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


Memorandum by South Somerset District Council

  Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the draft Bill—the possibility of contributing to the debate has been very welcomed by our Authority.


  We are very supportive of the principles that underpin the draft Bill, the preceding White Paper and other documents which outlined the coming Agenda. We might articulate these principles as:

    —  Community Leadership—the prime function of modern Local Government.

    —  Local Choice—involving local people in meeting local needs.

    —  Accountability—including responsiveness to local communities.

    —  Democratic Renewal and Involvement—the involvement of local people in decisions that affect their lives.

    —  Openness and Transparency—local people should know who is taking decisions and why and why those decisions were made.

  Councils who embrace the modernisation Agenda might be characterised by:

    —  Services that meet the standards of quality and value required by local people.

    —  Efficiency. Better decisions taken speedily in a less resource intensive way.

    —  Powerful Roles for all councillors to formulate policy, represent local ward concerns, champion their area and influence executive decisions affecting that area.

    —  Local Ownership of structures to deliver the functions required by local people.

    —  Trust that local people have in their authority because of its high standards of conduct combined with transparency.

  The concern we have about the draft Bill is that it approaches the modernisation Agenda from the direction of structures which might meet the guiding principles rather than relying on Local Government to deliver on these principles with structures which satisfy local needs. At South Somerset, we feel that the clinical separation of the executive from a scrutiny role will not necessarily deliver the principles as well as we could by making small improvements to our existing, more innovative, structure.


  The establishment of three off the peg models from which we have to choose the best fit somewhat undermines the title of the paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice". The assumption throughout the Bill is that all Councils have a traditional structure. Whilst this may be true in many cases there is an increasing number of Councils who have experimented successfully with non-traditional initiatives that takes them at least as far towards meeting some of the principles outlined above as those envisaged by the Bill.

  South Somerset District Council is, we believe, such a case.


  South Somerset is one of the significant number of authorities delivering Local Government through decentralised arrangements. In our case, since 1991, we have had generic area committees which have made decisions on behalf of local people and which have been supported by decentralised budgets and area staff teams in area offices. Corporate cohesion is ensured by a district-wide Executive Committee on the Cabinet model. The White Paper "In Touch with the People" seems to support decentralised approaches because they bring government closer to the people, not only through their geographic dimension but also through their multi purpose functions.

  Our experience of these structures has shown that they help us achieve the guiding principles of the draft Bill. We have found, for example, that in comparison with the departmental structure we had before 1991, there is stronger leadership for local communities, a more powerful role for councillors and more transparency throughout the Council. The Bill appears to assume that the area committee's role should be confined only to advising the executive. Decisions on regulatory matters seem to be channelled back to some central committee—which for us would be a retrograde step. We would want such decisions to be made speedily and as near as possible to the people affected by them—and the area committee achieves that for us. Planning is a part of the agenda that generates great interest, and part of that function and licensing, is partly delegated to Town Councils. The absolute separation of the executive from the scrutiny role does not support this aim and does not add value.


  Community leadership should be supported by a council's structure. It should enable a clear public focus, not only for providing leadership in the authority (through the preparation of plans, strategies and budgets) but also in the community (through community planning and partnerships). All this would work towards the "joined up government" that we so badly need to develop. This needs not only to occur at the authority-wide level but also more crucially at an area level where service providers and programmes fuse to deliver services to local communities.

  Our generic area committees have done much to develop this way of working in South Somerset and we will be taking this a stage further as area community plans become developed. The removal of the area committee's decision making powers would certainly reduce its power and diffuse its focus. It would also reduce the opportunity for an area-wide scrutiny of the services provided, to the detriment of local people. It would seem sensible for the legislation to provide for our type of decentralised structure, especially if we can demonstrate that it better meets the guiding principles than the proposals in the draft Bill.

20 May 1999

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