Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - First Report


APPENDIX 14

Memorandum by Coventry City Council

  1.  Coventry City Council welcomes the opportunity to submit written evidence upon the draft Bill. This opportunity itself is a welcome sign of openness in central government, enabling the shared objective of modernising government as a whole to be undertaken on a collaborative basis, drawing on experience of good practice in governance at the local level.

  2.  However, we believe that in only addressing the internal governance arrangements for local authorities the proposals in their present form will fall short of providing a consistent national framework for good local governance. Local governance is not just about local councils, but also about other agencies with power over local decisions and services.

  3.  Coventry City Council has been a pioneering authority in what is now called the modernisation of local government:

    In 1991, we reviewed the role of the City Council in the governance of the City in the wider context of a review of the State of the City. This involved widespread consultation including two conferences.

    We concluded that we should face up to the fact that, defacto, there was a plural system of local governance, with power over local decisions and local services in the hands of many agencies as well as the City Council, private as well as public. We determined that the City Council would have as one of its key values good governance and that this was to be striven for by government through partnership.

    We set about, proactively, building partnerships and involving other agencies and communities in the processes of governance. We piloted inter-agency community partnerships at the local level which have now grown into city wide local area working, focused on priority neighbourhoods and communities. We have pioneered different types of joint venture partnerships with the private sector and, at the time, a ground breaking sub-regional partnership for economic development (Coventry and Warwickshire Partnerships).

    We recognised that the Council political structures had to change, and in 1994 we undertook a fundamental review which concluded that we should shift Member time from old style committee meetings with officer driven agendas to new style policy teams, undertaking reviews and re-shaping the Councils approach to major city-wide issues. We introduced job descriptions for all Member posts of responsibility and introduced processes to hold Members carrying these responsibilities accountable.

    In the same year, we adopted a vision for the City after wide-spread consultation.

    By 1996, Local Area Community Plans had been produced for the six major priority neighbourhoods of the city on an inter-agency basis and with very extensive community participation.

    On this sound foundation in 1997, we undertook further, city-wide consultation on priorities and objectives for the City to form the key priorities for the Coventry Community Plan. This was launched in February 1998 with extensive commitment from all the major agencies and organisations within the City private, voluntary and public sector.

    The Coventry Community Plan now shapes the priorities of all organisations involved in local governance in the City, whether directly or indirectly.

  4.  This lengthy introduction to our response to the Consultation Paper is presented to illustrate the context in which the Draft Bill is being considered here in Coventry.

  5.  Local governance is not just about the local Council, and local choice is not just about choosing between the three options of Council political management arrangements, or indeed solely about electoral turn out. The quality of local governance should be measured through the different ways in which citizens and public service users are empowered to shape and influence policies, their own environment and the services they receive. Neither annual elections for the local Council on the one hand, nor consumer choice on the other are adequate mechanisms by themselves for ensuring good, accountable governance in relation to all our public services. What is needed is community planning that is inter-agency and soundly rooted in local area based community partnerships, with accountability mechanisms built in.

  6.  Hence, while welcoming many aspects of the Consultation Paper and Draft Bill, we are disappointed that it does not include a community planning duty placed on local authorities in their community leadership role and a duty to collaborate placed on all other relevant statutory agencies.

  7.  We have successfully pursued community planning on a voluntary participation basis here in Coventry. However, we recognise that consistency of good governance across the country is an important national objective. A statutory framework for community planning, therefore, is necessary. In his introduction to the consultation paper, the Deputy Prime Minister stresses this objective of consistency; everywhere there should be forms of local governance which listen to the voice of local people. We would agree strongly with this, but argue that local choice about their local councils political management arrangements is only one small aspect of good local governance.

  8.  We welcome the emphasis that the consultation paper placed upon the scrutiny role of Councillors. What is proposed we would see as a development of our present system whereby policy teams operate in review mode, examining an aspect of policy or practice in detail.

  9.  We are less enthusiastic about a hard split between the scrutiny function and the executive function. Our political management arrangements which, to a degree, separated the review and policy development functions from the decision making functions (we don't like the term Executive that is what officers are supposed to do) have been successful in involving a wide spectrum of members in reviewing and shaping policies and in providing community leadership on service and cross cutting issues with partners in the city.

  10.  We would therefore ask that the Government does not phrase the legislation in such a way that prohibits any member of the Council being involved in developing policies as well as reviewing them and in representing the Council on partnership bodies or in relation to specific issues of public policy.

  11.  This latter concern relates in particular to the impact in a City such as Coventry of the provisions of Part 1 Clause 2 (7) which specifies the maximum number of members of a local authority executive.

  12.  For its size, Coventry has relatively few councillors (54). This clause would limit the number of members of the local authority executive to 8.

  13.  As a Metropolitan Authority, we have a duty to provide representation (presumably executive members) on the statutory Joint Authorities for Police, Fire and Passenger Transport. We have extensive representation on partnership bodies where the representative is required to speak for the authority (presumably defined as an executive function). As outlined above, a number of members currently lead on different cross-cutting and inter-agency issues within the City, many of which are priorities under our community plan. Would we have to find all of these from within the 8? Or do we delegate many of these functions to officers? How would that improve political accountability in local governance? Or can non executive members be used so long as any decisions they are required to make (for example in representing the Council on a partnership board) were within some clearly defined parameters?

  14.  Alternatively, the figures under Clause 2 (7) should be raised. We estimate that 15 is about the minimum in the case of Coventry.

  15.  We strongly welcome the requirement to establish a Standards Committee, which we will be establishing at the Annual Meeting of the Council in May this year.

  16.  Another cause for concern is that the Draft Bill appears to include a provision which enables a council to continue with its existing traditional political structures only when the electorate has rejected a clear option for a new way of working in a referendum.

  17.  We have existing political structures that are not traditional. We have not yet determined what if any further changes the City Council would wish to see in its own political management arrangements, but we are intending to consult widely this year, in advance of the passage of the legislation, to be in a position to make whatever changes are desired and necessary in the coming municipal year. In these circumstances it would be disingenuous for the Council to propose another radical way of working to put to a referendum in order to be able, if the electorate rejects this, to implement the Council's desired arrangements.

July 1999


 
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