Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Councillor Paul Clein (LGA 21)

  I am the Executive Member for Education and Lifelong Learning on Liverpool City Council. I am one of the 10 members of the Council's cabinet. You might think that in my oh so powerful position I would be enthusiastic about the LGA 2000. Actually, I think it is one of the most loathsome and dishonest pieces of legislation I have seen during my 10 years as an elected member.

  What was the claimed impetus for this legislation? The stated reasons of the Government were modernisation (whatever that is supposed to mean), increased accountability, streamlined decision making, separation of executive and scrutiny functions, revitalising public interest in local government and more making it more efficient. The real reason in my view : a number of (mainly) Labour Councils were tainted by corruption, notably Doncaster. Many were effectively one party states and bastions of old Labour, resisting the internal modernisation of the Labour party. The Blair administration decided early on to continue the policy of the previous Government to attenuate or remove the powers, duties and influence of local government and centralise power. This process is still ongoing. It was obviously felt that it would be easier to deal with and control a small number of elected mayors whose placement could be fixed centrally as has been done with so many MPs and was attempted in London and the Welsh Assembly. So—leave as little residual power at the margins as possible, have it exercised by a small number of people in your (relative) control and sell it as US style Mayors but without the depth of democratic controls, freedom of information or range of powers that they have in the US. Its the colonial model writ large, internal rather than external.

  LGA 2000 is also based on a false premise. It was sold on the basis that it would be comparable to the central Government/Parliamentary system (as if that were a model of best practice!!) with its separation of powers. The problem is that central Government makes legislation starting from scratch, whereas local government is increasingly becoming merely an agency for implementation of central legislation in a tightening straitjacket. We cannot even make by-laws without permission from central government, permission which is hardly ever forthcoming. I can think of several matters on which there is a broad consensus in favour in Liverpool, eg greater controls of sale and availability of fireworks, where central government has consistently made it clear they will not allow local by-laws or materially alter national legislation.

  But what of our new powers under LGA 2000, especially the general power to promote the welfare of our citizens, I hear you say. Fair enough, the possibility of surcharge has now been removed although I would have had no problem with that remaining in place if the same system had been applied to MPs and Government ministers. Unfortunately the general power can only be exercised if it does not conflict with preexisting legislation. That rules most things out. For example, as conscientious corporate parents, in order to encourage looked after children to strive for higher educational standards, Liverpool City Council proposed having funds set aside for LACs who achieved five or more A*—C at GCSE to help finance them through Higher Education—as any parent would. We can't do it as these students are eligible for student loans and the existing regulations do not allow anyone to threaten the market share of the Student Loans Company. So much for general powers.

ELECTED MAYORS

  LGA 2000 is a piece of legislation which is obviously designed to be mediated solely through elected mayors. The Leader and Cabinet model, the one most Councils seem to have opted for, isn't that much different in the range of powers residing with the leader as compared with those of an elected mayor except that there is marginally more by way of checks and balances. The Act is designed to push Local Authorities towards having an elected mayor without having the guts to actually dictate it. Thus it includes the means of forcing a referendum where having an elected mayor is the obvious preferred option or having the Secretary of State imposing a referendum if he or she is not satisfied that the option of an elected mayor hasn't had a fair crack of the whip.

  As for revitalising interest in local government, the public imagination has been distinctly underwhelmed by the prospect of having elected mayors with referendum turnouts no different from or often less than the norm (11.2 per cent recently in Southwark, for example). The response to the exercise about local governance in Liverpool which went to every household elicited a rate of return of about 1 per cent. This compares to the response rate of 26 per cent when we consulted on the same basis about the future of the refuse collection service.

PROBITY

  My 10 years of direct involvement in and experience of local government has led me to believe that nearly every elected member is motivated to a lesser or greater degree by altruistic reasons, wanting to improve the quality of life for the community in which they live. A small minority are there for kudos, some—a very few—for the money, although that is changing. The impression given by LGA 2000 is that most local authorities are riddled with or likely to be tainted by corruption so there needs to be a prescriptive framework of Standards bodies to root out the miscreants and bring them to book. I doubt that elected members will seek to undermine local Standards Committees in the manner Elizabeth Filkin was dealt with by Parliament and the Government. Taken together with the restrictions enshrined by various decisions of the Local Government Ombudsman regarding declaration of interests, becoming an elected member now means giving up a range of rights taken for granted by everyone else, because it appears we can't be trusted with anything very much any more.

  It beggars belief that anyone with an IQ in three figures would believe that lack of probity is less likely when real decision making is reserved to far fewer people, and in the case of the elected mayor, effectively, ultimately, to one person. I find it entirely understandable that in country after country where elected mayors have been the preferred local governance model, time after time charges of and convictions for corruption have been a regular occurrence. That's because its easier to corrupt one person than to corrupt several, amazingly enough. We hear a lot about the wondrousness of Rudy Guiliani as a good reason for having an elected mayor (!!). Apart from the fact that most of this is hype, we hear little or nothing about his predecessors who almost bankrupted New York or about elected mayors like Marion Barry in Washington DC convicted of cocaine abuse.

  This does illustrate why elected mayors are a popular concept with the media. Where the media have one political power broker focal figure to deal with, it facilitates the reduction of political discourse to a celebrity activity—its sexier mediawise. Dumbing down of politics—just what is needed now in local governance.

SCRUTINY

  As Chair of the Education Committee on Liverpool City Council in 1998-99, I was responsible for policy development and scrutiny. The view I took after six years in opposition was that scrutiny—regarding which I was assiduous in opposition—would now be even more assiduous because the buck now stopped with me. That has not changed under the cabinet system. I am the first line of scrutiny of that part of the officer corps for which I have direct political responsibility and I am also assiduous in scrutinising those policy decisions for which I take a share of collective responsibility.

  I would suppose the system of select committees which we now have in Liverpool does not differ markedly from other Councils in modus operandi except in number and portfolio mix. Separation of powers if it is to work properly actually requires two separate officer groups, one which serves the executive and a smaller one which serves the needs of the select committees. In my view this will not happen on any great scale because the finance is not there in chronically tight Council budgets which year on year are more and more prescriptively dictated by central Government, especially in education which comprises around half of most Council's budgets. When I talk to colleagues of all parties from other Councils, the general consensus is that scrutiny is not working anywhere near well under LGA 2000.

  What I find particularly annoying is that the system which we devised in Liverpool in advance of the enactment of LGA 2000—as we were encouraged to do by central Government—worked far better than the present system. That was not just my opinion. OFSTED's reinspection of the LEA in September 2000 concluded that scrutiny in education was "working well". It isn't working as well now in my view. Our own system still allowed the full City Council to make decisions on matters which were not solely in the restricted list of strategic plans which are now the only significant matters reserved to full Council.

  I am also sceptical of the scrutiny of outside agencies which is supposedly envisaged as forming a part of select committee responsibilities to an increasing degree in future. Apart from anything else I have yet to see any indication that local authorities will be given any meaningful powers to take remedial action should any shortcomings be identified by the scrutiny process. Perhaps this is not so dissimilar from Parliamentary select committees after all.

ACCOUNTABILITY

  Where is the vaunted increase in accountability? A register of key decisions has to be produced three months in advance, although God knows why as it is impossible for those Councillors who are not in the cabinet to actually stop anything happening, only to introduce a short term delay. This may have introduced more transparency but it actually has no real purpose. It could be argued that it actually introduces a degree of prescriptive paralysis into the system having to plan nearly all significant decision making so far in advance. To draw an educational analogy, the main problem with the (prescriptive) National Curriculum is not what is in it but what is not in it and for which there is subsequently insufficient time to do justice.

  The idea that having a single figure—an elected mayor—with the level of power envisaged increases accountability is wrong-headed. With a four year term of office, accountability will only be truly apparent in the fourth year of office. At least with the Leader and cabinet model, election by thirds does maintain a degree of electoral accountability absent with the elected mayor model.

MARGINALISATION AND THE DEATH OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT

  The main effect of LGA 2000 so far as elected members are concerned has been to marginalise all of them to a lesser or greater degree. This is especially so where there is an elected mayor but hardly less so with the leader and cabinet model. (I do not know of any LA which has been stupid enough to adopt the city manager model which was obviously only included to make it appear as though there was a range of choices instead of just two—elected mayor or not). Those who are not members of an Executive only have real decision making powers in relation to a lesser or greater number of strategic plans, depending on whatever residual decision making was left with the full Council in the new constitution. Having to have everything enacted through a cabinet or elected mayor decision makes it effectively impossible for a backbench Councillor to achieve anything much, even on a ward level, to which he or she can lay claim. I can think of nothing more likely to demotivate the vast bulk of elected members more effectively.

  Peter Mandelson said in 1997 that local government as we knew it was dead. At the time it was taken to be an exaggeration. It wasn't. This is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy due to this legislation. Every Councillor with whom I have discussed this legislation dislikes it to a lesser or greater degree, most of them are thoroughly disillusioned with the new system and deem it fatally flawed. No doubt this will be interpreted as being due to a mass refusal on the part of elected members to accept reality and adapt to modernisation rather than the actuality that this is a badly defective piece of legislation.

  I believe this Act is designed deliberately to introduce disillusion and prepare the ground for an eventual significant reduction in numbers of elected members. The introduction of salary structures is obviously intended to change the profile of elected members—in effect to professionalise them—and pave the way for full time Councillors, probably on the basis of one member per ward. Superficially this has the attraction of potentially widening the range of backgrounds for Councillors away from the traditional middle class white male norm. Unfortunately it will also change the main motivation away from the more altruistic end of the spectrum to the more financial.

  The Government has made it clear that the salami tactic of slicing away local authority powers is to continue unabated. Only yesterday (February 25) the Guardian reported that the Government is set to relaunch/reinvigorate the move towards elected mayors. Yippee.

  I am as committed as any elected member I know. I have worked my socks off as an elected member in opposition and in administration. At the moment, my feeling is that when my term of office ends in 2004, if the remaining goals I have set myself are achieved, I will not be seeking reelection. I just wish that the Government—signatory to the Maastricht Treaty with its commitment to subsidiarity —would have the honesty to stop messing around, impose elected mayors and kill off local government if that is what they really want to do. Preferably, admit that this is a bad Act, articulate a truly renewed commitment to local government and make major changes to LGA 2000 ASAP.

Councillor Paul Clein
Executive Member for Education and Lifelong Learning,
Liverpool City Council

27 February 2002


 
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