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


Memorandum by Bedfordshire County Council

  1.  Bedfordshire County Council welcomes the opportunity to respond to the consultation paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice" and the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill. As an authority that has positively moved towards modernising its structures and working practices it believes it can offer comment from a perspective of practice rather than only principle. In general the County Council sees the consultation paper and the draft Bill as an opportunity to develop further an approach that is consistent with the way the County Council has already progressed in producing a local authority for the 21st century.

  2.  The County Council also sees the consultation paper as closely integrated with the Government's White Paper "Modernising Government", and recognises the opportunities new technologies bring to making local government services as well as central government services more relevant and accessible and enhanced in quality for the benefit of the communities we serve.


  The County Council strongly supports the emphasis placed on the direct engagement of communities in the debate and discussion about the options for change as set out in Chapter 2 of the Consultation Paper (para 2.1). However the County Council believes this debate should be based on practical experience of the benefits of modernising the way the Council works within the limits of the current legislation. We must not make changes based on untried theories.


  The County Council sincerely hopes that Government will not impose titles that are meant to reflect a common approach across the country, but rather that each local authority should be free to use the most appropriate title in the local context. For example, the County Council has developed the scrutiny and oversight role within "Select Committees" and it feels that it would be helpful to maintain this title under the legislation. The County Council's experience is that this scrutiny function can add value by examining and promoting development of policy as well as performance.


  The County Council is concerned that the documents seem at times to be heavily focused on Metropolitan Unitary Authorities. There are many authorities like Bedfordshire which operate in a three tier structure and a mix of small/medium sized towns and rural areas. It is important that any model that is developed takes account of the need to operate in such an environment.


  The County Council would suggest that a bottom up rather than top down approach would deliver a modern local government and Government should strongly resist any temptation to exercise the very wide ranging powers contained in the draft Bill in the form of secondary legislation.


  The County Council supports the emphasis on consultation with the community that each local authority serves. However it does not believe that there should be prescription on the form such consultation should take. Local authorities are aware of what works and what does not locally and flexibility should exist to fashion local solutions that work. The acid test in respect of national standards will be felt through nationally set External Audit arrangements and through the national service inspection regimes.


  The County Council considers that a 5 per cent trigger of votes for a referendum on an elected mayor is reasonable.


  The County Council would hope that Government will introduce the draft Bill into Parliament at the earliest opportunity so that any uncertainty can be minimised and proper planning takes place for changes.


  The County Council, in setting up its new arrangements laid great emphasis on the fact that all Councillors should have a powerful role and not just those in the Council's Executive. It is unfortunate that the consultation paper focuses heavily on the Executive role and comments only sparingly on the strengthened scrutiny and community leadership role for all Councillors. In this context it is unfortunate that the Government did not include the new duty which was in the White Paper of promoting the economic, social and environmental well-being of the area and the opportunity should now be taken to reintroduce such a duty in the draft Bill.


  In terms of the oversight and scrutiny role the County Council's practical experience is that such a role provides an opportunity to develop and strengthen a community leadership role particularly with regard to non-elected, often publicly funded bodies. To make the scrutiny and oversight role fully effective the County Council believes both agencies which are funded by local authorities and others whose role impacts substantially on the local community should be expected, if not required, to attend scrutiny hearings. In many cases so far such bodies have been pleased to enter into a dialogue with the County Council's Select Committees but a situation can be envisaged when the absence of a response or failure to answer questions could significantly weaken this scrutiny role on behalf of the community. The County Council does recognise that practical agreements need to be established, particularly in three-tier areas so that such a requirement would not become too onerous for the bodies concerned and indeed that there are clearly understood "spheres of influence" for both district and county authorities.


  The County Council is comfortable with a small Executive but believes prescribing a maximum of 15 per cent or 10 members is not helpful under these proposals. The County Council would have to reduce its current Executive Committee to seven from eight members when the current arrangements are working well. Such changes would add complications that seem to have little rationale in the Consultation Paper.


  The County Council supports the principle that all members of the Executive should be given specific areas of responsibility with the executive authority in law to discharge and be accountable for those responsibilities. This would mean that such decisions will need to be recorded, registered and publicised if the scrutiny function is to operate properly.


  The County Council's experience is that such new arrangements set out in the consultation paper will place great emphasis on open and accountable decision making. This means that new methods are necessary for disseminating information, particularly by new technology in the form of e-mail and other modern methods that need to be recognised and have not been so to date in terms of regulation.


  The County Council believes that if Local Government is to attract and retain a wide representative cross-section of the community to serve as Councillors then reasonable levels of allowances must be paid. This is not in any way to take away from the principle of public service, but the County Council has direct experience of the loss of very able Councillors who were forced to stand down because of the impact of their Council work on their ability to earn an income. The County Council abolished attendance allowances in April 1997 and agrees with the proposals to do so nationally in the consultation paper and draft Bill (para 3.81). The County Council recognises the need to review allowances on a regular basis.

  The County Council would strongly recommend the establishment of a national advisory body to indicate appropriate principles to be applied to the remuneration of Councillors, possibly administered by an organisation such as the Local Government Association.


  The County Council believes that this is a difficult issue and that in addition to the factors mentioned of public confidence in the council and political balance, consideration also needs to be given to the representation of the councillor's division or ward, if a councillor were to be suspended from office until allegations were resolved. The question might be asked: what would happen if the councillor remained in office? If for example there were likely to be criminal activity affecting the council, a case for suspension from office could be made. However the County Council in general believes that suspension from office pending investigation should be a last resort.

  17.  The County Council would hope that the comments set out above are helpful in firming up the Government's thinking particularly in a number of areas where detail is absent in the Consultation Paper. The County Council would wish the Secretary of State to know that it fully endorses the general thrust of the consultation in making Local Government more relevant to the community each authority serves and the strengthening of the community leadership role envisaged in it.

26 May 1999

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