Memorandum by Civic Trust
We welcome the Government's endeavours to reinvigorate
local democracy, and increase local government accountability
and transparency. There is, however, considerable concern amongst
our Civic Society members that the focus of decision making in
the hands of a small executive, as envisaged in all the Government's
options, could itself bring dangers. The potential for closed
decision-making, the prevalence of narrow interest groups and
even corruption is evident, and a cause of real anxiety. We are
for example opposed to the removal in the Draft Bill of the legal
requirement for politically balanced committees. We also believe
that special safeguards are needed for the process of planning
decision and that these have not been adequately made in the proposals.
It is therefore vitally important that any moves
towards a more centralised structure are balanced by rigorous
and effective safeguards. In this context the proposed new codes
of conduct and other safeguarding mechanisms assume critical importance.
Accordingly, whilst we welcome the emphasis in chapter 2 on wider
consultation of the local community about governance, we have
focused our comments on Chapters 3 and 4.
In Chapter 3, we are not persuaded that the
only options for change are the three broad models as set out
in the White Paper. We therefore support the LGA's case for greater
flexibility. We also believe that the status quo should not be
so lightly dismissed. In our experience there are a significant
number of local authorities where the present arrangements are
working reasonably well and these should not be changed, with
considerable upheaval and additional cost, purely for the sake
of complying with a rigid centrally imposed view that change is
always necessary. We hope that the LGA will make this point forcibly.
We particularly question why the draft provisions should limit
the size of the executive to as little as 15 per cent of the total
number of councillors. In some cases it is quite possible that
simply general principles, in order to establish a set of minimum
safeguards on matters such as accountability and transparency.
These issues should not be left to local discretion. We also fail
to see why town and parish councils should be treated differently
in this regard from principle authorities.
We also welcome the establishment of a Standards
Committee, but consider that both its role and membership are
far too narrowly drawn. Too much is proposed for the National
Standards Board, reflecting the over centralising tendencies of
the whole set of proposals. It would be much more effective to
devolve more responsibility to the local level, but then ensure
that the Standards Committee has a majority of independent members,
including an independent Chairman, so that they can provide an
effective local scrutiny role. We would also propose that the
Standards Committee should be required to regularly report to
the local community about its work and, on appropriate occasions
to hold hearings in public. The matter of sanctions should also
be properly addressed and the Standards Committee should be given
effective powers in this respect. A mere reprimand is quite inadequate.
We welcome the arrangements for the appointment
and work of the Monitoring Officer, but we are concerned that
that officer may come under undue pressure on occasions, for example
from unscrupulous councillors who sought to suppress issues. The
legislation should therefore provide specific safeguards to protect
the Monitoring Officer from such assaults on their integrity.
As we briefly mentioned above, the National
Standards Board has in our view been given too wide a role. It
should surely only investigate allegations of major breaches of
the local codes and these should be relatively narrowly prescribed.
Their potential "army" of ethical standards officers
could also then be reduced significantly in number! We welcome
the establishment of an adjudication panel, independent of the
ESOs, but in which case we are rather unclear as to the role of
the non executive members of the Board. There frankly seems to
be some duplication here which needs resolving.
We also welcome the introduction of a statutory
code of conduct for employees, and indeed consider such a code
should be mandatory for all public servants, not merely those
who work for local authorities.
7 April 1999