Memorandum by the Heath and Hampstead
1. THE SOCIETY
The Heath and Hampstead Society was founded
in 1897 as the Hampstead Heath Protection Society. Since then
it has changed its name and widened its scope to include, in addition
to the Heath, the built environment of the area covered by the
former Borough of Hampstead. The society has some 1,300 members
nearly all of whom live in Hampstead which lies entirely within
the London Borough of Camden.
The Society has always been strictly non party-political.
The issue of what the government and Camden have called "Democratic
Renewal", however, presented us with the prospect of wide
ranging changes in the system of representation at local government
level, as well as affecting crucially our opportunities to inform
and influence councillors and committees. For these reasons, despite
the fact that Camden's proposals for change were put forward by
the ruling Labour group and opposed by both opposition parties,
the Society decided to take a leading role in the consultation
Camden issued a long and comprehensive consultation
document entitled Make Your Mark. This was intended for delivery
to all households. Due to administrative errors it appears that
there were serious gaps in delivery and the document was, in any
case, too complicated for individual respondents to understand
unless they were well versed in local government matters. Nevertheless,
the consultation exercise was a very large one, including public
meetings and special group consultations. This Society, supported
by the local press, organised the largest public meeting attended
by over 100 people.
The results of this consultation procedure have
been summarised in a report by Camden officers which showed a
rejection by a large majority of respondents and by public meetings
of Camden's proposal to adopt the "Leader and Cabinet"
model in the draft Bill. A majority also rejected the other two
models and there was a strong demand for a referendum to be held
on any further proposals for change.
3. THE SOCIETY'S
3.1 We agree with the Government that change
is needed. Local government has become remote from its constituents,
inefficient, slow-working and wasteful. Voter participation is
far too low as evidenced by the unacceptably low turn-outs at
3.2 The fundamental question before us,
however, is whether, after the changes proposed in the draft bill,
local councils will be more or less responsive to, in touch with,
and accountable to local opinion.
3.3 We submit that all three models offered
by the draft under consideration fail to satisfy these fundamental
requirements. The main emphasis of government thinking seems to
be on an executive with wide powers which is only subject to post
facto scrutiny by panels with little or no powers of revision.
This, we submit, is a serious backward step for local democracy
and places excessive power in small coteries of councillors beyond
the gaze of the press and of the public. Moreover, we see the
abilities of "backbench" councillors to represent the
views and interest of their ward constituents being very seriously
From our own point of view, we depend crucially
on our ward councillors who are our only effective channel for
putting forward the views of our members to the council. As we
are situated, it is clear that none of the councillors representing
wards in our community would form part of any "cabinet"
and they would, therefore, be powerless to influence decisions
which affect our members. This must also be true of many other
communities throughout the country.
3.4 A consequence of any of the proposed
changes will be the abolition of the existing committee system.
The theory seems to be that this will free councillors to develop
a closer link with their local communities. But to what end? With
only a small majority of councillors in the cabinet, most will
be reduced to scrutinising decisions already taken.
In Camden we have recent evidence of the power
of party managers to gag and discipline councillors who depart
from the party line and this leads us to the conclusion that such
scrutiny would be ineffective in any council with a "built-in"
single party majority.
3.4 The Prime Minister has rightly called
on councils to abandon the closed doors of the party caucus and
to consult more effectively with their voters. It seems to us
that all three models proposed would have an opposite result.
3.5 A major issue in any consideration for
change should be the harmful effect of single-party control on
governance at local level. In this respect, it is ominous that
the draft Bill would abolish the present legal requirement to
have politically balanced councils and committees which reflect
the number of seats held by each party. This must be one of the
main safeguards of public access to the decision-making process.
We hear from the government and from Camden
of the need to make decision-making more "efficient".
It would be tragic indeed if the pursuit of efficiency lost sight
of the concept of representative democracy upon which local government
in Britain has always been based.
Our firm view is that the proposals in the draft
Bill are badly thought-out and would result in damaging local
democracy without bringing any improvement in the effectiveness
of local government or increasing public involvement.
There is a "fourth way" and that lies
in retaining the well-tried existing democratic process and improving
it by a much greater emphasis on local communities. There should
be a radical de-centralisation of decision making by giving community-based
forums a real input in the formulation of policy. This would start
to make the workings of the Council more relevant to ordinary
voters and to break down the power of party caucuses which is
the real case of voter apathy. Not until citizens can see that
their interests are taken into account at local community level
will they return to the polls.
30 June 1999