Additional memorandum by the Local Government
Firstly I would like to thank you for offering
the Local Government Association the opportunity to present evidence
in person to the Committee on 22 June 1999. We hope that you found
our answers to your questions useful and informative.
The Association fully acknowledges that the
traditional committee system does have a number of deficiencies
and we support the Government's agenda to improve the openness,
transparency and accountability of decision making in local government.
We have, since the publication of the White Paper, "Modern
Local GovernmentIn touch with the people" actively
encouraged local authorities to review their arrangements and
to adopt new interim structures in advance of legislation.
The development of proposals in consultation
with local people, community and voluntary groups and businesses
will also be crucial to the success of any new structures. The
LGA has been very active in encouraging authorities to consult
and involve stakeholders not only in these proposals but also
in the wider context of service improvement and delivery. We have
produced a wide variety of documents to provide guidance to authorities
on how to engage their communities and have also established "The
Democracy Network" with the I & DeA to enable the sharing
of best practice amongst authorities.
There are a number of points which the Association
would like to make to provide clarification on some of the issues
raised by members of the Committee.
Understandably there was a great deal of discussion
about elected mayors and the use of referenda and public polls
to trigger such proposals. The concept of elected mayors has dominated
much of the debate and does seem to be the preferred option of
the Government. At present though, current evidence, for example
from the LGA's own five key areas survey, does not suggest this
is the preferred option of local authorities.
The Local Government Association does not oppose
the idea of directly elected mayors and will seek to support those
areas that do introduce such arrangements in any way that it can.
What the Association does oppose is the suggestion that (1) directly
elected mayors would be appropriate for all areas and (2) central
Government should impose a referendum for a directly elected mayor
on a number of major cities or on any authority across England
The Association strongly believes that arrangements
involving directly elected mayors are much less likely to be appropriate
in some areas, for example rural areas and indeed that none of
the three models may be appropriate in some areas particularly
those less dominated by party politics.
On the issue of the imposition of referenda.
The Association believes that where a referendum is to be held
it must be owned locally by local communities and by the authority
which will be working with the structure. A structure imposed
on a locality will inevitably lead to tensions within and between
communities and with elected members and may well lead to serious
defects in the democratic process. This can only serve to worsen
the reputation of local government and is something the Association
obviously wishes to avoid.
That is not to say that the Association does
not see the benefits and opportunities of directly elected mayors
in those areas where there is a genuine commitment from communities
and authorities to working with such an arrangement.
Related to this issue is that of public opinion.
Much has been made of a number of surveys which have shown public
support for the idea of directly elected mayors. The Association
does not wish to enter into a debate about the validity of such
statistical consultation mechanisms nor to try to discredit the
surveys by suggesting that trained statisticians can always achieve
the results that they want to. Surveys can, and often do provide
an informative snap-shot of views and opinions.
However, if such surveys are to be used to make
such major changes to local democratic processes it is a local
authority's duty to ensure that those consulted are aware of all
the issues and the consequences of such changes so that they can
make fully-informed choices.
The Association is also aware of public consultation
that has taken place that has not produced such startling opinion
in favour of directly elected mayors. For instance in a survey
by MORI, commissioned by the LGA in 1998 to investigate the attitudes
towards voting respondents were asked which of a list of 12 options
would be most likely to encourage them to vote. Only 21 per cent
of respondents said that voting for a directly elected mayor would
make them more likely to vote, the third lowest figure of all
12 options and well behind the top three options; voting from
home via the telephone40 per cent; having polling stations
at shopping centres38 per cent; and having polling stations
at supermarkets37 per cent. This evidence would suggest
that voting for directly elected mayors would not then bring about
the massive change in turnout at elections that it has been claimed
it would achieve.
MORI also carried out some work for the Cabinet
Office's own People's Panel of 5,000 people on local democracy.
Members of the panel were asked for their views on a number of
statements about opportunities for giving their views on the way
council services are run in their area. Whilst 55 per cent did
support the idea of elections for local mayors this was the least
supported of six suggestions.
The LGA are also aware of consultation carried
out by the London Borough of Camden which provided a great deal
of information to residents about a range of proposals for future
structures, including the three options in the White Paper and
retention of existing arrangements. A large response from a wide
range of Camden's citizens was achieved and contrary to what might
have been expected the majority of respondents appeared to favour
a retention/improvement of the current committee based structures.
These are just three examples which help to
highlight the LGA's view that surveys should not be taken in isolation
and that authorities have a duty to consider other factors in
the taking of decisions for the benefit of all communities within
their area and for the best results for local democracy.
Thirdly, on the issue of referenda. The LGA
supports the intention that local communities should be able to
choose their form of local governance. There are obviously a number
of issues still to be resolved around the conducting of binding
referenda which the Association hopes will be addressed by secondary
legislation. Such issues include:
the form of the proposition to be
put to local people and how consensus for it is secured;
the provision of information to local
people in order to facilitate informed debate;
the role of campaigning;
what mechanisms should be used to
conduct the referendumwould using alternative polling methods
(eg telephone voting, all postal ballots, etc) help increase participation;
should referendums be held at the
same time as local elections; and
how the cost of local referendums
should be met.
It would also seem to be appropriate that if
the referendum is to be binding that a threshold should be set,
especially in the light of the low turnout at recent elections
and also as the result will introduce a major change in local
democratic arrangements which can only be change by a subsequent
referendumbut not for at least five years.
Local ownership of the question used in a referendum
will also be vitally important and the LGA would like to re-iterate
its view that any imposed referenda should be administered by
an Independent Electoral Commission as outlined in our response
to the DETR.
The Association is also concerned that the proposals,
as they stand, do not give local people real choice. A referendum
will only allow local people to choose a directly elected mayor.
The proposals also mean that citizens can only choose to have
arrangements which are not one of the three models by voting against
a directly elected mayor.
The LGA would wish to see that if referenda
are to be used to determine future arrangements that they could
be used by Councils to offer a greater range of options to local
people, including all three of the draft Bill's models and any
other locally developed solutions. Only then will local communities
have a real choice about how they are governed.
There was also a great deal of discussion about
the role of "back-benchers" or "non-executive"
members in arrangements with splits between executive and scrutiny
functions and expression of concern that the new arrangements
would not provide rewarding roles for those members outside of
the executive. Cllr Harry Jones mentioned a paper which had been
written by Professor Steve Leech of De Montfort University which
addressed this very issue. I have enclosed a pre-publication copy
of this for the Committee's information.
More generally on the role of back-benchers
the Association would like to re-iterate two points. Firstly,
it has been suggested that the future roles will not be as rewarding
as current arrangements and will not appeal to existing councillors.
This could be restated as the new structures could be used to
provide different roles which will attract different people from
local communities to stand for election. This will help to increase
the diversity of elected members and ensure that they are more
representative of the communities they serve.
The Association is also of the belief that there
can be, in some cases, an overstatement and a mis-representation
of the current role of councillors. Decisions taken at committees
are often taken in party groups, outside of formal decision making
arrangements. This point is dealt with in more detail in Professor
Finally, as a matter of information I would
like to outline the work being undertaken by the Association to
develop an additional model which allows for executive decision
making by area or neighbourhood committees. Officers are working
with a small number of local authorities which already have in
place neighbourhood decision making arrangements. This small group
will work to develop a basic model along the lines of those in
the draft Bill outlining the basic structure and processes for
decision making and policy development. This model will then be
circulated amongst a wider range of local authorities, DETR, academics
and other interested parties to try to "flesh out" the
proposals and to ensure that it provides a suitable option for
those authorities who wish to pursue this type of decision making.
If this model is developed within the lifetime of the Committee
I will, of course, be happy to send this to you.
Once again, I would like to thank you for providing
the Association with an opportunity to contribute to the work
of the Committee. I look forward to seeing the final report and
recommendations. If I can be of any further help please do not
hesitate to contact me.
NEW POLITICAL MANAGEMENTS STRUCTURES
The Role of the Non-Executive Member by
The proposals for new political management structures
in local authorities in England and Wales, set out in the White
Paper "In Touch with the People" and the recently published
Draft Local Government Bill, imply a clear separation between
some form of executive or cabinet (which may or may not include
an elected mayor) and an assembly, which respond to policy proposals
made by the executive and scrutinises its decisions.
Although the White Paper argues that the proposals
will give all councillorswhether or not they are members
of the executivea "new enhanced and more rewarding
role" (para 3.39), this is not a perception which is shared
by many of those existing councillors who do not anticipate becoming
a member of an executive. It is clear from the discussions at
the many seminars for local authorities on "new political
structure" in which the author has been involved that one
of the greatest concerns of such members is that their role will
become "marginalised". There is a strong antipathy to
the creation of "two classes" of councillorexecutive
and non-executivewhich is perceived to be a consequence
of the government's proposals, and a perception that non-executive
councillorswhether of the same or a different party from
that of the executive (assuming that one party has an overall
majority)will become relatively powerless in the new circumstances,
leading to a lack of morale and subsequently difficulties of retention
and recruitment of non-executive assembly members.
This paper argues that these fears, although
understandable are largely unfounded, so long as local authorities
in general and party groups within them in particular follow the
spirit of the proposals set out in the White Paper and Draft Bill.
In other words there is an important degree of choice in the way
in which the proposals are responded to. The key areas of choice
are discussed below. Many of the choices will be in the hands
of party groups, individually and collectively. Different political
compositionseg, one-party states, majority party rule,
no overall controland different features of political culturein
particular the nature of inter-party relationshipsare likely
to have a significant influence on the perceptions of party groups
as to what is and is not possible or desirable under the new cabinet/assembly
regime. But these differences do not detract from the principle
that the future of the non-executive member's role is largely
in the power of the parties represented on council to decide.
In this paper the arguments of the White Paper
about the scope of the non-executive role are set out, and the
areas of choice which are open to local authorities identified.
It is important that analysis is based in a realistic account
of the current roles and role interpretations of members who are
not in the informal cabinets which now exist in almost all majority-controlled
authorities (and in many hung authorities) and so an assessment
is provided of the existing role-sets of "non-executive"
members. Six specific non-executive rolesdecision-making,
policy formulation, scrutiny, local representation and advocacy,
regulation and community networkingare then identified
and discussed in detail. In each case attention is drawn to the
differences of role interpretation that might be expected in different
political situations (majority control, no overall control, etc),
between different political parties and in response to whether
a party has majority control, regards itself as in opposition,
or is a small party in neither of these positions. Some of the
administrative and training implications of the changes are then
set out. Finally there is a conclusions section which emphasises
the crucial impact of party group attitudes and disciplinary culture
in opening up or closing down the scope and attractiveness of
The White Paper "In Touch with the People"
sets out three options for executiveselected mayor plus
cabinet, cabinet plus leader, and elected mayor plus council manager.
The recent LGMB research on local authorities' current planned
responses to this agenda confirms that almost all authorities
prefer the "cabinet plus leader" option. As a result,
the emphasis in this paper is on the implications for non-executives
role in this option.
The responsibilities of "the executive"
will be the same in each case, ie to:
translate the wishes of the community
represent the authority and its community's
interests to the outside world;
build coalitions and work in partnership
with all sectors of the community, and bodies from outside the
community, including the business and public sectors;
ensure effective delivery of the
programme on which it was elected;
prepare policy plans and proposals;
take decisions on resources and priorities;
and draw up the annual budget, including
capital plans, for submission to the full council. (Para 3.39).
These roles can be summarised as "community
leadership", "external networking" (local, national
and international), "policy and plan formulation" (including
the annual budget) and "executive decision-making".
The White Paper goes on to identify a number
of important roles for non-executive or "backbench"
"Under the new models, a council would be
required to establish scrutiny committees of backbench members
(who) would be under an explicit duty to review and question the
decisions and performance of the executive" (para 3.41).
"(Councillors) would also review the policies
and direction of the council proposing changes and submitting
policy proposals to the executive" (para 3.41).
"Each councillor will become a champion
of their local community, defending the public interest in the
council . . . . They will bring their constituents' views, concerns
and grievances to the council through their council's structure.
Their role will be to represent the people to the council rather
than to defend the council to the people. (Paras 3.43 and 3.42).
The White Paper is clear that assembly members
collectively will retain the power to accept, reject or suggest
amendments to a budget proposed by the executive (para 3.44).
By implication, the same power will apply to other major policy
initiatives such as the community plan, service plans and local
plans. There may also be scope for "requisitioning"
specific executive decision for assembly debate and recommendation,
prior to their implementation.
Responsibilities would include . . . those quasi-judicial
functions such as planning, licensing and appeals which it would
not normally be appropriate to delegate to an individual member
of the executive. (Para 3.44).
Although less explicit about this role, the White
Paper makes several references to the value of "decentralised
structures for decision-making" (para 3.48) including area
committees, and the value of local consultation initiatives (para
3.50). It can be assumed that non-executive members would play
a central role in such structures and processes; indeed this seems
an essential element in their ability to be effective local representatives
and community advocates (see above).
The White Paper is distinctly upbeat about the
potential of these non-executive roles. It paints a picture of
an existing institution in which "councillors can in practice
be excluded from the real decision taking and yet have no power
to challenge or scrutinise those decisions" (para 3.40).
It argues that "in truth local councillors . . . will have
a greater say in the formulation of policy and the solving of
local problems than they would have within current committee structures"
(para 3.43). In general, "this enhanced role will provide
new opportunities to backbench councillors. The role could be
less time-consuming but it will be high profile, involving real
and direct responsibilities for the well-being of their community
and will be more challenging and rewarding." (Para 3.45).
It is this positive portrayal of the future
role of the non-executive member which most existing backbenchers
find unconvincing. There is a mismatch between central government's
expectations and local councillors' scepticism. In the rest of
this paper the sources of and justification for these different
perceptions are explored. However, it is important to discuss
first the extent to which the government's perceptions of existing
backbench roles are justified. Is it true for example, that "councillors
can in practice be excluded from the real decision-taking?"
Non-executive Roles in Current Circumstances
Although formal executives, in the sense identified
in the White Paper, cannot operate under existing Local Government
law, a large majority of local authorities now acknowledge the
existence of a cabinet of leading members either on an informal
or formal basis (although the latter cannot of course take decisions).
Recent LGMB research showed that over three-quarters of local
authorities acknowledged the existence of some form of cabinet,
or its equivalent. Typically such cabinets consist of the leading
members (including committee chairs) of the dominant party (or
of parties working together in some form of partnership administration).
Thus in informal terms in politicised local authorities in England
and Wales there is a de facto distinction between cabinet (or
executive) members and non-executive members, albeit in a situation
where cabinet members lack the power to actually make decisions.
So what roles can non-executive members play
under the current system? The informal cabinet typically develops
a collective view about the desired response to an agenda of policy
decisions (including policy statements) which will usually emphasise
corporate issues but which will regularly also involve service-specific
issues, assuming they are of enough importance to merit discussion
at this level. These responses then take two different routes.
First, they move into the formal decision-making system in the
form of officer reports and recommendations (in the light of the
steer provided by the cabinet), which will form part of the agenda
of the Policy and Resources Committee or the appropriate service
committee. Secondly, they may become the subject of group discussionand
ultimately group decisionat a meeting of the majority party
(or parties, if there is a partnership administration).
Normally, Policy and Resources Committees will
be dominated by cabinet members (who are also typically chairs
of the main service committees), with little scope for non-executive
members of the majority party to be included. There will be the
requisite proportion of opposition members, who will have the
choice to engage in public debate about the issues concerned,
and in the limited way that is possible at such meetings to scrutinise
the decisions which the majority party intend to make. The reality
is of course, that the intentions of the majority party are highly
unlikely to be changed by the debate, nor are opposition members
in a position to play a well-briefed and effective scrutiny role,
except on selected high-profile topics.
Similar points can be made about committee meetings.
The chair and vice-chair will be aware of any inputs from the
cabinet (of which the chair will almost certainly be a member),
which will be reflected in the content of the relevant committee
reports. Otherwise the agenda will reflect detailed discussion
between the chair and chief officer concerned. Any issues which
arise which merit a cabinet steer will become the subject of informal
discussions between chair and leader (unless the chair is trying
to limit the application of this process to his or her own service!)
The non-executive opposition members will enjoy
the same opportunities for debate and (superficial) scrutiny which
prevail in relation to Policy and Resources Committee agendas
with the same lack of ultimate influence, ie the decisions made
will be those agreed in advance by the majority party group represented
on the committee. In this latter process, although there will
be opportunities for non-executive majority party members to contribute
to a debate in private before the formal committee meeting, that
debate is typically dominated by the committee chair who has been
instrumental in setting the agenda. Sometimes decision intentions
may be changed at this meetingmost commonly to defer an
item. If an item is deferred, the issue may well become a topic
for debate and decision at the full group meeting. For all the
items on which the pre-committee group meeting is prepared to
agree with the chair's preferences, even on the basis of a majority
vote, then support in public is required from all group members.
In some committeeseg planning controlthere may be
more scope for the expression of individual views, without the
constraints of a collective and binding group "decision"
than in others. But the normal practice is for a collective viewheavily
influenced by the chairto be reached in the vast majority
of the decisions to be faced.
The second opportunity for non-executive members
to discuss and possibly amend the preferences of the cabinet is
the party group meeting, which in principle, if a non-executive
member can persuade a majority of his or her colleagues that cabinet
recommendations should not be accepted, then that view will prevail.
There are two forces which militate against this outcome. First,
if as is likely, the issue is one which the cabinet has already
debated then all the cabinet members are likely to support the
collective cabinet view. Such support may indeed be an explicit
expectation; but even if it is not, the informal peer group pressures
within the cabinet will strengthen the probability of the same
outcome. Secondly, there is a limit to what can be discussed at
group meetings which may themselves only occur on a monthly basis.
Thus the would-be challenger to the collective wisdom of the cabinet
has to get his or her item on agendas and then succeed in generating
a services debate about it. Time constraints and the perspective
of the group officer who draws up the agenda may both operate
against the interests of the individual non-executive member here.
The non-executive member may be able to play
a part in policy formulation, depending upon the way the decision-making
process is structured. Many authorities use small working parties
to generate (or review) policy, sometimes on a single party basis
but usually all-party. This kind of mechanism provides an opportunity
to influence policy, as does playing an active part in the manifesto
formulation process, either within the party group or (for Labour
and Liberal Democrats) through the external local party machinery.
Local representation is customarily pursued
through the chasing up of local casework or site-specific issues
through the officer structure. Local issues can of course be raised
at committee or party group meetings. At the latter they have
to get through the competition for inclusion on the agenda. At
committees the raising of local issues is not encouraged (except
perhaps at planning or area committees) particularly if it contradicts
the agreed group line. Indeed attempts of local pleading in such
circumstances may be construed as grounds for disciplinary procedure.
There are exemption clauses for issues of conscience and issues
where the councillor's credibility at ward level would be seriously
affected if he or she publicly accepted (and voted for) the group
line. However these instances are very much the exception.
There is some scope for external networking
at the non-executive member level, either through current development/area
committee initiatives or through the opportunities to act as the
council's representative on an external body (eg school governors
and voluntary sector management board). It would normally be the
case, however for cabinet members to be the council's representative
on significant outside bodies (eg SRB boards, health authorities,
LGA county branches).
Thus a range of role opportunities for non-executive
members do exist in the current system, but many of them are heavily
circumscribed less by the formal initiatives of local authorities
than by the tradition of local political culture both within party
and between party. It would be possible for a majority party not
to agree a collective position on committee agenda items before
a committee meeting, and to allow a view to develop during the
course of the meeting, but it is rare to find a party group that
Party group discipline continues to apply in
situations of no overall control. Indeed in a tense and conflictual
hung authority there is often a premium on a party group "holding
together" to extract maximum political gain from the formal
decision-making processes where the outcomes typically become
much more uncertain.
The point to emphasise is that there currently
exists no golden age of power and influence for non-executive
(or backbench) members. There is the opportunity to participate
in formal public decision-making processes, which would be greatly
reduced particularly in relation to the detailed business of service
committees, in a move towards a cabinet with executive powers.
But the constraints on the behaviour of non-executive members
in politicised authorities are considerable, particularly in the
Labour Party, least so amongst the Liberal Democrats. Similar
party group-centred constraints exist in relation to the public
advocacy of local issues, if the content of the advocacy is at
odds with the group line. It should be emphasised that such behavioural
constraints do not normally have to be imposed on unwilling group
members; they are accepted and internalised as necessary and appropriate
ways of operating. If backbench members sometimes feel frustration
about the constraints, it is generally tempered with a recognition
of the need for them.
The non-executive member can, within limits,
influence party group decisions, and if a move to the new system
significantly decreased such opportunities, that would be an understandable
cause for concern on their part. But the extent to which the authority
of the party group will be fundamentally challenged by a move
to cabinet government is an open question which we examine in
greater detail later in this paper.
There exists some scope at present for the involvement
of non-executive members in policy formulation and external representation,
depending on the particular political dynamics of the party group
in question. At worst there is very little scopeeg where
the policy-making process is dominated by an experienced group
of senior members.
It would be difficult to sustain an agreement
that the current position of non-executive members is a satisfactory
one, either for them or from the perspective of a transparent,
accountable decision-making process. The White Paper's analysis
of the problems of the current system though challengeable in
detail, is in general a plausible representation of reality.
The Allocation of Powers Between Executive and
The White Paper and Draft Bill make it clear
that local authorities will be required to establish some form
of executive/cabinet and to allocate certain types of function
(see p 2 above) to it. But as the LGMB/LGA/Democracy Network report
"New Forms of Political Executive; Practical Implications"
points out, there currently exists a whole range of important
choices concerning the allocation of functions between executive
and assembly. It may be that subsequent primary or secondary legislation
erodes these areas of choice. But is unlikely, having acknowledged
in the White Paper the importance of local circumstances that
the Government will see the need to become overly prescriptive
in this respect. Until and unless it does, the following choices
are open to all local authorities, in addition to the choice about
which of the three models of executive to adopt.
The definition of what constitutes policy and
what constitutes executive action. The wider the definition of
policy, which has to be approved by the assembly, the more power
non-executive members have in relation to their decision-making
The scope for the assembly to initiate policy
proposals for consideration by the executive (see White Paper
para. 3.41). The more this power is built into a council's operations,
the greater is the scope for non-executive members' involvement
in policy formulation. In addition, in so far as scrutiny involves
policy review, this too constitutes a non-executive influence
on policy (for presumably the results of a policy review or scrutiny
would normally be expected to lead to policy changes.)
The way the council interprets the role and
scope of "scrutiny". As "New Forms of Political
Executive" points out, precisely what scrutiny means has
yet to be clarified. In principle scrutiny could focus on policy
and/or specific decisions. It could operate in a post-hoc mode
(ie reviewing particular policies or decisions) or in relation
to proposed policies of decisions, before adoption or implementation.
It could cover administrative issues (how is this authority run)
or substantive service or policy issues (why is this service performing
badly?) It could focus on the qualitative (audit, performance
review) or the qualitative (evidence of public concern about the
way a policy is being implemented). The general point to emphasise
is that the wider the definition of the scrutiny role, the more
central a part it will play in the operations of a local authority
and the greater will be the non-executive members' involvement.
Local representation/community networking
There is a choice about the extent to which
an authority wishes to introduce decentralised structure for decision-making,
either to operate as part of the scrutiny arrangement (White Paper,
para 3.50) or exercising delegated executive responsibilities
(through council officers, acting locally under guidance from
political representatives or neighbourhood forums [para 3.51]).
The wider the scope of such arrangements, the stronger is the
non-executive member's community networking (and indeed decision-making)
role at the local level. In addition such machinery would support
and legitimise the "local representative" role of the
non-executive member in the assembly.
It is now clear that the regulatory role is
seen as appropriate for the assembly, rather than the executive.
In addition the Standards Committeewhich is a form of regulationwould
be expected to be an assembly responsibility, possibly aided by
There are a number of other significant areas
of choice, for example around frequency of assembly meeting; level
of dedicated support for assembly members; access to information
provided to executive members; and involvement in appointment
of senior officials. However the important choicesthose
which have direct consequences for the non-executive members'
role setare those which have been highlighted above.
It is apparent that depending on the choices
made by each council, which will in turn reflect the choices made
by the party groups on the council, it would be possible at one
extreme to define a wide-ranging and substantial set of roles
for non-executive members whilst at the other extreme, it would
be possible to define a much more limited and constrained set
of roles. In the former case, it would be difficult to argue against
a proposition that non-executive members would have a fulfilling
and influential part to play. In the latter circumstance, it would
be difficult to argue in support of such a proposition. Table
1 sets out a "worst scenario" and "best scenario"
for non-executive members. In reality most authorities are likely
to emphasise certain roles at the expense of others, and hence
locate somewhere between the two extremes.
Figure 1: Roles and Responsibilities of Non-Executive
||Best Scenario |
|Decision-Making Role||"Policy" defined in narrow terms I|
relatively few policies requiring assembly approval.
|"Policy" defined in broad terms I|
relatively large number of policies requiring assembly approval.
|Policy Formulation||All policy formulation responsibilities reserved for executive.
||Considerabel scope for assembly to formulate policy for consideration by executive.
|Scrutiny||Narrow definition of scrutiny, emphasising audit, performance review and "best value" initiative.
||Wide ranging definition of scrutiny including reviw of policy and policy proposals, and opportunities to scrutinise executive decisions prior to implementation.
|Community Networking||No area committee or community forums established. All executive decisions taken by cabinet.
||Area committees established with delegated executive responsibilities and budgets, in which non-executive members play a leading role.
|Local Representation||Little scope for local advocacy at assembly meetings. Scrutiny procedures do not encourage "local member" perspective.
||Local advocacy role encouraged at the frequent assembly meetings. (eg through "question time" initiatives). Scrutiny procedures incorporate local members' perspectives.
|Regulatory Role||Shared between cabinet and assembly.
||Exclusive to assembly.|
It is clear from the contrast between the "worst scenario"
and "best scenario" element of Figure 1 that to a large
extent the scope for a fulfilling and influential role set for
non-executive members is in the hands of each local authority.
But a further set of choices then come into play. How will the
role opportunities provided for non-executive members actually
be utilised? It is one thing for a non-executive majority party
member to have the opportunity to ask leading questions of his
party colleagues on the cabinet at a publicly well-attended assembly
meeting. It is another for him or her to actually use this opportunity.
To pose this question immediately brings us back into the
world of party group behaviour and party group discipline. The
separation of cabinet and assembly responsibilities and the emphasis
placed on the "scruntiny" and "local representative"
role of assembly members imply major challenges to the traditional
norms and rules of party group operation, in particular the predisposition
to maintain a united front in public, however sharp the disagreements
that have been expressed in private, at party group meetings.
Whatever the council decides formaly about the allocation of cabinet/assembly
responsibilities, an equally important consideration is the extent
to which party groups will encourage or permit the changes in
behaviour implicit in the performance of these new non-executive
roles, and the extent to which non-executive members will themselves
be prepared to change the habits of a political lifetime! In the
light of these dilemmas and uncertainties, it is important to
subject the six non-executive roles identified not just to a functional
analysis, but also to a political analysis.
The decision-making role
Let us assume a situation where policy has been defined in
relatively wide terms, and that for a range of policy proposals,
assembly approval is required. This is itself implies a good deal
of power for non-executive members. Although they cannot collectively
substitute an assembly policy for a cabinet proposal which does
not achieve majority support, they can "refer back"
a proposal for reconsideration, which is likely to lead at least
to a compromise proposal subsequently emerging from the cabinet.
All non-executive members would in these circumstances have
a substantial decision-making role. But how would they exploit
For opposition members, in an assembly in which one party
enjoyed majority control, there would be opportunities for public
criticism of the proposals of "the party in power" and
for political points-scoring (particularly when a local election
was imminent) similar to those which exist at present. If opposition
behaviour continued to take this form, there would be a strong
pressure for group loyalty on the part of the majority party membersexecutive
and non-executive alike, just as there is at present. In such
circumstances, one would expect the role of majority party non-executive
members to be largely supportive of their colleagues' policy proposals;
certainly to vote for them and rarely to raise significant cirticisms
of them. If this scenario developed the decision-making role of
the non-executive member would continue to be a predominantly
But there is a possible alternative senario, which would
stem form changes in the normal practice of intra-and inter-party
relations. It is likely that support for cabinet proposals
from non-executive members of the same party would be forthcoming
only if the cabinet agreed to consult the party group in advance
of any formal presentation of policies to assembly, and to amend
the proposals if there was a majority view within the group opposing
particular elements of them. If the cabinet were not prepared
to concede this continuity in party group practice then non-executive
group members would be more likely to evaluate and challenge cabinet-inspired
policy proposals "on their merits". In effect the group
whip would cease to apply (as far as the non-executive party group
members on the assembly were concerned).
The question then becomes how would the opposition parties
behave? One possiblility is that they would make maximum political
capital out of the public disunity of the majority party (eg "here
we have a cabinet which cannot even convince its own supporters
of its policy"). If this strategy proved effective particularly
in terms of media coverage that was critical of the cabinet, then
the likelihood is that the majority party would close ranks. Cabinet
and assembly members would agree a "consultation" deal,
and the traditional patterns of support would resume.
Alternatively it is possible that opposition groups would
modify traditional behaviour and also be prepared to judge each
case on its merits, supporting aspect of a policy proposal which
they genuinely agreed with, but criticising those with which they
did not agree. It is hard to imagine that this process would not
be preceded with some collective deliberation and preparation
on the part of opposition groups. But it is possible that group
discipline would be applied with a relatively light touch, and
that the tone of debates on policy proposals would become more
genuinely deliberative. The potential benefit for opposition groups
is that they would be able to bring about concessions and modifications
in policy from the cabinet, assuming they too were prepared to
operate in this more open-minded way. If this were the case, it
is possible to envisage assembly debates over policy becoming
much more open and genuinely deliberative occasions with pre-agreed
party positions and party controls over the content of individual
contributions decreasing, though by no means disappearing as a
dominant influence. The cabinet would gain in terms of freedom
from the constraints of party group veto powers, and the ability
to operate as a genuine Westminster-style cabinet. Majority party
non-executive members would gain in the enhanced autonomy to say
what they think and vote as they think appropriate. Non-executive
members would gain in the potential to inspire cabinet members
to make policy changes if they can convince them in argument.
What would be lost is the sharpness of party distinctiveness,
which stems from a predisposition to criticise and oppose. It
is at least conceivable that this new pattern of intra- and inter
party relations would develop in certain political circumstances;
and things would be refreshingly different if it did.
This scenario of more open debate is probably more likely
in political circumstances other than "majority party plus
substantial opposition". In authorities dominated by one
party where the opposition was too small to be effective, the
dominant party would have little to lose by allowing more open
public debate amongst its members in assembly (although precedents
from existing one-party dominated councils are not encouraging
in this respect). In authorities with no overall control, it is
probably only by attempting to develop a culture of open debate
in assembly, and responsiveness to the outcome of that debate
on the part of the cabinet, that the council's business could
be effectively dealt with. Unless two parties were openly operating
"in partnership" at both cabinet and assembly level,
it would be extremely difficult to "fix" in advance
the outcome of assembly debates; and even where such partnerships
did operate, a relaxation of discipline in assembly debates would
act as an important safety valve for assembly members who were
concerned to have the chance to question inter-party agreements
reached within the cabinet.
The tensions expressed in this section between the traditional
pressures for party discipline and implications of the separation
of functions between executive and assembly reappear in relation
to at least two of the other non-executive member roles; scrutiny
and local representation. It is likely that authorities who are
able to generate a more open climate of debate, less dominated
by predetermined party stances in relation to the decision-making
role of the assembly, will be able to deal with the other roles
in a similar way. Equally a failure to create such a climate in
relation to one role is likely to mean similar difficulties with
Policy development and review
It is possible within the spirit of the White Paper, to allocate
responsibilities for policy formulation in such a way that the
assembly shared the responsibility rather than it being the sole
prerogative of the executive. Whilst it would always be expected
that the executive would play the dominant role in relation to
this function, there is nothing to prevent a local authority setting
up some kind of assembly machinery for developing policy on selected
topics. Policy proposals developed for this source would have
to go to the executive for consideration with the expectation
that they would re-present the proposals to assembly in modified
or unmodified form.
If such machinery were established it would have to be on
a proportionate all-party basis and it would have to operate relatively
informally. There are precedents in the way many local authorities
operate at present. Informal policy panels, working groups or
task forces are widely recognised as the most appropriate means
of developing policy rather than through formal committees, which
would be inappropriate anyway for an assembly that could not make
formal decisions on the policies that were developed.
The key issue is how the policy topics which the assembly
members would work on would be decided. Negotiation between executive
and assembly seems to be the only realistic basis, if one is talking
about new policy areas (such as crime and disorder) rather than
the review of existing policies. In relation to existing policies
there is a much stronger case for allowing the assembly to decide
what policies it wishes to review, given that review is analogous
to scrutiny and the choice of scrutiny topics should, it can be
argued, be the prerogative of the assembly. In reality the two
processes are difficult to distinguish. Policy review is likely
to result in proposals for policy change and hence is itself a
form of policy formulation. In practice, whatever the formal powers
of an assembly to initiate policy review or scrutiny, the topics
involved are likely to be the subject of informal negotiation
within the majority party group (or groups) concerned.
It was noted earlier that scrutiny can in principle cover
a whole range of topics.
scrutiny of existing polices (eg policy for the
scrutiny of policy proposals developed by the
cabinet, before formal submission to the assembly (eg a community
plan, or indeed the Council budget);
scrutiny of past decisions by the executive (eg
a school's closure);
scrutiny of decisions intended to be made by the
executive, before they are implemented (eg the designation of
a new civic amenity site);
scrutiny of service-performance (using the kind
of comparative indicators indentified in relation to best value;
scrutiny of administrative decisions or practices
of the executive (eg the way senior officers are appointed).
Clearly if an authority decides to institute wide-ranging
scrutiny procedures, there is a de facto demanding and high profile
scrutiny role for non-executive members. The key issues then become
first how are topics chosen and secondly how do non-executive
members behave on the scrutiny panels established.
In the discussion of non-executive members' decision-making
role, two possible scenarios were identified. In the first, adversarial
party politics becomes re-established in the new structures and
the assembly behaves in much the same way as in the practice in
council meetings in the current system. In the second, adversarial
party politics become diluted, and a more open form of debate
in which there is much less predetermined constraints on individual
party group members becomes established. Similar choices apply
to scrutiny procedures. it would be relatively easy in an authority
with conflictual inter-party climate for an adversarial ethos
to quickly develop in relation to scrutiny. Scrutiny would be
seen by the opposition as a chance to expose and embarrass the
majority party (in its cabinet manifesto). Indeed the very word
"scrutiny" is sometimes interpreted in an adversarial
way with House of Commons Select Committees a common reference
point. But just as debate over majority party's new policy proposals
does not have to be adversarial, neither does the operation of
the scrutiny function. Scrutiny is better seen as a relatively
objective investigation into a policy or a particular decision,
before or after the event. In such an investigation, it is likely
that strengths will be found as well as weaknesses. A scrutiny
report should give proper tolerance to strengths and weaknesses.
If scrutiny were conducted in this spirit, it would become more
likely that the executive will see it as less of a threat and
more of an opportunity for learning, and that non-executive members
will see it as an opportunity to reflect on past (or intended)
practice and to influence the executive.
As with decision-making, the way in which non-executive members
of a majority party operate in scrutiny mode will be influenced
by the attitude of other parties. If opposition parties use it
as an opportunity for an executive-bashing exercise, carried out
in adversarial style, non-executive majority party members on
the scrutiny panels are likely at the very least to remain silent
and probably to leap to the defence of their cabinet collegues.
If opposition members adopt a more balanced perspective, there
is every reason to suppose the majority party members will also
act in this way, criticising where they feel this is necessary,
praising where they feel praise is due. It is in relation to the
scrutiny function that moves have already been made within the
Labour party to relax group discipline (ie to not apply the whip).
This will encourage appropriate scrutiny behaviour but will not
sustain it, if opposition parties are felt to be making political
capital out of the process. There are other parallels with the
arguments made in relation to decision-making. In a one party-dominated
council, it will prove relatively easy for the dominant party
to relax group discipline in relation to scrutiny and for non-executive
members to take advantage of this relaxation. After all if they
do not scrutinise effectively, there is no one else to to it.
Similarly hung authorities often already operate with a more
open style of debate; and the problems of ensuring group discipline
across an executive/assembly divide would be formidable. The main
exception would be those hung authorities where there developed
a relatively strong cooalition which in the new system would become
much more formalised. Particularly if the coalition had a narrow
majority in the assembly, there would be strong predisposition
to maintain group discipline along traditional lines. In a more
fragmented hung authority, the problems of maintaining group discipline
would be much greater and the acceptance of an approach to scrutiny
as advocated in the White paper much more likely.
The other factor which could play a major part in the impact
of the scrutiny process is the allocation of responsibility for
identifying topics for scrutiny. The non-executive role is enhanced
the more this selection process is dominated by assembly members.
Again the two scenarios identified earlier would come into play.
In the first a majority party attempts to control the scrutiny
process, which is dominated by opposition members, with majority
party non-executive members playing a non-active and arguably
singularly unrewarding role. In the second, the political climate
is such that a majority party is prepared to allow non-executive
members to make the running in selecting scrutiny topics in the
knowledge that an adversarial mode will not be used. In these
circumstances, majority party members would be able to play a
more pro-active scrutiny role, within the context of a more relax
disciplinary regime. Again it is not an overstatement to claim
that the effectiveness (and rewardingness) of scrutiny will stand
or fall by the capacity of all party groups to develop new norms
In principle, the idea of loosening group discipline so that
non-executive members can "speak out" for the local
communities which they represent even when what they say is out
of line with current policy, seems politically feasible. Opposition
members already do so, and it is not unknown for majority party
members to find ways of making these views clear in public (even
though this would rarely be carried through to a voting against
a group line). There are a number of ways in which the local advocacy
role could be facilitated in the assembly. The programming of
"question time" periods at assembly meetings, in which
non-executive members could question the appropriate cabinet member
on any matter of local concern to them would be one way. A procedure
whereby executive decisions which were perceived to have adverse
local consequences could be requisitioned by non-executive members
(either individually or by a specified number of members) prior
to implementation, and discussed at an assembly meeting (or scrutiny
panel) is another possibility. This kind of requisitioning procedure
has already been introduced as part of Hammersmith and Fulham's
cabinet/assembly system, introduced in advance of the legislation.
if such opportunities were not abused, then there is a potential
for a lively public exchange between cabinet and non-executive
members over specific high profile executive decisions, with the
possibility that the cabinet will be prepared to change their
The problem is that it is often difficult to make a clear
distinction between an implementation issue and a policy issue.
Matters of local concern are not necessarily questions of how
a policy is implemented; they may raise issues which challenge
fundamental features of the policy itself. (eg the opposition
of a group of local residents to a road proposal). Thus it is
always possible that an exchange about a particular "local
issue" that a councillor wishes to raise transforms into
a debate about policy, in which case the political stakes are
raised and the temptation for the opposition to exploit the issue
politcally is intensified. Again there is the danger that if it
is an "exploitative" scenario which develops, the majority
party will change its attitude, and resort to "behind closed
doors" group meetings as a way of exploring such issues.
The opportunities established for local representation and advocacy
within the assembly would then become an opposition-dominated
process, at worst a ritualistic attack/defence occasion reminiscent
of Prime Minister's Question Time.
Now that it has been accepted that regulatory activities
should fall within the responsibilities of the assembly, many
existing backbench members will be able to continue to emphasise
the kind of activity which they currently find most fulfilling.
Development control committees have long been popular with non-executive
members (so much so that in the recent past there have been districts
in which the planning committee has been composed of all council
members). Other regulatory activities such as licensing also have
their attractions. The Standards Committees which all authorities
will be required to establish involve a rather different type
of regulation, but again it would be expected that non-executive
members (plus one or more external representative) would play
a dominant role. Regulatory activities are rarely subjected to
the degree of pre-meeting group constraints experienced by other
committees. This situation would be expected to continue under
the new arrangements.
If a local authority resolved to set up area-based decision-making
machinery with executive powers (technically delegated to an officer)
that would in itself make a major contribution to the role opportunities
of non-executive members of all parties. Even if cabinet members
were formally members of such bodies, reflecting their local base,
it would be expected that non-executive members would play the
lead role (eg chair of the area committee). A range of local executive
decisions which would otherwise be the responsibility of the cabinet
(and many of which would be likely to have been delegated to officers)
would become the responsibility of local non-executive councillors,
strongly influenced by local communities. Political control of
the area committees would vary, reflecting the political affiliations
of the local members involved in each case. But this would matter
little given the kind of decisions involved. The cabinet would
need some kind of "clawback" mechanism for local decisions
which clearly had major policy consequences, but the use of this
power would be very much the exception.
Such machinery would have other advantages too. It would
strengthen the legitimacy of the local councillor's advocacy role
in the assembly (assuming the area committee was, as it should
be, linked to some wider more locally representative type of community
forum). At the same time it would limit the number of such issues
which would be presented to the assembly, because many of them
would now be decided at area level. Assembly meetings would then
be able to concentrate on policy and scrutiny debate. Secondly
the area committee/local community forum could provide the basis
for locality-based inputs to (or local interpretations of) the
Community Plan, thus strengthening the involvement of non-executive
members in this aspect of policy formulation. It would embed the
local councillor in a network of local organisations and individuals,
strengthening the capacity for deliberative public participation
and local democratic engagement.
Current experience, however, suggests that whereas increasing
numbers of authorities are already recognising the value of this
kind of machinery, there remain many who see it as an erosion
of the democratic right of an elected administration to make decisions
"across the board". There are also many local councillors
who would question the legitimacy of public involvement in area-level
decision-making, seeing it as a challenge to their own election-based
authority and representatives. Thus the likelihood is that the
opportunities provided in the White Paper will be taken up by
some authorities but ignored by others.
The key influences on the scope and job satisfaction of non-executive
members will undoubtedly be the way in which a local authority
allocates responsibilities between cabinet and assembly (and between
cabinet and area) and the way in which party groups individually
and collectively respond to the implications of new role definitions.
But there are a number of more specific administrative choices
which can strengthen the roles of non-executive members through
the support provided.
There is a substantive training implication and
requirement. Some of the new non-executive rolesin particular
the scrutiny roleare relatively unfamiliar. It would be
unrealistic and counter-productive to expect councillors to "pick
up the role as they went along". Early experience of the
new system will be crucial in the speed with which it becomes
accepted practice. Confused and ineffective scrutiny practices
would not help. Of the other roles, the one with the most significant
training implication is that of community networkingoperating
as the focal point of a participating local networkwhich
is likely to be unfamiliar to many councillors.
There is an important officer support implication
and requirement. The White Paper argues that existing officer
structures will be able to serve and service both executive and
assembly, although it does acknowledge the case for a small dedicated
group of officers serving assembly members specifically. There
is an alternative view that the way in which chief officers and
cabinet members will come to be drawn closer together makes the
latter alternative an imperative. If they are playing policy and
scrutiny roles in particular effectively, non-executive members
will need the support of officers who are not associated with
the executive, and can thus directly provide support without any
conflict of interest. They will need access to independent (from
the executive) legal, financial and professional advice, if they
are to do their job properly.
It hardly needs saying that other aspects of member
supportsecretarial, creche facilities, IT access, proper
accommodationwill be essential in the new regime. For those
authorities which have been slow to introduce or improve such
facilities, the "break point" provided by the transition
from one political management structure to another provides a
real opportunity to redress the imbalance,.
The transition also provides an opportunity to
develop a fairer set out of allowances for all councillors, including
non-executive members. Recent reports from independent bodies
have recommended basic annual allowances for non-executive members
(ie those with no formal position of responsibility) of between
£5,000 and £7,500.
It is clear that to enable non-executive members to operate
effectively there will be costs. To some extent these costs will
be balanced by the savings involved in the dismantling of the
existing committee structures, although committees (in a more
limited sense) and panels will remain part of the new system.
But if the government is serious in its democratic renewal agenda,
it will surely recognise that the kind of changes involved will
incur costs, and will find ways to help authorities meet them.
There is no doubt that in principle there is a demanding
and potentially fulfilling job for non-executive members of all
parties implicit in the provisions of the White Paper and the
Draft Bill. But for the potential to be made a reality, there
are three important conditions.
(1) Local authorities will need to allocate responsibilities
between executive and assembly in a balanced way, and to ensure
that power is not over-centralised in the executive and that the
assembly is able to play a proper "checks and balances"
(2) Party groups on local authorities will need to relax
group discipline, particularly in relation to freeing non-executive
members to operate as scrutineers and local representatives on
a more individualistic basis.
(3) Party groups will have to take a less adversarial
approach to one another than is often the case, evaluating policies
and arrangements "on their merits" and not using public
arenas predominantly as an exercise in political conflict and
exploitation, of opportunities.
If these three conditions are sustained, then local authorities
could behave in a refreshingly different way to the current dominant
mode. Of course party groups will continue to meet, and to agree
collective stances on issues of major importance. But this piece
of realism is not incompatible with a new more open world of debate.
We are not talking about the demise of party groups here, rather
about a relaxation in discipline and a change in attitude to inter-party
relations in public.
If this is the scenario that develops, then the non-executive
members of all parties are likely to enjoy the following opportunities.
Influence on the cabinet through the power to
debate key policy documents and proposals and to expect changes
if arguments are convincing.
Influence on policy formulation through selective
participation on policy panels and the power of policy scrutiny.
A crucial role in (non-adversarial) scrutiny of
policies and decisions, both post-implementation and in appropriate
cases pre-implementation, with the possibility of specialisation
in particular services or activities.
A dominant role in the council's regulatory activities.
A heightened legitimacy in terms of local representation,
with a new freedom to speak out in assembly meetings for the interests
of local communities.
An active involvement in decision-making at the
local levelthrough area committees, linked to an active
local participating network.
This role set, could not possibly be construed as marginalisation.
It is arguably a much more interesting set of activities than
most current backbenchers enjoy. But it is right that this paper
should end with a note of caution. There is an alternative scenario,
already explored in relation to specific non-executive roles,
in which the relaxation of group discipline and opening-up of
debates from pre-orchestrated political constraints does not occur.
The alternative "channel of influence" for a non-executive
member of a majority party is the retention and indeed extension
of the role of the party group. Local issues could continue to
be brought to party groups, policies could be discussed there,
and it would even be possible to establish some form of scrutiny
machinery. But all these processes would take place in private,
leaving the opposition (assuming there is a significant opposition)
to carry out these activities in the formal sense. If there is
mutual antagonism between the major parties, it would not be difficult
for the majority party to vote through a system which concentrated
power in the executive, minimised the power and responsibilities
of the assembly, and used party group processes to meet the needs
of the non-executive members. The quid pro quo would be"you
support us in the assembly, the scrutiny committee and in publicand
we will allow you to influence cabinet decisions through more
frequent and wide-ranging group meetings". Not an attractive
scenario in democratic, renewal terms but a plausible "worst
2 July 1999