Memorandum by Commission on Local Governance
1. The Commission on Local Governance has
been sitting since December 2001 with a brief to examine the White
Paper, Strong Local Leadership-Quality Public Services. Chaired
by the Guardian's regional affairs editor, Peter Hetherington,
the Commission includes representatives of the three main political
parties and trade union, business, and voluntary sectors. It is
an independent group, which was initiated by and is managed by
the LGIU. Between January and April 2002 the Commission received
oral and written evidence from a wide range of organisations,
individuals and local authorities with a broad interest in local
2. "Free to Differ", the report
of the independent Commission on Local Governance, was launched
in June. In framing its wide-ranging recommendations on the future
for local democracy, the Commission was helped significantly by
an analysis of how the government is meeting its commitments under
the European Charter of Local Self-Government. The Commission
has concluded that there are currently some serious breaches of
the provisions of the Charter, which need to be addressed by the
government as a matter of urgency.
3. The Charter was signed by the government,
within a short period of taking office in 1997. At the time it
was heralded as a significant move. The then Local Government
Minister, Hilary Armstrong, said, "signing the Charter marks
a new chapter in our encouragement of the values of democratic
government. It is a pledge of our commitment to forge a new and
constructive partnership with local government at home".
The Charter was then duly ratified in 1998, requiring the government
to provide the Council of Europe with information on how it is
complying with the Charter. However, the Charter appears to have
slipped out of the government's consciousness to a remarkable
extent, in that it did not merit a mention in the latest White
Paper "Strong Local Leadership-Quality Public Services."
This oversight needs explanation.
4. The review of the Charter, for the Commission,
was undertaken by Jeremy Smith, Director General of the Council
of European Municipalities and Regions. He concluded that although
the UK meets many of the Charter's provisions, there are breaches
of key provisions. He was also concerned that the government is
not testing its new policy proposals against its international
commitments through the Charter. The Commission did try to meet
this test in framing its recommendations.
5. Article 3 of the Charter provide that
local self government denotes the right and ability of local authorities,
within the limits of the law, to regulate and manage a substantial
share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in
the interest of the local population. This should be recognised
in domestic legislation, and where practicable in a country's
constitution. Administrative supervision of local authorities
should be proportional, and they should experience a degree of
6. The Commission was concerned that the
government appears unwilling to trust local government to a sufficient
degree to grant it sufficient authority to deliver the government's
own objectives. We believe that the issue of trust must be addressed
head on during the passage of this Bill.
7. It is clear that the UK currently breaches
Article 2 of the Charter, which requires that the principle of
local self-government be recognised in domestic legislation. To
deal with this aspect the Commission recommends that a basic statement
be agreed between the government and the opposition parties, on
the principles of local democracy and self-government, for inclusion
in a forthcoming Act of Parliament. The draft Local Government
Bill, now being consulted upon, provides an ideal opportunity
to try to reach a consensus on such a statement. Including the
principles in legislation would provide a constitutional backing
for local government and would be an important reference point
by which to judge future legislation.
8. A statutory statement would recognise
that national government is entitled to set broad policies of
general national interest which local government undertakes to
support, but with the best possible amount of space, in line with
the Charter, for genuine local policy making, discretion, and
9. While welcoming the prudential framework,
the Commission is disappointed that very little progress has been
made to restore the balance of funding in favour of local government,
and that little can be expected on general government departmental
policy on ring-fencing of grants. It can be argued that the UK
is in breach of the Charter's requirements under Article 9 until
these issues are addressed, and until local authorities have a
more buoyant tax base.
10. The Commission's analysis also indicates
that the government's approach to inspection falls foul of Article
8, which covers the administrative supervision of local authorities'
activities. Under the Charter, inspection should normally aim
only at ensuring compliance with the law and with constitutional
principles. This is a long way from the centralised and suffocating
inspection regimes currently in place. Jeremy Smith singles out
the comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) scheme, which he
does not consider meets either the spirit or letter of Article
8. The Commission called for the CPA framework to be renegotiated
between central and local government in a manner that ensures
compliance with the Charter.
11. The Commission will press the government
to review progress made on compliance with the Charter and to
make a statement on how it intends to handle omissions and breaches.
This is not only of symbolic importance, as the Charter could
provide an important tool in putting the central/local relationship
back in balance.
Commission on Local Governance