Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Local Government Association (LAG 31)

  The LGA is the representative voice for all local councils in England and Wales. As the national voice for local communities, the LGA speaks for nearly 500 local authorities representing over 50 million people and spending £65 billion a year on local services.

SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE

  Current experience is drawn from the operation of pilots—councils are not yet legally operating executive arrangements.

  New structures will need time to bed down—to allow members and officers to adapt to new ways of working and new cultures.

  Councils are facing a massive change agenda in addition to the introduction of new structures—local strategic partnerships, best value, community leadership.

  Some councils and councillors believe that committee-based arrangements are most appropriate for their communities but they are not permitted to consult on them.

  New structures do not necessarily reduce the total number of committees—the resource implications of new arrangements should not be under-estimated.

  Access to and provision of information is key to making the arrangements work and to ensuring open and transparent decision-making.

  The introduction of new structures must be supported by new cultures.

INTRODUCTION

  Modernisation of local authority decision-making structures has been on the agenda for some time. However, it was the white paper, Modern Local Government: In touch with the people, which provided the first real impetus for change in local councils. Spurred on by encouragement from the Government and the LGA, many councils began to introduce changes to their structures in advance of the promised legislation.

  That legislation was first signalled by the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill in January 1999. By the time the Local Government Act 2000 received Royal Assent around half of the councils in England and Wales had introduced some form of pilot structures. This evidence is drawn from the experience of those pilots and the overview that the Local Government Association has had of how they have developed.

  However, the LGA urges the Committee to bear in mind that these arrangements are only pilots. There are still a number of significant pieces of secondary legislation outstanding and councils do not yet have the complete framework in place to be able to adopt new constitutions. As such many are not operating the arrangements exactly as they would wish and are legally still operating under the legislation for the previous committee system.

  It is also fair to say that these proposals have not been welcomed by all councillors or councils and many remain convinced that the committee based system serves them and their communities effectively and efficiently already.

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP

  Parliament, local government, the media and others have paid a great deal of attention to this part of the Government's modernisation agenda. However, it should not be forgotten that it is only one part of that agenda. Indeed the Local Government Act 2000 contained two other significant elements, the new power for local authorities to promote the economic, social or environmental well-being of an area, and the new ethical framework for councils. The Local Government Act 1999 also introduced Best Value.

  It is essential that new structures are not seen as separate from the rest of this agenda. It is also important not to lose sight of the overall aim of this modernisation programme—better services for local people. The development of new structures is an important part of the agenda. However, the LGA considers that it is the challenge of community leadership which councils must now have as their priority.

  "Community leadership involves councils working in partnership with local people and organisations to develop a shared vision of their future for their locality, identifying immediate priorities for action, and then working together to `make a difference' in local communities. It is about listening, building consensus and agreeing strategies and action on the basis of partnership." Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chair, LGA.

  The LGA acknowledges that community leadership is not easy. It will be a real challenge for councils to balance the various elements of this new role. In particular they will need to think carefully about the meaning of leadership and develop new styles of leadership. Leadership in the context of partnership does not always mean taking centre stage—it is about recognising other local leaders and creating the right environment for others to act. Councils will still need to take some hard decisions, but on the whole, community leadership is less about directing and controlling and more about stimulating, enabling and empowering. Councils will need to develop new skills and capacity to do this effectively.

  New structures must be designed to enable local councils to deliver this leadership to their communities. It must ensure that all members, not just those on the executive, can lead the communities they represent.

CHANGING CULTURES

  The LGA acknowledges that the introduction of these pilots has not been easy. It has required time and commitment from members and officers and it will take more time and energy before councils get it right. However, this is not surprising. Not only does their introduction require new ways of working—it also requires a new culture—a new approach to the ways in which councillors work with each other, with officers and with their communities. Changing culture is not quick.

  Many councils have now had over 18 months of experience of piloting arrangements and their structures are evolving to meet the challenges that these pilots throw up. This process of evolution must be allowed to continue to ensure that councils can develop structures that really work for local people.

  The Local Government Association is committed to helping local councils develop effective structures and share their ideas and has produced a number of case study documents, discussion papers and other materials to help councils do so. The Association will make reference to some of these in its evidence and is happy to share these with the Committee.

THE ROLE OF FULL COUNCIL

  Professor John Stewart, in a role for all members: the council meeting[10], part of the LGA's "designing governance: issues in modernisation" series says that:

    "the council meeting assumes a new importance under structures based on an executive. It becomes for councillors the main formal decision-making setting and one in which all councillors play a part bringing together those on the executive with other councillors."

  In some authorities full council had become a rather meaningless event, merely rubber stamping decisions and policies made by other committees. The introduction of new arrangements, of whatever form, provides an opportunity to re-emphasise full council's role as the sovereign body of the council—that which determines the policy direction and budget of the authority. The present experience of some councils, particularly hung councils, points to the possibilities for full council to be an arena of great debate. Some authorities piloting new arrangements have begun to change the way full council operates. The London Borough of Sutton introduced a "question time" element to its meetings to allow members of the public to ask questions of the council. Wakefield MBC allows councillors five minutes to raise ward issues at council meetings. Cabinet members are expected to respond and issues are followed up through an officer group.

  It is clear then that authorities are beginning to think about and try out new roles for full council and to attempt to establish it as the sovereign body of the authority.

ROLES FOR NON-EXECUTIVE MEMBERS

  Of all the elements of the new arrangements it is the creation of a "split" between executive and non-executive members that has caused the greatest debate. Some argue that it produces greater clarity as to who is taking the decisions. Others believe it consigns most members to the back bench—having no role to play but nit-picking over decisions already taken. In extremes—it can be both.

  In his paper, Getting the right balance[11], Professor Steve Leach argues that councils must ensure that there is a balance between the powers of the executive and those of full council and overview and scrutiny to ensure that the executive can operate efficiently, but that the necessary checks and balances are in place to ensure transparency and openness.

  Much attention has been focused on overview and scrutiny committees but whilst these are an important role for non-executive members they are not the only ones. The LGA established a task group to look at the range of roles available to non-executive members and the practices of local councils piloting such arrangements. In its final report, Real roles for Members[12], the task group set out a table describing a range of roles that non-executive members would play under executive forms of governance (Appendix I).[13]


  It is clear that there are many roles for members not on the executive and that councils are innovating and developing new roles such as rapporteurs and champions to research and lead on specific issues and other roles to support and advise the executive.

  Gateshead, for example, has introduced advisory groups covering all areas of council policy to provide advice to relevant cabinet members. In Cumbria County Council two/three of non-executive members support each executive member to fulfil their portfolio responsibilities. A table of other innovative arrangements is included at Appendix II.[14]

  The key task is to ensure that there is a real balance between the roles given to executive and non-executive members. Councils must avoid the pitfall of focussing too much attention on the executive and leaving non-executive members feeling redundant.

OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY

  Of all the elements of the new structures it is probably fair to say that it is overview and scrutiny which is causing the greatest difficulty. However, that is to be expected as it is the one element of the arrangements that is totally new to most councils. That is not to say though that it is not working at all, or that it is not worth pursuing. It is only by piloting different approaches that councils can find out what works best.

  A number of councils have been operating pilots for over a year and have carried out reviews resulting in changes to overview and scrutiny arrangements. For example, Bedfordshire County Council changed their arrangements from select committees—some of which were chaired by the opposition—to a system of select committees chaired by majority group members and a scrutiny committee chaired by the opposition.

  It will be important for all authorities to review how overview and scrutiny arrangements are working to ensure that they are providing the effective checks and balances to the executive necessary to make these structures work. It is unlikely that councils will get it right first time.

  Much of the early focus on this issue was on the aspect of scrutiny, ie the review of decisions taken. However, it is becoming apparent from the pilots that there is a much greater role for the overview aspect, reviewing the effectiveness of council policies and proposing new policies or amendments to existing ones. Many councils have also used the introduction of these committees to look at issues in a more cross-cutting manner rather than the traditional service based approach.

  One experience that has been common has been the need to ensure that overview and scrutiny is properly resourced. Resources are needed for training members and officers to carry out new and different roles and to learn new skills based around questioning and listening. They are also needed to support the committees, not only to organise meetings and produce agendas and minutes, but also to research the issues and advise members on key issues and lines of questioning.

  Early discussion about the introduction of new arrangements talked about reducing the number of committees. However, many councils have found that their pilots do not contain fewer committees, particularly those that had already streamlined their committee arrangements. The resources required to support overview and scrutiny should not be underestimated. It must not be assumed that new structures will free up officers to provide this support. Smaller councils in particular are finding some difficulty in allocating sufficient resources to support these arrangements.

  Whilst it is not yet legislation, the LGA wishes to draw to the Committee's attention the proposals contained within the Health and Social Care Bill which will give councils responsibility for scrutiny of local health services and organisations. This is welcomed and is a natural extension of the community leadership role of councils.

  However, many councils do not currently have the skills and in-depth knowledge of local health services required to ensure that this responsibility can be carried out effectively. Given the level of resources already required for scrutiny, the LGA is concerned that it is not proposed to allocate additional resources to councils to carry out this new responsibility.

  This problem is likely to increase as councils gain confidence and begin to conduct more reviews and investigations of external issues and local quangos. The review of other local public services is an essential part of the council's community leadership responsibility, but without adequate resources it will be difficult to carry it out effectively.

EXECUTIVES

  At present the only form of executive that can be approximated under existing legislation is that of cabinet and leader and even within that model there are some constraints. In particular any cabinet comprised of only one party (or which is not politically proportionate) can not legally take decisions. Thus many councils have "ratification committees" to carry out this duty. In other cases decisions have been delegated to senior officers for this purpose. Also, individual members cannot currently take decisions on their own, so whilst they may have portfolios they are not at present legally responsible for decisions.

  However, there are a number of lessons emerging from the pilots. The first of these is the amount of business that is taken to the executive. Many councils have increased the amount of decisions delegated to officers to help alleviate some of this burden, concentrating the time and efforts of the executive on more strategic matters. Other authorities have delegated some of their responsibilities to area committees—those decisions that have much more of a local impact. However, even with increased delegation the workload of an executive should not be underestimated.

  This has serious implications for the amount of time members are expected to put into their duties. It is likely, certainly in some larger authorities, that the debate may begin soon about whether some, or all executive posts should be full-time. This is a matter for local councils to determine but the Local Government Act 2000 requires councils to establish Independent Panels to assess levels of members' allowances and also to consider making some of these allowances pensionable. The Government has committed itself to consulting with local government on these issues but as yet this consultation has not taken place. It is unlikely that councils will consider introducing major changes to allowances until this consultation has taken place. Until then executives will rely on the good will and commitment of their members.

  The second is an issue of information. Many councils have found that they have needed to review existing and develop new forms of information distribution amongst members. Many of those not on the executive feel that they do not know what is going on or that they are missing out on new developments. Communication, not only with other members, but also with the local media, residents and other stakeholders is a key part of making executive structures work.

  Swale Borough Council has developed a process of monthly member briefings on a single topic. Topics are selected by members and can involve presentations from outside bodies such as the health authority or the Environment Agency. Blackburn with Darwen have developed fortnightly written briefings which include information on decisions taken by the executive and updates from scrutiny commissions. The briefings are individual and include information about local ward areas.

  Another issue, likely to become more prominent once individual decision making becomes possible, concerns the confidence of executive members to make decisions on their own. This is a new role for members, previously being used to the support of their group, if not the whole council. Executives are pushing individual councillors into the spotlight. In response some councils are providing media training for members.

MAYORS

  Under current legislation it is not possible to operate a pilot involving a directly elected mayor. There is therefore, no evidence on which to draw conclusions about how such a model may work.

  It is fair to say that there has not been an enthusiastic welcome from councils or councillors to the idea of directly elected mayors. Whilst surveys still show that the cabinet and leader model is the most preferred option for councils, it is too early to predict how many councils will introduce mayoral models. Authorities are currently consulting on the options with their communities and it is only after completing such consultation that councils will decide which model to pursue.

  There are however, a growing number of councils considering holding a referendum on this option to let the public decide. There is also growing momentum in some areas for organising a citizen initiated petition.

  Whatever the final picture turns out to be, it is clear that directly elected mayors will have an impact on the way councils work and interact with their communities and on local government in general.

AREA COMMITTEES

  Whilst not originally included in the draft local government bill, area or neighbourhood committees are taking on increasing importance. An LGA survey[15] found that half of those responding were intending to include some form of area arrangement within their structure. These mechanisms range from those that are purely consultative to those taking a significant number of decisions. Already, it is apparent that such arrangements can be a vital part of reconnecting with communities and public attendance at such meetings is often higher than for other council meetings.

  Experience to date suggests that there are a number of key issues councils must address before establishing such arrangements. There is the issue of ensuring that there are adequate resources to support them. Also, in many areas there are parish and town councils—bodies which for many years have been operating effectively at the local level. This must be recognised in such arrangements.

  Tameside MBC has introduced eight District Assemblies that have a wide range of responsibilities including youth services, road maintenance and community grants. Each Assembly is made up of the local councillors for the area and has a local advisory group which takes part in the meetings. This group is made up of two/three representatives of voluntary or community groups, two/three from residents and tenants groups and two/three from local businesses. It also includes a Year 11 student (15/16 year old) from each secondary school within the District Assembly area. The local police also attend to hear about local concerns and report on their work. Each meeting starts with an Open Forum when anyone can raise an issue of local concern. Up to 100 questions are asked at the Open Forum during each cycle.

  West Sussex County Council set up an Area Committee for the one area of Arun district. Members of the committee include the county councillors for the area and representatives of the district, town and parish councils. All three tiers are therefore represented and participate in policy discussions. The Area Committee has a number of delegated responsibilities that include countryside matters, sustainable travel, highways and traffic management.

ALTERNATIVE ARRANGEMENTS

  A last-minute amendment to the Local Government Act introduced the option of alternative arrangements for small shire districts. Whilst much of this evidence applies to those authorities which do introduce such structures (overview and scrutiny committees, full council and area committees), the LGA hopes that the Committee will consider some of the issues facing these councils.

  The most important issue here is the fact that these councils have not had time to pilot these arrangements. This has been compounded by the absence of the regulations required for councils to be able to introduce such structures. There is then understandable concern amongst those councils about how such structures might work.

  The Act requires these councils to consult on whether to introduce alternative or executive arrangements. As with other councils they are then expected to copy their proposals to the Secretary of State by the end of June 2001. Whilst there is draft guidance setting out the Secretary of State's intentions, councils are cautious of pressing too far in case the regulations, which are subject to affirmative resolution, do not match those intentions.

  The deadline is now approaching and even if these regulations are published shortly it will still be some time before they have passed through parliamentary processes. The LGA urges the committee to consider whether to recommend that the deadline be extended for such councils, and/or that they should be able to have a year's piloting period in between submitting their proposals and actually introducing them, should they wish to.

  There is also an issue about seemingly arbitrary population threshold of 85,000 that was applied to this option. Many authorities just over this limit, and others, also believe that a committee based structure would be the most appropriate one for their area and their communities. However, this option would only be available to them as a fall-back position were a referendum for a mayoral model not be supported—a process which is complicated and time consuming.

  Some councils feel that they should be able to pursue such an option in their consultation and introduce alternative arrangements should their communities support it.

ACCESS TO INFORMATION

  The Committee will no doubt be aware of the debate that took place in the House of Commons recently when members of opposition parties prayed against the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2000. There is concern that they will enable councils to operate a regime of secrecy, taking major decisions in private. Concern has also been expressed about the provision for councils to determine themselves what constitutes a key decision. There is a fear that this could be abused by councils setting excessively high levels to mark "significant" expenditure.

  Local government has a proud history of being open in its decisions making arrangements and has traditionally been the most open of all public sector bodies. The LGA is keen to ensure that this tradition continues and encourages councils to place openness at the heart of their new structures.

REGULATIONS AND TIMING

  There are still a number of significant pieces of secondary legislation outstanding. Regulations for "Alternative Arrangements" have not yet been published nor have those dealing with referendums or the election of mayors.

  Whilst councils could now introduce leader and cabinet arrangements there are still some conflicts with other pieces of local government legislation that need to be resolved under regulations. Until that takes place any council which formally adopts such a new constitution may be liable to judicial review.

  Consequently, there is some concern that councils may not be able to meet the deadline for submission of proposals. The Committee is urged to recommend that the Government is lenient with councils that are developing their proposals but are unable to meet the deadline for submission set in the guidance.

THE ROLE OF OFFICERS

  Pilot arrangements have changed the nature of the interface between members and officers. Whilst officers are still responsible to the whole council, most of their day-to-day interactions will be with the executive. However, they will also be called on to provide advice and support to the enquiries of overview and scrutiny committees. It is essential that officers maintain not only political neutrality but neutrality between the executive and overview and scrutiny. A number of councils are developing protocols to help clarify expectations, roles and responsibilities of each party.

WHIPPING

  Party politics and the political group play a very important part in UK local government. However, evidence from the pilots show that overview and scrutiny does not work effectively if the party whip is used. Therefore, the change in culture needs to happen not only in the council but also in the party groups, and indeed the local political parties.

  Dr Colin Copus has suggested four models that the party group might adopt in response to the changed environment[16]—that of partner, arbitor, filter or leviathon. Diagrams of these models are attached at Appendix III.[17]

CONCLUSION

  Local councils will no doubt find the process of change a challenging one. The committee system has been in operation since the nineteenth century. Councils have developed mechanisms for making effective use of the system, and adapted it as circumstances change. The new arrangements are revolutionary and will take time to take shape in practice.

  Authorities also have a range of other major issues to deal with at the same time—the introduction of best value, community leadership and the new emphasis on neighbourhood renewal and local strategic partnerships. Councils need to be allowed to adapt to these changes and let new structures bed down before they can be assessed as to how effective they have been. Local councils have not been offered any new resources to help support this significant change agenda.

  Councils have time and again proved themselves to be capable of adapting to change and developing innovative and interesting responses to new challenges. Those authorities, which have been piloting new arrangements legislation, have already started doing so and have a significant role to play in sharing their experience with all councils.

January 2001



10   Professor John Stewart, A role for all members: the council meeting, Designing governance: issues in modernisation series, LGA, 2000. Back

11   Professor Steve Leech, Getting the right balance: three scenarios on the future of local governance, Designing governance: issues in modernisation, LGA, 2000. Back

12   LGA, Real Roles for Members: role of non-executive members in the new structures, LGA 2000. Back

13   Ev. not printed. Back

14   Ev. not printed. Back

15   LGA, Local leadership, local progress: a survey of local authorities on political management and probity, LGA 2000. Back

16   Dr Colin Copus, It's my party: the role of the group in executive arrangements, Designing governance: issues in modernisation, LGA. Back

17   Ev. not printed. Back


 
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