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Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report

Examination of Witness (Questions 161 - 179)




  161. Professor Stoker, good afternoon. Thank you very much for responding to our invitation to come and see us, particularly as I think you have just arrived from Hong Kong.

  (Professor Stoker) This is true. If I fall asleep can somebody wake me up.

  162. Perhaps you would like to start with a few brief remarks on the essentials that you would like to draw to the Committee's attention. We have had your paper. I know that a number of Members of the Joint Committee are particularly interested to hear from you your view as to how these systems, or similar systems, work in overseas jurisdictions. If there any particular points you wish to make in that regard that would be helpful.

  A. I will try and keep these introductory remarks to a very brief set of comments in order to enable people to ask me the questions that they really want to ask. Let me just try and briefly address three questions. The first question is why change? There are arguments you can put in terms of the way in which the committee system works and operates. There are two overarching arguments for change in this area. One, a general problem with the legitimacy of local government, and there is a lot of evidence to support that problem around legitimacy both in terms of voter turnout and lack of people's connection with the local political process. Two, the fact that what local government is expected to do is now rather different compared with 20 or 30 years ago. The community leadership role really does require different forms of political management. There are two overarching reasons for change. The draft Bill lays out three models which I think cover in a broad sense the internationally available models and certainly the dominant international models in relation to the way in which political management works and operates. There is a lot of flexibility within the models to enable people to develop systems in order to suit particular local circumstances. I think the third to consider in the context of the Bill generally is what is its strategy of change. If you are thinking about change in this area you can certainly expect three organisations or categories of people to be involved in the process of change: obviously local authorities themselves, the public and the Government itself. What we know about local authorities is on the whole they are relatively reluctant, for example, to consider any model other than the cabinet model. The LGA's own survey work shows that 98 per cent of authorities expect to sign up to the cabinet model. I was told that a BBC survey that was undertaken whilst I was in Hong Kong showed that 75 per cent of council leaders are opposed to the elected mayor model. Local authorities seem to have a particular view and they are going very much down the lines of the cabinet model. The public in terms of the survey work that has been done and more interactive work through citizens' juries and panels clearly is interested in the elected mayor model, the opportunity directly to choose their own leader. All the survey work shows that at least two-thirds of the population seem to be interested in that model. The Government is emphasising the need for consultation to be effective without being very specific about what model would be most appropriate in appropriate circumstances. It is that strategy of change which needs to be thought through and that was really the essence of the Network's evidence to DETR because what we feel is that at the moment the contradiction between what the public wants and what councils want is so great that the reform strategy planned through the Bill, through the use of a trigger referendum, might not deliver a genuine opportunity for there to be diversity and a variety of options chosen once decisions are actually made. That is why we need to think about either lowering the threshold in order to make it easier for people to petition for an elected mayor or possibly talk about a co-ordinated referendum campaign around the option of the elected mayor or possibly, and I think it is a perfectly constitutional option, consider the idea of imposing elected mayors in, say, a dozen urban areas on the grounds that it is popular and it will help to transform politics in those areas which all the evidence suggests is dying on its feet. There is a lot to commend the Bill but clearly there is a lot to be thought through both in terms of the details of the models and in terms of the practice of the reform strategy.

Mr Pike

  163. Following that straight away into this question of the elected mayor, and you gave different figures for the leaders of the councils expressing a view of 75 per cent one way and I think 60-odd per cent of the electorate expressing the opposite way, do you think that this would be influenced very much by the types of powers and who has really got the mandate? If the mayor is not able to deliver what he stands on will there not be a different public perception in a few years' time and change that altogether? At the moment people will say they want a mayor if they believe that the mayor is going to have the power to deliver.

  A. I think that it is difficult to speculate what will happen in the future. The evidence from other countries that have the directly elected mayor model is that there are many occasions when mayor figures are constrained by lack of powers, lack of responsibilities, and lack of resources. The Mayor of Barcelona, although not directly elected, is a head of list and almost behaves like a directly elected mayor. Barcelona, which has a famous reputation for housing, planning and cultural innovation, oddly has most of those powers actually in the hands of the regional tier of government above them and the Mayor of Barcelona has had to negotiate the achievements that have been incurred in Barcelona directly with that regional tier of government. What the mayoral model does is create somebody who is able to mobilise public opinion, to speak for the people and in some sense create power rather than simply relying on the power given to him or her. I actually think that there is a dynamic in the mayoral model which enables people to achieve more.

  164. Would you accept that the elected party, whichever party was in control assuming it was not a hung council, the majority party would have a mandate?

  A. In a mayoral model?

  165. Still in a mayoral model or whichever model at the end of the day. If you have got a party going through the cabinet system or however they are doing it, the influence for deciding policy would ultimately rest with the party that has the majority, would it not?

  A. Yes. First of all, I personally would quite like the assembly to be elected under a PR system rather than under a first past the post system. In other words, I think if we are going to go down the mayor council route we should copy the model that has been developed in London because there are good arguments for the assembly to be elected on the basis of some sort of PR election. I agree that in some cities that might not mean that the assembly would be anything other than one party controlled, it might still be one party controlled. In effect what you then have is competing mandates, the mandate of the mayor and the mandate of the assembly, and what they would do is negotiate. There are many examples in other European cities where there is a shared agenda and they work on a shared agenda with one another and come to an agreement as to what is in the best interests of their city.

Mr Stringer

  166. In your paper, Professor Stoker, you concentrate on urban areas and say that there is clear public support for elected mayors but also in your paper you refer to national opinion polls where the support for elected mayors is at very similar levels of those recorded in cities. Can one infer the obvious conclusion from that, that there is as much support for elected mayors in the shire areas as there is in the cities? That is the first question. Second question: do you think in your idea of just imposing elected mayors that you could use opinion polls that have to be carried out within local government areas, that if they support elected mayors you could move straight to the referendum stage? Thirdly, the proposals in the Bill are primarily structural changes and structure is one problem that local government has. Partly because of the changes over the last 20 years in local government I think there is a general perception that local government has not attracted the best and most able people to become councillors. What weight would you put on the balance between improving the quality of people coming forward to present themselves to be councillors and structural change?

  A. There are three questions there, I will try and deal with them in the order that you asked. First of all, yes, I think you are right, the opinion survey evidence does show that there is just as strong support in urban areas as in non-urban areas for the elected mayor election. Why did we concentrate then on urban areas? I think probably for two reasons. One, the evidence of the decline of the quality of politics in terms of turnout in elections is that much more stark and that much more graphic in these urban areas with turnouts sometimes dropping even below 20 per cent but certainly hovering around 20 or 25 per cent and for much of the last 30 or 40 years at around 33/34 per cent, which is one argument. In other words, the crisis in politics is that much greater in some urban areas. Then I think the second argument I put is that in some ways the mayoral model perhaps work best where there is an obvious media focus for the mayor and the assembly in order to have their discussions and debates, and an advantage in urban areas is that that media focus is likely to be present. So I take your point that those were the reasons why we selected urban areas. I am very interested in your idea of really skipping the idea of a petition and going straight to an opinion poll in areas and then seeing if there was a positive response to the opinion poll and that would then trigger a formal referendum. I think that is certainly worth considering. Thirdly, I very much take your point that we would be missing an important part of the jigsaw if we concentrated only on structural change here. Not only do we need to think a lot harder about how we attract people to serve, both in the top leadership positions within local government but also on the wider assembly, and I think there are issues to be asked about whether we can really make something like a role in local government something to be proud of rather than something to be embarrassed by. The reality is that if you look at the experience of many other European countries, people benefit hugely from their involvement in politics. They are seen as people who have made a valuable civic contribution and that is not always the case in Britain. I think we need to think hard both about employers' attitudes and about the way in which we try and recruit, train and support people to undertake these roles.

Dr Whitehead

  167. I would like to ask you two questions, one relating to the point you raised about different methods of electing a council. I happen to share your view but would you also accept that one of the problems of low turnouts in cities is because the register, by the time the election comes round, is, because of the churning within the electorate, often very out-of-date, so that you are actually talking about, say, a 20 per cent. turnout and a 70 per cent. possible turnout, which would give a different figure if you added those two together? In the White Paper there were suggestions of attempting to introduce a rolling register, changing the day of elections, encouraging people how to vote. Would you say those were an important element within this structural change or do you think they could be dealt with separately?

  A. The answer is that I think they are an important part of the package of change and, indeed, we specifically mentioned it in our evidence to the DETR. I will freely say that I do not think particularly the changes in political management structures are necessarily the only thing that is going to drive high turnout. So I think there are some very practical things that can be done around the register and the move to a rolling register and then also some very practical things about the way in which we organise elections in order to make it easier for people to vote. We should be doing both those alongside these broader changes in the way that politics works and operates.

  168. May I ask a specific question about the structure itself. You mentioned the question of the mayor's mandate, as it were, negotiating with the council's mandate, which is an interesting concept except that the structure that is set out in the actual draft Bill and the accompanying notes appears to suggest that, in fact, it is certainly, under the mayoral model, the council who creates the policy framework and the mayor who proposes it and then implements it, and it is clearly an executive mayor along with the cabinet. Would you accept that, certainly in terms of models from overseas, that represents an incomplete separation of powers, that there could conceivably be in the confusion between what is policy and what is implementation impossibly difficult consequences and, as it were, a council attempting by that model to impose what it would regard as a superior mandate upon a mayor?

  A. That is interesting. What I would say is that in almost any political model that you could imagine there is bound to be some confusion between policy and implementation because the two obviously do run into one another. I think the argument around the separation of powers model is not that there has to be a strict separation of the executive and its having certain roles and the assembly having certain roles. I think there are some things that they will particularly do but there are several things that they will share and one of the things that they will clearly share is policy formulation. So the executive will be often taking the lead but sometimes the assembly might be taking the lead in proposing policies and then there will be a process of negotiation between the two in order to come to fruition. The argument around the separation of powers is to create that dynamic, that two-way process, that flow. It is not that there has to be some sort of strict separation of roles; it is to create the dynamic. That is actually its benefit and its attraction and, yes, you will not be surprised to hear that occasionally in other European cities once a particularly major decision has been made, there is the odd bout of blame avoidance or blame passing-on in relation to a particular decision but it does force things out into the public domain. There is a public discussion and an interactive process which I think on the whole improves decision-making.

  169. Do you believe that needs to be spelt out in structures or simply can be implicit and, therefore, allowed to operate?

  A. I think it would be helpful and it is a very difficult thing to do when you are drafting legislation actually to capture some of the culture of the process and the way it will work, but, yes, I think that the more we can get a sense of the way it will work across to people, the better it will be.

Earl of Carnarvon

  170. Professor Stoker, you have referred quite a bit to the mayor in terms of the general public liking the idea of a mayor. Would you agree that in the "hype", which will get greater in regard to a London mayor election, the public have a different view of the mayor compared to the council's replies? It is my understanding—and, my Lord Chairman, you are part of the London Group in the Lords and we have met the minister several times—that in no way is any other town in this country going to get the same powers as the mayor of London and I feel that there is a danger of the public in Manchester or Southampton expecting the same sort of powers as are given to the mayor of London and they are very unlikely to get them and, therefore, the public reaction may be rather different if they thought that was the case and much more in line with the council's reaction?

<jf9>The Committee suspended from 3.56pm to 4.11pm for divisions in both Houses  A. I think that if you look at both what councillors understand about, for example, the mayor/councillor system and what the public understand about it, in a way you could argue that both of them have a fairly simple and straightforward understanding of it. I actually think in many of my conversations with councillors that some essence of their response to it is that they just see it as a system that will deprive them of power and that is why they are opposed to it. I think the reason why many members of the public sign up to it is because they have worked out that if they are voting for and choosing the leader the power is with them. Then as to whether a broader calculation about the powers available to the mayor comes into it, I would be much less uncertain. I think there is probably a debate in the minds of many Londoners just how powerful the mayor is going to be and probably they will be uncertain about how much the mayor of London is going to be able to tackle the fundamental problems of London, given that we know that people are pretty sceptical about the capacity of political institutions anyway. But I think the big attraction of the elected mayor model—and I have argued this part before—is that the mayors generate power. If we had mayoral figures in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, etc., I think that they would provide a really strong lobby, a real opportunity on the back of their mandate, their proper mandate, to demand more and effective powers for local government, and I think it is that direct mandate that gives them the opportunity to demand power. So I think that the attraction of the model, and one that perhaps should worry the government, is that the mayoral figures are not just going to sit there as supplicants. They are going to be demanding on the back of the fact that they have this mandate finally.

  171. But do you agree that the London model being the starting point of all this mayoral idea is unfortunate in many ways because it is such an enormous electorate and with such enormous powers? I cannot see any government giving strategic planning powers to the mayor of only a quarter of a million sized city—most unlikely?

  A. I must admit that I think that the reform of London government is a long overdue reform and one that I would welcome. I agree that then the debate in other cities would be a rather different debate because of the nature of the responsibilities that they would be taking on. I think in addition to the powers that mayoral figures will have—I will just repeat what I said before—their mandate gives them the capacity to mobilise and demand which is just unheard of in our political system as it stands but it is absolutely characteristic of the way it works in other European cities. These become really powerful figures.

  Chairman: I think Lady Thornton wants to ask a question arising out of that answer.

Baroness Thornton

  172. I am very interested in the international comparisons and how you think those can be applied here and whether you think the draft Bill needs to be changed to take more account of those comparisons. In the face of the hostility that clearly has been expressed by councillors it seems to me that we have a problem here as to how we overcome that hostility and international lessons must be one way to overcome that.

  A. Yes. I often try and say that one of the most graphic international lessons I can give people is that the committee system is the dominant system in Britain and it is now virtually unique. So we can either think that we have got it right and everyone else has got it wrong and maybe say that some form of split of the executive and representative functions would be an appropriate way of organising politics. It is true that none of the Central and Eastern European countries when organising their democracies decided to copy our system, they all went for mayoral models or cabinet style models. The overwhelming evidence from overseas is that their local government systems operate entirely on the basis of the three models that we see outlined in the Bill. There is a lot more vibrancy in their democracy, there is a lot more strength in their local government system. I do not say necessarily that there is a perfect correlation but I think it is something which should lead people in Britain to wonder whether there is something substantially different there that we need to learn from. The bottom line for me, especially in relation to urban areas, is this is a system that has now virtually lost all legitimacy. Since 1973 in metropolitan districts turnouts have bumped along at about the mid-30s level. They slumped to below 25 per cent on average in the last two local government elections. We know from another survey that has been undertaken that less than 12 per cent of 18-24 year Olds actually claim to have voted in local government elections. As I have said in several speeches, using Monty Python phraseology, this is a dead parrot. It is not just sleeping, it is dead. We need to find some dramatic ways in which we can bring new life back into city and urban politics.

Lord Marlesford

  173. Can I continue on the international model and invite you, Professor Stoker, to tell us a little bit more about France as a relatively close neighbour where they have had the mayoral system for a long time in two particular respects. First of all, whether there is a contrast between the use of a mayor system in the larger urban areas and in the smaller rural communes, and secondly is it still the case, as I believe it was, that major national political figures in France sometimes still regard their power base as their mayor job even if it is in a relatively small and nationally unimportant commune?

  A. Your question actually contains really the answer in the sense that what you have described is the accurate picture. Strictly speaking it is a system that we have to call a head of list system. The mayors in France are not directly elected, they are elected as head of a list and the head of the winning coalition is then chosen by the people in the assembly to be the mayoral figure. Indeed, the first, second, third, fourth ranking on the list are the people who are known to go into the cabinet as well.

Dr Whitehead

  174. But it is the case, is it not, that when you go to vote in France you know what you are voting for and you know who you are voting for?

  A. Yes. In effect both in France and in Spain, although they operate this formal head of list system, in a way people are actually voting for the mayor because that is what the election is about but formally in constitutional terms the mayor is appointed by the assembly once the assembly is put into place. You are absolutely right, there is a very significant difference between urban and rural areas. In the French academic papers that I have read what they basically do is say that in the urban areas the mayors become significant political administrative business managers and they have over the last 20 years particularly as the decentralisation reforms have got under way gained substantially in technical capacity and support that they have alongside them. They ran a system before where they did not have access to a lot of technical and professional support in which to develop their own initiatives but increasingly they have been able to employ the staff to enable them to do that. They have become much more dynamic and effective. In rural areas and especially in very small communes the mayoral figure is much more like a grandfather, a father figure, largely ceremonial and not particularly powerful. I think that the evidence from France is that there is that distinction but we have to bear in mind that some of the French communes are of the scale or size in terms of populations of 500 or 600 that we would be talking about in terms of parish or community council level government rather than a full blown local government system.

Lord Marlesford

  175. Following on from your answer, would you say that a chairman of the parish council is equivalent to the mayor figure in a French commune? Is that a good thing? Does it give a sort of leadership?

  A. I think that is equivalent in terms of the civic ceremonial role. Obviously in some ways I think the status of the mayor is a little bit higher even in the smaller communes just simply because of the history and tradition and the fact that it is considered to be a very prestigious post to hold.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  176. Would you agree, Professor, that if we are thinking of a mayoral cabinet system we have got to think more radically than in this Bill and drastically reduce the number of councillors on our councils? That is my first question. That would be very radical and cause great pain. Some of my colleagues have said that councillors are opposed to this but it would be very hard to introduce this system without doing that. The second thing is a comment. You have said that this will produce a wider range of interest and excitement in local government, yet in the United States where they have enormous elections the number of people who turnout are even less than turn out in the United Kingdom. How do you account for the fact that we are going to do what the United States has not done in 200 years?

  A. The argument over the number of councillors is an area where I would actually quite like to see some experiment, an experiment at both ends of the spectrum. I think particularly the council manager model, the one that does not get talked about all that much, might well lend itself to the kind of system you are talking about where you have seven or eight councillors, a significantly reduced number of councillors, who take the policy lead and then they rely on the council manager to provide the executive function. I would think you can make an argument for the type of system that you are suggesting in the context of some of the other models. That is something I would like to see some experiment with. At the other end of the spectrum I would quite like us to consider the possibility of genuinely making the councillor role, that is the non-executive councillor role, a part-time role. That might mean having more councillors rather than less in some areas. If you had more then I think it could be genuinely something that people would do as part of their civil duty but it would not take over the whole of their lives. I do think that you have put your finger on an important issue. In relation to turnout in US elections, obviously I will concede the US case to you as long as you allow me to have the Italian and German cases on my side where the turnouts in local government elections in the last mayoral elections in Italy were regularly above 90 per cent and are regularly above 60 per cent in the German case. I think that there are various factors which explain turnout in the United States and clearly even when it comes to the election of the President of the United States, they actually find it quite difficult to encourage even just above 50 per cent. of the population to involve themselves in that. I think it reflects very particular characteristics of American political culture rather than the institution of the mayor. There is one other technical point, which is that the United States give their turnout figures in relation to proportion of the adult population who vote rather than the proportion of registered voters, so that turnout figures which appear quite low because it is against adult population, in fact, if you compared it to British figures against proportion of adult population as opposed to registered voters, would be at least as low in the British case, if not lower. In other words, if you went for registered voters in the turnout in the New York City elections, for example, the turnout is above 50 per cent., if you go against registered voters. It is just that the tradition in the States it to give turnout against adult population.

  177. Could I ask a further one because it follows from what you have said. There is a civic culture in Europe, let me put it crudely, the mayor wearing the tricoleur and appearing on 14 July. This does not exist in the United Kingdom. When you talk about 50 per cent. of these tight European communities with a strong sense of the republic and everything like that, America has something of that. We have none of that. How do you feel that just doing this will produce a civic liberty, equality and fraternity culture in a country that has never had it?

  A. The answer is that I do not feel that just doing this alone will deliver that particular change in our political culture, but I do think that the opportunity for mayoral figures directly to talk and relate to people will be part of a process of changing our politics. Quite frankly, given the reality of the way politics works at the local level now, the fact that so many young people are, in effect, divorced from the process, the fact that, in effect, only one in five of the population might actually be interested in voting, frankly we have to do something and we have to do something dramatic. I think the mayoral option is one option. Changes in the way in which we run local elections is another part of it. Changing the way in which we provide civic education and support is another option, but we must, I think, do something. The idea of just sitting here and just watching our politics decay entirely would be disastrous.

  178. I have just one more question. You are going to introduce this—

  A. Thank you very much.

  179. You advocate introducing it and there is massive opposition from the councils and you have seen the evidence from the LGA that we have seen, and suddenly this figure in the tricoleur is going to do it. It could be an awful failure. Are you not just trying to pull magic out of the sky?

  A. That is a nice idea. I am looking for some dramatic change. Whether it is going to be magic or not I do not entirely know. In a way, though, I think that you have put your finger on it, that if we leave this decision up to the local political establishment, in effect we are actually condemning local government to a long and terminal decline and that is the essence of why the Network has argued we have to give the public more direct say and the Government has to be more up-front in its commitment to change in this area. It is an impossible ask, it seems to me, of people who are involved in the system to say to them, "Look, the system is not working. You have to think fundamentally about the way it will change." They want to defend, through conservatism with a small `c', what is. So I think we need to design four mechanisms that enable other people to get involved and other people to feel that they can drive a changed process.

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