Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


Memorandum by the Heath and Hampstead 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 process.


  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.


  3.1  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 local elections.

  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 eroded.

  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


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