Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 93 - 99)




  93. Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. May I, on behalf of the Joint Committee, welcome you and thank you for coming. May I first of all, on behalf of the Committee, extend to Sir David Williams our congratulations on his knighthood in the recent Birthday Honours List. We know you have done a great deal for local government over many years. Sir Jeremy, we have had the written evidence of the LGA. May I ask you whether you or any of your colleagues wish to say anything, very briefly, by way of introduction before we proceed to questioning?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) If I may, yes. May I thank you for this invitation and confirm that all the political groups represented on the LGA are here this afternoon. May I welcome this opportunity to present evidence on behalf of the LGA and welcome this new proceeding with regard to Bills. As you know, our President, Lord Hunt, brought forward a Bill last year, which, alas, did not reach the statute book, which would have facilitated change in piloting new ways of running local government. We are glad that there is an opportunity now to facilitate change. We believe that that needs to be within the context of principles which we have set out in our submission, which I think the Committee has seen, principles which have been endorsed by the Minister and against which, in our view, those changes should be made. We also believe that local government change is not just about structures; it is about the role of local government, particularly the role of community leadership, for which we think the Bill should include reference to a new duty to promote the social, environmental and economic well-being of areas, because people are concerned primarily with what is done within their areas, not necessarily by the structures within which decisions are made. Fundamentally, we believe that people will be involved and engaged with local government if there is a perceived ability to make a difference at a local level and that, in turn, will attract members of ability to serve, members perhaps more representative of the whole community than is sometimes the case at the moment. Local government has embraced the modernisation agenda. Eighty per cent. of councils have reviewed, or are reviewing, their structures and many welcome the opportunities that this Bill will create for further change, but we do say that it is important that in the new regime there should be local choice and there should be flexibility, and if we have a criticism of the Bill it is that in some respects it seems unduly prescriptive, for example, in the confining of models of local government to three, in the allocation of functions to the executive to be within the gift of the Secretary of State by way of regulation, such matters as the role of the chairman of the council, more particularly the size of executives. All these are areas which the Bill has been very specific about and, in our view, it would be better to be much less specific, recognising that local government is diverse and that what is appropriate for one area or one community may not be appropriate for others. Having said that, we do share the aspiration of the Government to promote change, to modernise the way in which local councils do business, and we believe that is an essential component, but only one essential component, of modern local government, which needs enhanced powers and financial autonomy as well.

  94. Thank you very much. Do any of your colleagues wish to say anything before we put any questions?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think we will go into questions.

Sir Paul Beresford

  95. Sir Jeremy, you mentioned right at the beginning of your introduction that there are only three options and I think there is a general feeling amongst local authorities that I have spoken to that that is a viable complaint. Many of the local authorities within the system that they have now have overcome a large number of the problems, or perceived problems, set out in the White Paper. Do you think that one of the options, if there is an expansion, ought to be no change and there ought to be a recognition that it is possible to meet many of the complaints with the current system?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) What we have suggested is the status quo plus in certain cases. We think there are areas, perhaps particularly more scattered rural areas or where there is no strong party political presence, where the cabinet model or the majority model might be less appropriate. On the other hand, I think most people would concede that even within the existing system there are necessary constraints. You cannot delegate decisions, for example, to a single member. It ought to be possible, therefore, to improve upon the present system without necessarily choosing one of the three models that are adumbrated in the Bill. One of the points that we would make is that the Bill actually to some degree ties the Secretary of State's hands. If procedures followed for, for example, a mayoral referendum, if that does not approve the creation of a mayor, then the council can continue with the status quo unchanged but that seems to me a perverse outcome of the process in which many people would want some changes, even if they are not persuaded in the circumstances of their own community that any of the three models is appropriate. In short, status quo plus should, in our view, be an option, particularly in the circumstances I have described. One or two authorities, for example Bridgenorth, I think, were referred to in the hearings of the LGA and again I think the Committee has had copies of our report on those hearings which illustrates that.
  (Councillor Sir David Williams) May I add something briefly. I think there are two points. One is that the collegiate model, which is what we have had in local government for 100 years, is not something that we would want to see necessarily thrown away with this move and that is to a large degree what status quo plus means as far as the fourth option is concerned. The Government only gives executive models in the White Paper and this is not an option that is supported, as Sir Jeremy has said, amongst the more rural areas, the more independent areas, the councils with no overall political control. The second point is that I think the catalyst that the White Paper has been for change in local government is not widely recognised. Most councils have streamlined their procedures under the present system in anticipation, or in advance, of the legislation and in my own council in Richmond-upon-Thames we have abolished most of the sub-committees, we have streamlined the committees, we have significantly increased delegation, and this has all been done within existing legislation. So there has been quite a sea change in the last 12 months, which has been seriously unrecognised, so that the inefficiencies that the traditional committee system of local government is supposed to have are disappearing and will have disappeared even if you still have a collegiate model in the traditional way.

  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Jones, I will come back to you in a minute, if I may. Lady Hamwee?

Baroness Hamwee

  96. Pursuing that, may I ask whether your preference would be for the Bill to include criteria to be met by whatever model a local government chooses, rather on the lines of the principles set out in your response to the White Paper? I am sorry, that may be framed as a leading question.

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) It is a leading question for which I am grateful and it anticipates what I was about to say.

Lord Bassam

  97. I think there is a lawyers' conspiracy.

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Lawyers do not conspire; we collaborate. The principles are, in our view, the overriding criteria against which any proposals should be measured, be they the status quo or modification of that or any of the three models. If it is possible to incorporate those within the legislation or for them to be referred to in the legislation, then so much the better. These are principles which not only the councils but the public should be asked to take into account in reviewing the proposals that have come forward. I think Councillor Jones would say, if I could anticipate what he is going to say briefly, Camden recently carried out an extensive consultation and, somewhat to their surprise, found that people there would prefer the status quo and none of the three models.


  98. Is that a fair representation?

  (Councillor Jones) Yes.
  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) Just as well.

Lord Bassam

  99. Apart from the status quo as, if you like, the fourth option, what other thought have LGA members given to other sorts of models? I take Lady Hamwee's point about fitting criteria and so on but what other ideas, what other new thinking, ground-breaking thinking, do you think local government itself is going to bring forward that might bring up other models, other ways of working, that provide community leadership, ensure that there is transparency and accountability but that takes us away from what I think most people would still see as being a rather labyrinthine and somewhat Victorian committee system? I say this because I have been involved in my local authority and we have culled the sub-committees three or four times and they keep growing back again and I am not entirely confident, having done it a fourth time, they will not come back once more. So that is the easy bit but it is getting that transparency, demonstrating community leadership and getting the openness and accountability that we need to find in other forms if it is not to be the three on offer plus the status quo?

  (Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham) One area which a number of authorities have explored is extensive decentralisations, devolving powers down to areas, and in certain types of authority that clearly is an option which I think would be quite viable. For large authorities geographically with a dispersed population, for example, that would be for many purposes, not obviously for all purposes, an option which many councils would wish to pursue. Again it is not clear. Indeed, I think in evidence last week the civil service and the Department were not clear whether, under the present legislation, members who might be on an executive could actually serve within their structures, and we ought to be facilitating this, it seems to me, because you can hardly rule them out. So there would be initiatives of that kind that authorities would want to pursue and we are, as an Association, in touch with a number of authorities, talking with them about the models that they may wish to be involved with.
  (Councillor Lord Hanningfield) Could I just add that there is nothing to stop us, under the executive/scrutiny split, still having committees. I am sure, as Lord Bassam said, you grow lots of sub-committees. That will still happen under the executive/scrutiny split. You will grow lots of scrutiny committees, I am sure. After all, the Cabinet has committees. I do not see anything wrong with having sub-committees. It is inevitable that we are going to have sub-committees like this so that people can sit around and talk about the subjects. There is nothing wrong in that as long as we find ways of limiting that, and the system proposed is going to grow committees, I am sure of it.

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