Joint Committee on the Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report


  V. STRUCTURAL ISSUES

Model structures for executive arrangements

21. Three models lie at the centre of the Government's proposals for the establishment of executive arrangements by local authorities. Except as may otherwise be provided, one of these must be followed by any authority adopting executive arrangements. The models prescribed in the draft bill are:

  • a council leader, appointed by full council, who either appoints an executive drawn from the council or heads an executive appointed by and drawn from the council;

  • a directly-elected mayor, with a council manager, to be appointed by the council, who will be an officer of the authority.

25. In their accompanying White Paper, the Government appears to believe that all the forms of local government which it has identified and which involve a separation of the executive would fall into those three categories. Nevertheless the Government is prepared to contemplate that there might be others.[11] Accordingly, the draft bill provides that the Secretary of State may prescribe further models in regulations. To that extent, and for the reasons we set out below, we consider that the bill can be viewed as an enabling measure.

26. A majority of witnesses argued that the three models proposed were insufficiently accommodating and wished to see further models added to the face of the bill. A variety of arguments were adduced questioning why the Whitehall/Westminster model, involving the separation of the executive, was appropriate in all circumstances. Professor Stewart urged that there should be no requirement to make a rigid split between the executive and the rest of the council. "The split, the separation of the executive can become an obsession, can be carried too far. It is very common in Europe when you have the centralising effect of the cabinet or the mayor that at the same time you decentralise a whole series of local decisions".[12] Some individual authorities who have already modernised their structures thought it impracticable and undesirable to make such a split absolute. The Whitehall model, it was argued, was not necessarily suitable for all authorities. For instance, it might not be appropriate for those where there was no overall control by one party or for rural areas where party politics played little part. As many authorities had already embarked on a process of modernisation, a model based on an "improved committee system", locally developed, should be made available.

27. The Local Government Association (LGA) told us, "if we have a criticism of the bill it is that in some respects it seems unduly prescriptive ... in the confining of models of local government to three".[13] "Most councils have streamlined their procedures under the present system in anticipation, or in advance, of the legislation ¼ so that the inefficiencies that the traditional committee system of local government is supposed to have are disappearing and will have disappeared even if you still have a collegiate model in the traditional way".[14] The LGA further said that the principles of transparency, accountability and efficiency "are, in our view, the overriding criteria against which any proposals should be measured, be they the status quo or modification of that or any of the three models. If it is possible to incorporate those within the legislation, then so much the better".[15] The Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) also sought an extra option on these lines, though they recognise that the Government "would be reluctant to allow that unless it were very clear that the benefits were of substance and how that would actually be assessed would be quite a contentious process ...".[16]

28. A number of individual authorities, whose own experiences would fit uncomfortably with the bill's provisions as currently drafted, advanced similar arguments. Cambridgeshire County Council which had already "embraced the modernisation agenda" by radically streamlining its committee structure, adopting an advisory single-party cabinet and instigating various devolved and delegated arrangements, considers that "locally developed models" should be permitted, and accorded the same status as the prescribed models; models might be permitted which "straddle present and prescribed models".[17] Barnsley speculated whether "where the Council has already adopted a modernised structure which meets the requirements of the legislation, and has taken proper steps to consult the public and other stakeholders as part of the process, it will be possible to maintain such arrangements".[18]

29. Eden District Council, the second largest (geographically) and most sparsely populated district council in England, with 80 per cent Independent councillors, says it currently makes decisions in open debate with an "equality of opportunity for all members to contribute". It deems that the proposed changes would be "restrictive of the transparency with which decisions are currently made"; and, given that for political leadership/decision-making purposes the largest group on the authority consists of four councillors, asks which of the models would be "appropriate for a council comprised of Independents". They suggest that councils be given discretion to "choose a decision-making structure most suited to their needs", which did not necessarily split off executive functions.[19] Equally, Peterborough, a council with no overall control expresses the view that since such councils "present their own specific challenges when addressing the executive and representative split" the Bill ought to include models that "have more relevance to the decision-making processes at hung councils".[20] Epsom and Ewell told us that the proposed models would not suit their largely Independent membership and improved committee system.[21] Professor Stewart of Birmingham University told us that for independent authorities it might be possible to make appropriate provisions, either by a separate option or by "making it clear that the intervention powers of the Secretary of State would not be used in a situation where those criteria apply" (those criteria referring to the absence of the faults described in the White Paper).[22]

30. For the LGA and the authorities cited above, then, a further model should be based on an "improved committee system" where this can be demonstrated better to meet the objectives of change than the models set out in the bill. "Such a model might be characterised by:

  • strong role for the full council;
  • a radically reduced number of committees;
  • streamlined working of committees (removal of information only items, etc);
  • absence of strong party politics;
  • greater delegation to officers;
  • greater opportunities to involve members in policy development;
  • new system of members' allowances."[23]

31. The Committee have thought long and hard about whether or not, under the terms of the draft bill, an enhanced committee system should be available as a model on the face of the bill. It is clear from "Local Leadership, Local Choice" that the Government envisages a wide variety of possible models emerging in practice, but all based upon variations of the three models it sets out. While the Government state there is a wide range of new forms of local governance involving a separation of the executive, the White Paper concluded that all those it had identified could be categorised under three broad models. This suggests that the defining criterion of the acceptability of a submitted model is the establishment of some form of executive separate from the council itself ('the legislature'). On this basis, a local authority not wishing to change its present decision-making procedures could not escape from a requirement to submit a model including such arrangements. This interpretation of the Government's intention is strengthened by reference to para 2.15 of the White Paper where the Government say "If a proposal is not supported it cannot be implemented. It would remain open to the council, after further consultation, to move to another way of working which does not involve a directly elected mayor". In other words, the defeat of a referendum to have an elected mayor would not absolve councils of the responsibility to produce proposals for some form of arrangement involving an executive.

32. However, in her evidence to the Committee, the Minister was questioned specifically about the improved committee option, and the particular instance where a council opposed to change might fight and defeat a referendum on change required by the Secretary of State. In this instance, the Minister conceded that it "was technically possible" for a council to continue with the status quo by defeating a referendum called in this way.[24] This appears to highlight a considerable ambiguity in the Government's position; it is, in reality, more than a 'technical possibility.' We are concerned that this ambiguity exists, and consider that it is in the interests of a clear understanding for local authorities engaged in the process of considering options that it be clarified. We therefore recommend that a clear indication of the options available to a local authority following the defeat of a referendum called by the Secretary of State be placed on the face of the bill. In order to remain faithful to the principles of "Local Leadership, Local Choice," provision might be made for the Secretary of State to receive proposals for models excluding an elected mayor within a specified time of the defeat of such a referendum on change in general.

33. We note that some authorities—like Epsom and Ewell for example—with a long tradition of independent membership and no political control, believe that executive arrangements on the lines of those proposed in the draft bill would never really work and it would seem pointless to put those authorities through the hoops of the referendum processes. Under clause 2 (5) of the draft bill it is possible for the Secretary of State to prescribe that an authority's executive arrangements may take such form or are of such forms as he (or, in Wales, the National Assembly) may prescribe in regulations. We therefore think it should be possible for authorities like these to take the initiative and be able to apply to the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for regulations approving arrangements which may not conform with the executive arrangements on the face of the bill. The conditions to be fulfilled before this discretion might be exercised should be prescribed. We suggest that an authority making an application for the Secretary of State to use his discretion must provide evidence of public consultation. And it must be demonstrable that the arrangements proposed or in place for that particular authority better meet the principles of transparency, accountability and efficiency than any of the models prescribed.

34. We recommend that an authority where decision-making is normally taken on the floor of its committees be allowed to apply to the Secretary of State under clause 2 (5) for confirmation of arrangements not in conformity with the executive arrangements on the face of the bill. In exercising his discretion, the Secretary of State should have regard to whether:

  • the decision-making process has been enhanced;

  • the authority has engaged in public consultation;

  • the arrangements proposed for that particular authority better meet the principles of transparency, accountability and efficiency than any of the models prescribed; or

  • the authority has no tradition of party political control.

39. Some witnesses raised a more specific problem in respect of authorities which had, as part of their modernisation process, developed area committees with decision-making powers. These were mainly (but not exclusively) county and rural authorities. As the Local Government Information Unit succinctly put it, "Not currently covered in the bill is an option to enable greater decentralisation of decision-making within a council. This would allow primary emphasis on decision-making arrangements on a geographical rather than service principle. This could encourage public involvement, particularly in large areas where the population is dispersed. Legislation could give greater powers to counties to delegate some service delivery to districts, and for both to be able to delegate to larger town and parish councils".[25]

40. South Somerset District Council, since 1991, have had generic area committees which have made decisions on behalf of local people and which have been supported by decentralised budgets and area staff teams in area offices. Corporate cohesion has been ensured by a district-wide executive committee on the cabinet model.[26] This, they maintain, has led to "stronger leadership for local communities, a more powerful role for councillors and more transparency throughout the council". In May 1999 they had adopted a "cabinet and leader" model of working, "with the four area committees relinquishing to the council (and a district executive) those decisions which impact on more than one area or which depart from agreed policies. Six non-decision-making strategy groups generate and develop council-wide strategies. Each member sits on the council, an area committee and one of the strategy groups". Although they supported the principles of the bill, they were concerned that "the effect of the executive/scrutiny split will mean that the decision-making powers of area committees will be severely limited. Furthermore, it seems likely that members would have to relinquish attendance at the all-important area committees in order to sit on a scrutiny committee, to the detriment of their opportunity to represent their electors through the area structure". Their Joint Partnership Committee with the County Council, which in due course they hoped would also have a budget and decision-making powers would also be constrained.[27] Other witnesses also wished to see the draft bill made capable of accommodating area committees with decision-making powers.[28]

41. Indeed Professor Gerry Stoker, an enthusiastic supporter of new executive-based arrangements, said of decision-making area committees that "at the moment it would be difficult for these decentralised committees to be formally decision-making committees under the Bill as it is currently drafted and I think that is something that the Government should have a look at because I think there should be enough flexibility in the system to enable those authorities that want to go down that route to think about going down that route".[29] There is evidence from overseas, for instance from Barcelona and Oslo,[30] that it is possible for decentralised committees to exercise decision-making powers (see also Annex 1).

42. Similarly, DETR witnesses offered some possibility of accommodating decentralised arrangements. They said, "The Government would not want to go so far as to wholly remove the purpose of executive separation ... by having very large amounts of decision-making and spending delegated out to committees but there are certain possibilities for taking a cut which continues to allow decentralisation and neighbourhood planning and decision-making".[31] The Minister of State also suggested that if an authority wished to include decentralised arrangements in its constitution, and where such committees had a "link with a corporate centre", decentralised arrangements could be compatible with an executive model.

43. For authorities and proponents of decentralised decision-making area committees, then, a further model would comprise some form of delegation of executive functions to area committees with mixed responsibilities. We recognise that some local authorities have already developed executive arrangements but with the inclusion of decision-making area committees and joint county/district partnership committees. Such arrangements are in tune with the Government's objective of encouraging community consultation and bringing decision-making closer to the people. We therefore recommend that the bill should be capable of accommodating them, and that the guidance to be issued by the Secretary of State should clarify the basis on which local authority constitutions might include provision for the continuance or development of such committees within a corporate framework.

44. One witness, Professor John Stewart, put forward a case for a model which combines elements of the second and third models already provided for, that is to say a council leader, appointed by the full council, with an officer of the authority appointed as a council manager. Professor Stewart bases his proposals on the experience of the United States where, he told us, the council leader and manager system has recently overtaken the elected mayor/council system as the preferred choice of American cities. He writes, "The council-manager structure in the United States has been associated with non-partisan elections. In a party-dominated system as in the United Kingdom it could be difficult for a directly-elected mayor to exercise political leadership if he or she does not have a majority on the council and that is quite likely with elections by thirds. The council manager would inevitably look to the leader of the majority group for political leadership rather than to the mayor who has in a council management system no separate executive authority".[32] SOLACE informed us that "There is continuing decline in the US for the directly-elected executive mayor in favour of the council manager approach. Furthermore, it is perhaps unfortunate that in the White Paper and bill, the council manager approach is linked exclusively to an elected mayor. Our understanding both of the council manager structure in the US and the New Zealand system, suggests that the form can sit very comfortably with the traditional system or cabinet model".[33]

45. We felt that the council leader and manager system may be a particularly suitable form of executive arrangement for example in rural areas, or for traditionally hung councils. Indeed, the Minister told us that she now believed that such an arrangement was already possible under existing models as drafted.[34] We conclude that an additional model of a council leader with council manager may well appeal, for example, to some rural, a-political or traditionally hung authorities. It is, moreover, entirely consistent with the establishment of executive arrangements and complements the logic behind the other three models. We therefore recommend for the avoidance of doubt that a council leader with council manager model be included in clause 2 of the draft bill.

Model structures for executive arrangements: Wales

46. This draft bill relates to Wales as well as England. Powers exercisable in England by the Secretary of State will, in Wales, be exercised by the National Assembly. It was pointed out in evidence that the Welsh constitutional model now practised at the National Assembly provided for members of the executive or cabinet to belong to the Assembly's six "subject" committees. Thus the constitutional model followed in the bill, while not unfamiliar in England, is no longer the model for Wales.

47. In these circumstances, SOLACE (Wales) argued that Welsh local authorities might well seek forms of executive arrangements which were slightly different from those likely to be available under the bill.[35]

48. The Committee have already noted the power for the National Assembly, under clause 2 (5), to sanction alternative executive arrangements. We can safely assume that the Assembly will make such special provision for Wales as it sees fit. For Wales, therefore, in the interest of comity between Westminster and Cardiff, we make no recommendations.

Elected Mayors

49. As we have seen, two out of the three models of executive arrangements prescribed in the bill include directly-elected mayors. The bill also provides that an authority wishing to adopt arrangements which include an elected mayor should hold a referendum on the proposal, the result of which is binding. If the referendum does not approve the proposal, no other referendum may be held for five years. Where a local authority has received a public petition signed by at least 5 per cent of electors in support of executive arrangements with an elected mayor, it can be required by regulation to hold a referendum.

50. The term of office of an elected mayor is four years and the system of election for a mayor will be by supplementary vote (SV). (Under SV, a second preference vote is cast. If no candidate receives more than half the first preference votes cast, all but the two candidates with the most first preference votes are eliminated. Any second preference votes among the votes for the eliminated candidates which have been cast for the top two candidates are added to those candidates' total votes. The candidate with the highest total of first and second preference votes wins.) Although we recognise that this will be an issue of debate when the bill is published, we have not considered it our job to pronounce on the merits of different voting systems.

51. The bill also gives the Secretary of State power to make regulations on the conduct of elections and to modify any of the statutory provisions.

52. Some more detail about the Government's thinking is provided by the White Paper. Thus it is expected that eventually the timing of elections will ensure that the mayoral cycle will fall in step with the normal electoral cycle for the council. It is envisaged that the elected mayor will be the "key political leader and policy developer for the community". He or she would be a member of the council,[36] appoint the executive and allot the portfolios within it. The White Paper sees the elected mayor soliciting citizens' views in formulating policies, acting as a voice for the community, and facilitating communication between councillors and officers. He or she might be "the focus of the community planning process". An elected mayor would not chair the full council and whether or not he or she undertook ceremonial duties would be a matter for local choice.

53. Clearly, taking the bill and White Paper together, the Government sets great store by elected mayors. Equally, witnesses had plenty to say to us on the subject. The proponents and supporters of elected mayors argued that they would help to reinvigorate local politics. As Professor Stoker said, "there is a dynamic in the mayoral model which enables people to achieve more".[37] He suggested lowering the 5 per cent threshold to make it easier for people to petition for a referendum on the elected mayor model, on the grounds that local authorities on the whole would be likely to prefer the council leader/executive model. Indeed, he thought it would be "a perfectly constitutional option to consider the idea of imposing elected mayors in, say, a dozen urban areas on the grounds that it is popular and it will help to transform politics in those areas which all the evidence suggests are dying on their feet".[38] However, Professor Stewart told us that the arguments for an elected mayor were finely balanced and that requiring every large authority to have an elected mayor would be a huge risk. We agree with Professor Stewart that "there will always be a need for a considerable diversity because of the great diversity of local government itself".[39]

54. The Committee have assessed the opinion poll evidence we heard prayed in support of the idea of elected mayors.[40] Most polls, such as they are, seem to be supportive, though some are not.

  • MORI's 1998 poll for NLGN of 1,000 adults in five major English cities outside London found 60-70 per cent support;

  • ESRC's 1996 survey across Great Britain consistently found two thirds in favour of directly elected leaders of the council (ESRC Local Governance Programme);

  • Lewisham Borough Council Citizens Panel of 1,000 local residents, surveyed by the Office for Public Management in 1998, polled 58 per cent in favour of elected mayors;

  • the Government's People's Panel Survey of January 1999, conducted by MORI, of 3,600 members of the 5,000 strong panel, found 55 per cent support for elected mayors;

  • the latest poll evidence, ICM's poll of 1,000 adults across Britain in May 1999 found that two thirds were in favour of electing mayors, and 40 per cent were more likely to turn out and vote if local government arrangements included an elected mayor.

60. When weighing opinion poll evidence, we believe it is desirable to remember MORI's caveat: "Beyond the headline figures, the picture is less clear. First, the public know relatively little about the proposals, and so while around 59-68 per cent in the metropolitan areas surveyed by MORI say they are in favour (as did Lewisham's own poll of its Panel, and the ICM survey), this is not a high salience issue for the public and there are sizeable proportions who do not feel able to answer either way".[41] Professor Stewart also believed that people did not always understand the issues[42] (see also para 167). Much of the evidence shows stronger support in urban areas though Professor Stoker said that the opinion surveys show that support is equally strong in non-urban areas.[43] Nonetheless, the election of a mayor is, according to the Government's People's Panel Survey cited above, the least popular method of addressing voters' concerns—compared, say, to opinion surveys or local referendums. Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, which has consulted widely on its own modernisation plans, wrote "... people were generally more interested in ... processes to facilitate participation, accountability, and responsive delivery of service ¼" than in the form of executive.[44] And the LGA drew our attention to a recent consultation exercise in Camden which elicited a large response and favoured a committee-based structure.[45] As Ben Page in his evidence for MORI put it, "The bottom line is that people are more interested in outcomes than political structures".[46]


11  Cm4298, paragraph 3.4 Back

12  Q668 Back

13  Q93 Back

14  Q95 Back

15  Q97 Back

16  Q516 Back

17  App61 Back

18  App55 Back

19  App68 Back

20  App77, see also App61 Cambridgeshire County Council Back

21  Q625; App19 Back

22  Q656 Back

23  App29, Local Government Association Back

24  Q712 Back

25  App74 Back

26  App81 Back

27  App47 and App81; see also QQ611-619 Back

28  App61 Cambridgeshire County Council; App82 London Borough of Sutton; App80 South East Employers Back

29  Q186 Back

30  Q181 and Q668 Back

31  Q19 Back

32  App48 Back

33  Q242; App45 Back

34  Q706 Back

35  App46 Back

36  Q746 Back

37  Q163 Back

38  Q162 Back

39  Q703 Back

40  App38 New Local Government Network Back

41  App35 Back

42  694 Back

43  Q166 Back

44  App55 Back

45  App30 Back

46  App35 Back


 
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Prepared 3 August 1999