Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by RJB Morris (LGA 13)


  1.1  This submission is written in response to the personal invitation to submit a memorandum to the House of Commons Urban Affairs Sub-Committee. It is offered on a personal basis only and is not to be understood as necessarily representing the views of Northampton Borough Council or anyone else.

  1.2  The writer is a solicitor with 34 years' local government experience, over twenty of which have been as a Chief Executive at the City of Durham (1981-86) and at Northampton (since 1986). I was President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives in 1995-96.


  2.1  The Local Government Act 2000 has been arguably the most significant reform of local government executive and associated procedures since the modern era began. Pasted into the front of the first City of Durham minute book of 1836 is a set of standing orders whose language is instantly familiar to practitioners today.

  2.2  A number of developments have occurred, of course, in over one and a half centuries since. In the later years of Victoria's reign the tradition of party political impartiality of officers grew to become the norm, on the surface at least, while around the same time the doctrine of ultra vires was similarly being established. In the 1960s the Maud and Mallaby reports examined management approaches and processes; large numbers of committees and sub-committees were usually reduced, and with hindsight we can see that after the local government reorganisation of 1974 the influence of the Bains report on management approaches represented perhaps the last example of voluntary adoption by almost all authorities in England and Wales of a template of approach offered as the norm.

  2.3  Finally in 1989 the Local Government and Housing Act—which felt onerously prescriptive at the time and was introduced in response to the Government's perception of unacceptable practices in the 1980s—required heads of paid service, monitoring officers and politically proportional committees and sub-committees. The convention of party political neutrality for senior officers, forged over a hundred years earlier, was made statutory (and interestingly the 2000 Act has begun further to loosen, through the concept of the power to promote well-being in sections 2-5, the bonds of ultra vires also forged at around that same time).

  2.4  Looking back over this long span—of industrialisation, social evolutions, world wars, technological marvels and more mundanely, local government structural reform, we can see that procedures were relatively little touched. How authorities were organised and took decisions was of little priority. If the 167 years since 1835 were but twelve hours, for instance, political parties would have been recognised in the conduct of local government business (other than in the context of elections) as recently as five past eleven. The level of concern with which we today take such matters as access to, or freedom of, information, public participation and human rights is really very recent.

  2.5  Nevertheless we can also see a slowly developing appreciation that process reform was needed. The Conservative Government published a paper of internal management proposals in the early 1990s (though nothing came of it); increasingly authorities began to call for more flexibility in the way they were able to organise their business. The Local Government Act 2000 is the product of a determination to effect significant change both in terms of political leadership and actual decision-making. This memorandum offers some views based on a series of instructive contrasts, and of this writer's experience of piloting a Leader and Cabinet model during the 2001-02 municipal year.


  3.1  The call was for greater flexibility, but the result is overly prescriptive. Paradoxically the world of committees, delegated powers and ultra vires had proved itself malleable beyond the imaginings of the Victorians who enacted it. The old system certainly had its limitations, but generations of applied ingenuity had mapped and moulded most of them. Contributions of determined councillors and officers were to be found delivering high quality services regardless of many of the supposed legal limitations. Even the notoriously difficult power to trade had been extended despite Parliament's clear reluctance to grant it open-endedly.

  3.2  Although the 2000 Act powers about well-being are welcome, there is a sense in which the limited choice of types of executive arrangements is a disappointment, or even an irrelevance, in the position of best quality public services.

  3.3  What is, and is not, within the powers of the Executive (or Cabinet) is now elaborately prescribed in a way which seems the antithesis of trust and confidence in local government to act responsibly. Details of a kind appropriate to control tax evasion sit oddly with the Government and Audit Commission's calls for innovation, entrepreneurship, best value and, above all, quality public services. An instance of this is the framework, both statutory and advisory, in relation to "key decisions" which manages both to be prescriptive and inconsistently imprecise, but the consequences of which have significant implications for the procedures elsewhere in the Act.

  3.4  Does the 2000 Act empower local democracy or does it focus on decisions to the detriment of debate? Views on this will differ, no doubt, but a decade or so after the rights of political proportionality were granted by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 many Councillors not from the controlling group on Councils resent being effectively excluded by statute from direct participation in the meetings of the Executive where key decisions are made.

  3.5  This has wider connotations. No doubt many Councils have, like Northampton, traditionally approached certain issues broadly on a cross-party basis and now find that there are considerable technical difficulties in continuing this. Take the awarding of grants for instance, on which Northampton has spent some £2 million in the current year: there has been a systematic cross-party process, with an appeal mechanism, for hearing grant applications and determining how they meet the relevant criteria.

  3.6  Such a body is no longer compatible with the newly required 2000 Act Executive arrangements. Applicants understandably want to meet the Councillors who they feel make the decisions; they are usually little concerned with party politics. Now we have the legal power to make grants delegated to an officer (myself, in this case) after consultation with a cross-party meeting of Councillors. This is artificial and unhelpful. Whereas useful concepts like overview and scrutiny require Councillors to lay aside party political applications to a large extent, such limitations as I have described have the opposite effect of making cross-party working harder. It would be well for the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee to hear evidence also on these issues from Councils with no overall political control, or largely independent membership.

  3.7  There is a further important contrast affecting decision making. While the expectation is for wider and more innovative partnership working, the legislation has been about more narrowly focusing executive power. It is particularly difficult, other than by formally constituted joint committees and joint boards, to construct partnerships with clear powers to take legally binding directions and spend money, and especially so when non-council or non-public sector partners are concerned. Yet the consequence of the 2000 Act is to provide narrowly defined sets of executive arrangements each of which concentrates (to a greater or lesser extent) real legal/political/executive power in a few hands. Government expectations for better partnership working could have been effectively promoted by flexibilities here, and they might again have promoted easier cross-party, rather than probable single-party, working and accountability.

  3.8  There is some perception that new executive arrangements are founded on a central (Westminster) approach to local requirements. In a local setting overview and scrutiny is not an equivalent of Parliamentary scrutiny by Select Committee, at least not in the sense that what works in one context can readily be transferred or scaled across to the other. Recent events at the Department of Transport Local Government and the Regions have focused attention on the conventions surrounding Civil Servants, but their position is not closely akin to that of senior local government officers, who must advise all political parties, give advice in public, and be publicly accessible in a way that is not paralleled in central government.


  4.1  The foregoing paragraphs could not of course amount to a full critique of a complex and wide-ranging piece of legislation. They have simply been an attempt to pick up some of the ways in which different outcomes seem—at this early stage in our experience of making it work—to have occurred, or to have been intended, from what many in local government appear to have wanted. Perhaps the greatest contradiction of all is that the Act sought to make a radical change in the nature of political accountability, but where it could have signalled trust in the new paradigm it signalled lack of trust. It called for ethical standards and constitutional rules, but it imperilled the tradition of politically impartial senior officers serving all the representatives of the community rather than just the ruling group.

  4.2  Nevertheless, it is not the purpose of this Memorandum to call at this time for change. It is too soon. We have barely operated the new constitutional arrangements for the same number of days as the years for which the traditional system held sway—as it still largely can, of course, in authorities below 85,000 population. We all need to give the new Act time to work to its full potential.

  4.3  Was there an alternative? Would it have been preferable to have done nothing? No. New ways of working were needed. It is a pity that the spirit which has allowed local election experiments, for instance, did not apply to the trials of new Executive arrangements. The task of defining Cabinet powers, key decisions and the like have been prolonged and difficult, but for the time being the results must stay as they are.

  4.4  A better way would have been for central government to have taken local government more into its trust—following the recommendations of Lord Hunt's report a few years ago when a subsequent Bill was lost—in laying out a few statutory principles from which local arrangements could in detail have been derived. Local authorities respect the law. They are closely and responsibly audited. They could have done what was required. Is it not a final irony that the Act which gave Councils powers of well-being in the interests of their communities felt unable to give those selfsame Councils duties of good governance within their own Council Chambers?

  4.5  I hope that the foregoing paragraphs are helpful, and I should be willing to elaborate on them if required.

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