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


Memorandum by the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies

  The London Forum represents a significant cross-section of Geater London's population, through diverse non-party-political "grass-roots" organisations that act as intermediaries between local citizens and their borough councils—and also incidentally strive to keep those councils on their toes. We are in constant dialogue with our local authorities.

  The London Forum currently has some 120 member societies. Its members are dedicated to the sound working of local government and local democracy; and the present and future health of local government in Greater London is dependent to a significant degree on the way it works creatively with these local societies.

  1.  This submission by the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, representing some 120 societies throughout Greater London, is made against a background of increasing concern among our members about organisational changes already made or planned by the London boroughs in response to last year's White Paper and Government exhortations—both the scale of the changes and the speed with which they are being implemented. The planned legislation simply heightens that concern.

  2.  In this submission we are concentrating on three aspects of the Bill and associated changes: the recommendations on executive/cabinet governance; the issue of public participation in policy formulation and decision-making; and the implications for town planning and environmental issues in particular.


  3.  The London Forum agrees tht there is a general need to improve the operation of local government. However, we hold the view that the Government in its recommendations and in its planned legislation puts too much emphasis on how policy and executive decisions are made and too little on the way those decisions are shaped. We think the emphasis on leadership, by mayor or council leader and cabinet, puts too much power in too few hands. It encourages strong decision-making, but it increases the chances of the decisions being poorly informed. It is also likely to make councils more rather than less remote from the public they serve—the very opposite of one of the underlying aims of the Government's current initiatives.

  4.  The quality of local governance varies considerably from one authority to another, of course, but where people express dissatisfaction it is mainly on three grounds: poor-quality services; inefficiency or suspected corruption; a failure to listen and respond to local opinion. The new "best value" procedures and Part II of the draft Bill on conduct deal with the first two grounds; but the "listening and responding" issue is not so easily addressed by structural change.

  5.  Public consultation is an important aspect of "listening and responding," but the way in which this is carried out varies widely from authority to authority, from the thorough to the perfunctory. There is clearly a need to go farther than a general duty or requirement to consult, as set out in the draft Bill. There is a case for more precise rules of conduct for different types of public consultation.

  6.  Another aspect of "listening and responding" is public access to the people and places where and when policy decisions are made. The Government proposes the abolition of the current committees structure on the grounds that it is "opaque", but it has the virtue of providing public access to the decision-making arena—and we do not believe that, in general, those seeking access regard it as opaque. We think the proposed new executive (cabinet) structure will clearly not allow comparable access.

  7.  The emphasis the Government has but on open decision-making and accountability is very welcome. But in practice they could prove to be little more than fine words. And in any case active members of the community, through their many organisations, look for somthing more than that. They look for participation and involvement in the way the council runs its business on behalf of the community, through their many organisations, look for something more than that. They look for timely and constructive dialogue with the decision-makers of their local authorities, before the decisions are made. In our view that looks less rather than more likely under the proposed new arrangements.

  8.  In our view the greatest need in local government is not to change the decision-making processes, but rather to improve the processes of public consultation and to strengthen councils' accountability to the public beyond the electoral mandate. The central problem in many local authorities is not inefficiency, but insensitivity and at worst deafness—to the public and public interest. The changes now taking place or proposed in local government will undoubtedly worsen that problem rather than reduce it.

  9.  Underlying this planned legislation and related recommended changes is the questionable view that electoral apathy at local level is a result of unclear or convoluted decision-making at the town hall and of councillors seriously out of touch with their communities. Even more questionable is whether the changes recommended would in reality and in the long run make local govenment "more open and accountable". In our view a main cause of electroal apathy is the public's general lack of understanding (often for good reason) whether the council or the Government should be given the credit or the blame for local policies. As log as the Government, through legislation and regulation, holds local authorities on such a tight rein, that problem will remain.

  10.  The concept of a cabinet drawn from the majority party (when there is one) or appointed by an executive mayor, scrutinised by committees and reporting to full council is effectively the Westminster Parliament model. But there is no logical reason why that model would suit local authorities. Local councils not only have a fundamentally different range and type of functions from central government; they also are by definition much closer to the public they serve. With their emphasis on strong leaders (mayor or leader and cabinet) and leadership these changes would inevitably undermine the core principle (seen traditionally as the basic objective) of local representative democracy.

  11.  Admittedly the Government is considering making, in due course, one change that should strengthen representative democracy: requiring annual elections for a proportion of council seats (which would offer opportunities to amend the popular mandate more frequently). But, unless an election were to alter significantly the balance of power on the council, the outcome would simply pass a message to the "backbench" scrutineers rather than change the decision-making executive.

  12.  In the end, the test must be whether any decision-making structure, with all its built-in safeguards, makes it possible for the exercise of power granted by electoral mandate to become an abuse of power. Government guidelines rightly point out that too many council decisions are now made behind closed doors (by "whipped" political party groups). They suggest—but surely naively?—that under the new proposals that would not happen. But the council executive or cabinet can meet behind closed doors , and the public release of reports to the executive is clearly designed more for post hoc accountability than for public input or representation.

  13.  The central issue, perhaps, is the effect of single-party control on the governance of a council. Ominously the draft Bill would abolish the current legal requirement to have politically-balanced councils and committees reflecting the number of seats held by each party—one of the main safegards of public access to the decision-making arena and of the concept of representative democracy. We regard the intention to abolish this requirement as deplorable.


  14.  Town planning and environmental issues are of particular concern to amenity and civic societies. They also embrace many matters in which a wider public takes an interest and seeks to be involved in the decision-making process. In the London boroughs that has taken several forms: advisory committees and forum (for example, on conservation and Agenda 21 issues); community representatives on standing committees in an advisory capacity: the ability to speak to committees on major or sensitive issues.

  15.  It seems to us that much of this is put at risk by the structural changes proposed in this Bill (and already being implemented). Policies and decisions will in some cases become firm, if not fixed, long before the public and its representative groups hear what is proposed. Most of the committees where traditionally the public have heard the cross-party debate, and where necessary made representations, will have disappeared. Antagonisms between the decision-making executive marginalised backbench councillors and a frustrated public are bound to increase.

  16.  The town planning committee, as a quasi-judicial committee, may be protected, but the way it would operate under the new legislation is a matter of concern. If the abolition of the political-balance requirement were applied to this committee, the committee could become a steam-roller for vested interests. But even if the political-balance requirement is retained, the planning process stands to be weakened under the new arrangements by the separation of strategic planning from development control—related matters calling on the same professional disciplines, but already becoming separated by departmental restructuring.

  17.  Already there is deep concern in some boroughs about major planning developments being "fixed" between interested parties, including the council, long before they reach public forum. That too would almost certainly become more common under the new decision-making structure proposed in the Bill.

  18.  Conservation area policies and their implementation are of particular concern to amenity societies, and we wish to see local authorities being as positive as possible in the implementation. That requires wider initiatives than the exercise of development control—initiatives currently often processed through other standing committees. Under present arrangements that is all within the public arena, with opportunities for an input from organisations such as ours. It is not clear where those matters will be dealt with under the new structures, but we fear there is a serious risk that they will be dealt with less openly.

  19.  Our concerns about planning and related issues are set against a background of reports and rumours of pressures to "ease" planning controls to give more help to developers. These concerns are increased by some of the references in the DETR Consultation Paper Modernising Planning. For example, "a continous search for improvements in local efficiency", delegation of "simpler planning applications" to officers, and using "economic instruments" (tax incentives, subsidies or tradeable permits) to achieve "positive planning". In the London boroughs there is already widespread concern that there are too few enforcement officers and conservation officers to safeguard adequately the built environment. With the abolition of most specialised committees and the urging of greater "efficiency", we see a serious risk of the downgrading of important parts of councils' planning and environmental protection work.


  20.  Our worries about the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill are essentially about the recommended structure, which we consider neither desirable nor necessary to achieve greater efficiency or higher standards of conduct. We think those aims can best be achieved by other methods. We are not of the view that the traditional council and committee structure is out of date because it is over 100 years old. We take the view, while accepting that a case can be made for modification, that it is a structure with a long and worthy history that has stood the test of time. Our main fear about the structure contained in the Bill is not that it would not work, but that it would too easily be misused by a "hardline" council (of any political party) and that it will inevitably reduce the scope for public participation and involvement in local government matters. A stated Government objective is to reduce public apathy towards local government. We believe the proposed changes will actually increase apathy, through alienation.

30 June 1999


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