which these principles are being adopted.

Article Two: given elected local government’s constitutional legitimacy, we propose that there should be a presumption in favour of local authorities leading the activities of public bodies within their areas.

Article Three: we believe that an important general principle is that local authorities should be free to act on their own initiative so as to enable the well being of their local communities. As such, it is central Government’s responsibility to demonstrate that additional duties enforced by statute are both necessary and appropriately considered.

Article Four: we propose that an inspection regime is necessarily light-touch and that service standards are defined and monitored at the local level.

Article Five: whilst recognising the role of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England and the rule of law, we would stress that the boundaries of local authorities are primarily an issue for councils and their citizens and that insofar as is practicable local communities should be entitled to autonomy in this area.

Article Six: we welcome provision for local authorities to be able to act with autonomy in regard to local political decision-making systems and recognise the desirability of formal consultation through local referenda before changes are made. However, we would propose that any timetable for review is a decision best made locally rather than codified nationally.

Article Seven: we strongly support the principle that local councils should be financially independent of central government and the proposal that local authorities should be able to raise additional sources of income, subject to agreement with their electorates. Local government financial autonomy is the cornerstone of real local devolution and is a fundamental component of putting local authorities on a comparable rather than subordinate standing with national government. In addition, we propose that central government should ensure that the resources of local government are commensurate with the duties and functions required of it and that local authorities should be able to exercise greater control over all public expenditure within their areas.

Article Eight: we support this principle, local authorities should be free to form associations and co-operate in any way with other public, voluntary or private organisations.

Article Nine: we recognise and accept the role and authority of the Electoral Commission in the oversight of local referenda.

Article Ten: we support the principle that local authorities should have recourse to judicial remedy in order to secure free exercise of their powers.


11. London Councils is keen to explore the potential for codifying the relationship between central and local government as a mechanism for delivering a tangible increase in local authority autonomy and independence.

12. To date, the work of the Constitutional and Political Reform Committee represents a determined effort to grapple with a challenging and far-reaching agenda. Insofar as London Councils might support this laudable and potentially radical activity we would be happy discuss further the proposals contained in the circulated document and explore the opportunities and appetite that exists across London boroughs for progressing this work.

April 2011

Prepared 28th January 2013