Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Commission on Local Governance (LGB 24)


  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 governance.

  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 financial autonomy.


  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 action.


  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.

Peter Hetherington


Commission on Local Governance

June 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 8 July 2002