Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Chester City Council (LGA 06)

  The Local Government Act 2000 brought into force provisions relating to:

    —  A duty for local authorities to promote economic, social and environmental well-being

    —  New arrangements with respect to executives, including elected Mayors and the Cabinet model

    —  Provisions relating to the conduct of councillors and officers, and

    —  Provisions relating to local authority elections

  Like many local authorities, Chester City Council had already recognised the need for change during the 1990s. It was one of the first authorities to establish a strong local multi-agency partnership and was working towards developing its own model of political management arrangements. The Act has been embraced enthusiastically by the political leadership of the Council and has been used as a means of ensuring continuing organisational development.

THE DUTY FOR LOCAL AUTHORITIES TO PROMOTE ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL WELL-BEING

  The City Council welcomed this new duty for the very good reason that it reflects the reality of what the role of an effective local authority has been, if not since they were created, then certainly for a very long time. For instance, 800 years ago, the well being of the citizens of Chester depended on the city having effective defensive walls which the City Council provided and maintained. The well being of our residents today depends on a more complex mix of factors but the City Council is still involved in either providing them or securing them. Local authorities have a wide range of service responsibilities, but these are for a purpose, which we believe is reflected in this new duty.

  There has been a debate throughout local government over the years about "statutory" duties, which we must do and "discretionary" powers, which we may do. The wide recognition now given to the community leadership role of local authorities which is underpinned by this duty plus the general power of well-being has changed the whole landscape. We believe this is helpful in the whole debate about the role of local authorities in their communities and also helps them meet the challenge of planning strategically for their areas. For instance, again to use a Chester example, tourism promotion is a "discretionary" service; there is no duty for a local authority to do anything. In many places, including Chester, it would be inconceivable for the local authority not to invest heavily on promotion of our area. Given our duty to promote the economic, environmental and social well being of our area (which depends heavily on the income earned from tourists) we feel the new power sets out more clearly the legislative and policy context within which local government works and within which we must plan, raise local taxes and deliver services.

NEW WORKING ARRANGEMENTS FOR COUNCILLORS

  Chester City Council was already working in a different way in the mid 1990s with a lot of business being done by members and officers in informal sessions which then had to be formalised through the traditional committee system. This involved members from all groups because we have been politically hung/balanced since 1990. Members had already recognised the need to change how they worked and a panel had been set up in early 1997 to find an answer to this.

  So change in how members carried out their business was on our agenda at the time of the 1997 general election. When it became clear what the new government's thinking was, we developed new arrangements which would take us in the direction of the eventual requirements. So from May 1999 the City Council had an executive/review split plus an Ethics & Standards committee. On the executive side there was a Leadership Board of eight members, which was a cabinet in many ways. It was supported however by seven Boards of approximately seven members each who had executive functions which have subsequently been transferred to our cabinet. There were also eight review committees to undertake the scrutiny role. Additionally we set up nine local panels to help members develop their local community roles further.

  While it did not comply with the final legislation, this move proved to be a very effective learning experience for the whole organisation. We had set up a group (Leadership Board) which had some of the responsibilities of a Cabinet and helped members and officers begin to work in a new way. We had a members' Scrutiny/Review mechanism for the first time which enabled us all to begin to learn how to do this. We have had a similar experience to most local authorities with problems of resourcing these, developing the skills needed and reassuring members that this role had value. But we also had some successes in carrying out effective reviews, introducing training and changing mind sets.

  Initially, our local panels were purely consultative and advisory. However, as they developed, small budgets were made available to them and we are now actively looking at delegating some executive decisions to them as allowed for in the Act. This long lead-in time has proved beneficial in developing a sense of community and allowed time to engage residents and partners.

  By the time the Local Government Act 2000 came into force we therefore had over a year already of working with very different arrangements to those which the City Council had been using for decades, if not centuries. We carried out very extensive consultation on which of the new options was right for the City Council for the future and the clear preference was for a cabinet form of local government in Chester. That was set up in September 2001 and is working well though many members have resented the restriction to a narrow series of three options from which to choose. Some lessons from the Chester experience are:

    —  Some of local government was already open to change and to looking at how to replace the traditional committee system, and this might have been encouraged more, rather than the prescription of three narrow options.

    —  That openness to change will be the key to success of the whole modernisation agenda for any local authority. Despite misgivings here by many members we have embraced the new structure and will make the most of it. The first signs are encouraging, with a new political administration in the Cabinet able to make swift and visible changes to how things are done, for instance in street cleanliness.

    —  Being able to trial the new arrangements (albeit in modified form) proved to be very beneficial to us in learning new roles, making a start on the new culture needed to make a success of any new arrangements, making the inevitable mistakes and beginning the training and development needed to give people new skills for new roles.

    —   The new arrangements for members need to be recognised as part of a major change management programme which the whole organisation is going through, with Best Value, Community Planning, forming an LSP, contributing to a joint PSA, the new ethical framework and initiatives on democratic renewal all contributing to the change agenda. Senior members and officers need to understand this and be seen to lead their organisation through it, with wide and extensive communication being essential.

    —  Training for new roles and development is essential. This includes structured training (we have used IDeA for instance) but also less obvious things like workshops, planning days or informal panels where people (whether members or officers) are able to behave differently to their habitual roles, so as to model new behaviours which will be part of their making a success of the very different roles which we have seen emerging here.

    —  Flowing from all of this is the statement, which, while obvious, bears being made: you do not just change structures when you change, you must also change culture, systems and if necessary, people. Perhaps too much attention from everyone, Government, LGA and individuals has been on the whole structural debate, and insufficient attention has been paid to these wider issues around the change agenda. We still have plenty to do but believe we have made a greater success of these aspects here in Chester.

PROVISIONS RELATING TO THE CONDUCT OF COUNCILLORS AND OFFICERS

  The Council has always taken these issues very seriously and already had in place codes of conduct for members and officers. In anticipation of the Act, in 1999, an Ethics & Standards Committee was established with responsibility for introducing the new ethical framework.

  The Committee began to meet and co-opted two outside members (a circuit judge and a former county council chief executive). It began to look at a range of issues such as a whistle blowers policy and amending existing codes of conduct. Again, the work undertaken proved to be a very good foundation for the statutory framework which we have since adopted. It also enabled early inter-action and communication with the parish councils of our area.

PROVISIONS RELATING TO LOCAL ELECTIONS

  Chester took advantage of the pilot schemes in 2000 and introduced early voting for all Wards in the district having an election in 2000. The aim of the pilot was to encourage more people to cast their vote in local elections.

  Chester was one of the first places to give people the chance to cast their vote before the traditional polling day on 4 May. A mobile polling station (a caravan with awning) was provided on the Town Hall Square from Tuesday 25 April to Friday 28 April from 9.00am to 5.00pm.

  This year Chester is amongst 30 Local Authorities to try out new hi-tech ways of voting in May 2002.

  Up to 13,600 voters in three Wards will have the chance to cast their votes using touch screen machines instead of putting a pencil mark on a piece of paper.

  The introduction of rolling registration has helped with registration. Electors do not now have to wait for up to 12 months to register and can do so when they move house making the Register of Electors a more up to date record. However rolling registration has not significantly increased registration.

  The key thing about these new arrangements which we and other authorities are involved in is that, at last, the whole area of elections and electoral registration is open to new ideas and experiments in how to exercise our right to vote. In due course we will know that some things work better than others and we will be able to make adjustments. But we should at the same time have finally blown the dust out of a system which would have still been familiar to Charles Dickens if he had returned in recent years.

  The government is to be congratulated for having allowed this experimentation and made these changes. The key thing is to ensure for the future that the electoral system is never allowed to ossify in the way it did before the recent changes. It must remain an impartial, highly accurate and trustworthy means of electing our democratic representatives, but it needs to be able to change to reflect new technology, demographic and social changes at the same time.

  As well as an up to date means of voting, people also need a reason to vote. It is imperative that local government is seen to be capable of making a difference to people's lives, in order to give them an incentive to vote. The role and functions of local government, including the right to raise taxes locally, therefore needs to be considered in any review of voter turn-outs for local government.


 
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Prepared 22 April 2002