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


APPENDIX 23

Memorandum by Hampshire County Council

  Hampshire County Council has taken a keen interest in the Government's proposals for new political structures for local government. It fully considered the proposals in "Modern Local Government—In Touch with the People" in September 1998 and those contained in "Local Leadership, Local Choice" in April 1999.

  The County Council's views on these proposals have been forwarded to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and I enclose a copy of the most recent report. It is fair to say that the Council raises serious concerns which can be summarised as follows:

    1.  Placing substantial powers in the hands of one person or in a small executive is dangerous in that it can lead to corruption and this is exacerbated by allowing decisions to be made outside the public gaze.

    2.  Committees at Hampshire County Council work well and there is cross party support for the open and transparent way that they operate. Opposition parties do influence decisions and the public are allowed to bring deputations. Influence from these sources is therefore brought to bear before decisions are made. This will be lost with the new proposals.

    3.  The option of an elected Mayor, which is heavily promoted by the Government, is based on urban/city governance and will not work effectively in a large rural County such as Hampshire with a population of 1.1 million and an area of 360,000 hectares.

    4.  The power of an elected Mayor to veto the decision of Councillors taken in full Council runs counter to the principles of democracy.

    5.  The representational/scrutiny role for most members is viewed by all political parties as one which will make it more difficult to recruit Councillors.

    6.  The options proposed, based as they are on urban/city government, are too narrow and need to be broadened, especially in the case of rural County Councils.

  I should add that there are other aspects of "Local Leadership, Local Choice" which the County Council is much in favour of, such as consultation with the community and higher ethical standards. The Council is not therefore against change, but any change should clearly be for the better. The narrow changes being proposed for democratic structures simply do not achieve that and would work against the County Council's policy of openness as reflected in the recent "Campaign for Freedom of Information" award.

25 June 1999

 1.  SUMMARY

  1.1  The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) has issued a discussion paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice", together with a draft "Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill". These proposals reflect those contained in the Government White Paper issued in the summer of 1998 "Modern Local Government—In touch with the People" the details of which were considered at Policy and Resources Committee on Monday 28 September 1998. Comments on the proposals contained in "Local Leadership, Local Choice" must be forwarded to the DETR by 21 May 1999.

  1.2  The discussion paper is aimed at stimulating debate amongst local communities about how they want to be governed locally although, it has to be said, within the limited options presently favoured by Government.

  1.3  This report examines the proposals contained in the discussion paper Local Leadership, Local Choice a copy of which has been sent to all political group leaders. Further copies can be obtained from the Head of Corporate and Legal Services.

2.  MODERNISATION AND NEW FORMS OF LOCAL GOVERNANCE

  2.1  The Government's stance clearly stems from their point of view that local people are not well served by the traditional way that Councils work and that they therefore need to be given greater choice as to how they will be governed locally.

  2.2  The view is taken that the existing Committee system, designed over a century ago, does not work today. It is said to be inefficient, opaque and weakens local accountability and that a more modern system is necessary to give effective leadership to its local community. Another often suggested weakness of the Committee system is that in practice decisions are not taken by committees but elsewhere within the ruling political group.

  2.3  The Government takes the view that peoples choice as to the form of local governance should be characterised by:

    —  efficiency in decision taking;

    —  transparency in terms of who is responsible for decisions;

    —  accountability;

    —  high standards of conduct.

  2.4  The Government also suggests that immediate effort should be made by councils to begin consulting with their local community on the (limited) options for future governance, notwithstanding that these could not be implemented without legislation.

Commentary

  2.5  From the discussion at Policy and Resources Committee on 28 September 1998 it is clear that Hampshire County Councillors do not accept the Government's version of how the Committee system operates and that all Councillors, including opposition Councillors, consider themselves influential in the making of decisions at Committee. No doubt this is in no small part due to the fact that recommendations at Committee are often amended at the suggestion of the opposition parties.

  2.6  It is also relevant that it is only a little over 10 years ago that the Widdicombe Report recommended the need for all council committees to have political balance on the basis that this was a fairer democratic system than existed previously. This runs counter to other proposals of Government to form executive committees which would be made up of only one political party.

  2.7  Only time will tell whether or not those characteristics referred to at paragraph 2.3 will be fulfilled by the limited number of options favoured by the Government. However, "transparency" might immediately be thought not to exist in the new proposals being suggested by Government.

3.  LOCAL GOVERNANCE : LOCAL CHOICE

  3.1  The essence of this chapter is that if either a council or a petition signed by at least 5 per cent of local electors wish to have a directly elected mayor, then a referendum must be held. With Hampshire's electorate of approximately 940,000, 5 per cent would represent a petition of about 47,000. It is also proposed that the results of any referendum, for example to have a directly elected mayor, will be binding upon the Council and it will be obliged to put in place the necessary mechanisms.

  3.2  Where a Council has neither put such a referendum to its people, nor moved to some other form of modern local governance, the proposed legislation will enable the Secretary of State to require that Council to hold a referendum within a specified period on a question determined by the Secretary of State.

  3.3  The Government also takes the view that even where people do not want a directly elected mayor the expectation is that councils will adopt one of the other new ways of working. Only in those circumstances where local people have been given the opportunity in a referendum to have a new form of local governance and rejected it does the Government believe that the existing traditional ways of working should be allowed to continue.

Commentary

  3.4  These proposals may be seen as giving very strong central direction on how local governance should take place but within a very limited range of options.

  3.5  Interestingly, in the press release issued by the DETR, it is stated that "Local people in towns and cities everywhere will be able to vote for an elected mayor to lead their communities". There is a stark omission of counties in this context and, perhaps, this reflects the often made comment that these proposals have been formulated on how town, city and urban government operates rather than large rural County Councils.

4.  STRONG LEADERSHIP FOR COMMUNITIES, POWERFUL ROLES FOR ALL COUNCILLORS

  4.1  This chapter discusses the Government's preferred models of local governance which have not changed or been expanded from those discussed in the White Paper. They are as follows:—

    —  a directly elected mayor with a cabinet;

    —  a cabinet with a leader, and

    —  a directly elected mayor and council manager.

  The assumption is that these new models of governance will give strong leadership to communities and clarity to decision taking and will constitute powerful roles for all Councillors to ensure transparency and local accountability.

Commentary

  4.2  Within these three models the Council's constitution would need to change. It would need to set out the key political and officer positions and their roles and duties, making it clear who takes what decision, how they are held to account and how they are to be appointed. New Standing Orders would be required. How the Constitution would be drafted would depend on which executive model was preferred.

 ROLES FOR COUNCILLORS UNDER THE NEW ARRANGEMENTS

All Councillors

  4.3  The discussion paper suggests that there will be powerful roles for all Councillors in the new arrangements. It is suggested that all Councillors will be required to:

    —  agree the Council's overall community strategies including key plans such as its educational development plan and local performance plans;

    —  determine each year its revenue and capital budgets;

    —  adopt the form of local governance under which the Council operates;

    —  make appointments to such committees and sub-committees as the Council's new Constitution provides;

    —  make or confirm appointments of the Council's Chief Executive and Chief Officers.

Commentary

  4.4  In reality, however, these roles may not be seen as the powerful roles being suggested and for the most part are ones that could be taken at one Council meeting each year. That does not represent an on-going powerful role and it is questionable, therefore, whether or not such a role would be sufficient to encourage new candidates for the office of Councillor.

  4.5  The Paper also suggests that regulatory responsibility such as licensing or the granting of planning permission will be carried out either by the full Council or a delegation to a committee but not by the Executive. If the proposed new executive manner or working is so modern and desirable, perhaps it should be questioned as to why it is not applicable to regulatory responsibilities such as licensing or the granting of planning permission?

CHAIRING THE COUNCIL

  4.6  It is suggested that a Councillor will need to be appointed to be Chairman of the full Council. However, the point is then made that to preserve the separation of roles and the impartiality of the Chairman, the legislation is to require that the Chairman cannot be a member of either the Executive or an overview and scrutiny committee.

THE NEW ROLE FOR MOST COUNCILLORS

  4.7  As the vast majority of Councillors will not be able to be represented on the Executive, the new role for them is said to be:

    —  a freer role in the review of policy and in the formulation of future policy;

    —  a duty to question and evaluate the impact of the decisions and actions of the Executive, through, for example, scrutiny committees even if they are in the same political party and more time to consult directly with those that they represent because day to day decisions will be taken by the Executive.

  4.8  Scrutiny committees would be able to:

    —  require members of the Executive and Council officers to attend their meetings and invite others;

    —  meet and examine all these people in public.

  4.9  The role for most Councillors will, therefore, be in a representational capacity rather than one in which there is a direct influence on policy formulation and implementation. Part of this role would be undertaken in overview and scrutiny committees but it would be a requirement of any new legislation that a council could not empower any overview and scrutiny committee to take decisions and exercise responsibilities on behalf of the full Council.

Commentary

  4.10  This role is, therefore, much less influential than that of a Councillor of Hampshire County Council at the present time. It must also be questioned whether this lesser role, which would exist for most Councillors, would be sufficient to encourage more people with appropriate qualifications to stand as candidates or indeed whether the reverse is likely to be the case.

THE ROLE OF THE EXECUTIVE

  4.11  This would indeed be a more significant, powerful role than exists for most Councillors at the present time. However, the Government intends to restrict the size of the Executive to a maximum of either 15 per cent of the Council's total number of Councillors or 10 Councillors whichever is the smaller. In the County Council's case that would mean an Executive of no more than 10 Councillors.

  4.12  The Executive would have wide ranging leadership roles including:

    —  leading the community planning process;

    —  leading the preparation of plans and strategies;

    —  consulting on and drawing up the annual budget;

    —  taking in-year decisions on resources and priorities to deliver the strategies and budget approved by the Council.

  4.13  Suggested characteristics of the Executive are as follows:

    —  would not normally reflect the political balance of the authority but be formed by the majority Party or Coalition;

    —  would usually give specific portfolios to individual members;

    —  would take decisions either as a whole cabinet in sub-groups or as individuals.

  4.14  With the directly elected Mayor or Leader model it is suggested that that person would be responsible for determining the size and structure of the rest of the Executive and be responsible for inviting Councillors to serve.

  4.15  The third option of a directly elected Mayor and Council Manager is not generally favoured as it would give wide powers over both strategic policy and day to day decision making to a non-democratically elected officer.

Commentary

  4.16  The County Council's views on the proposals for the directly elected Mayor with a Cabinet or for a Cabinet with the Leader, is that substantial powers would be vested in the hands of one person together with a small number of other people in support. One concern is that these proposals represent a very large threat to democracy, openness and accountability. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of the corrupting influence of placing such power in the hands of a small number of people, both in this country and indeed throughout the world.

  4.17  Although there is much criticism in the discussion paper of the disadvantages of the existing committee system, there is very little in the way of evidence, which supports those comments. The County Council at Policy and Resources Committee were of the view that the existing committee system is by its very nature open to public scrutiny, background papers are available and deputations are allowed to be made to the committee before any decisions are taken. These are all important factors which strengthen the democratic process and which will not be available with the new proposals.

  4.18  The discussion paper does try to address these issues in a section headed "meetings and access to information". However, what is proposed is worse than exists at the present time because although with the new proposals decisions and reasons for them must be given, this will only need to take place after the decision has been taken and the decision itself is not likely to take place in public.

ELECTING A MAYOR

  4.19  Where there is to be a directly elected Mayor, election to that office will be held across the whole of the Council's area, utilising the supplementary vote system. This means that where there are more than two candidates, voters will register both a first and second preference. If a candidates gets at least 50 per cent of the vote that candidate is elected. However, if no candidate gets 50 per cent of the first choices all candidates but the two who got the most first preference votes are eliminated. Where voters had voted for an eliminated candidate but gave their preference vote to one of the remaining candidates their votes are awarded to them. The person who then has the most votes at the end of that process is declared the winner.

RESOLVING DIFFERENCES

  4.20  The Government also suggests that where there is a difference of opinion between a directly elected Mayor and Executive and a decision of the full council then the directly elected Mayor should have the authority to veto that decision or delay the decision of the full Council until the matter is reconsidered by the Council. The precise details of this are left to the local constitution to determine.

Commentary

  4.21  The proposal that one person, even a directly elected Mayor, will be given powers to veto the decisions of directly elected Councillors in full Council seems to run counter to the system of democracy as previously understood and is to be regretted.

5.  HIGH STANDARDS OF CONDUCT THROUGHOUT LOCAL GOVERNMENT

  5.1  These proposals, which were also foreshadowed in the White Paper are broadly to be welcomed by the County Council. The County Council has an excellent reputation for probity and has set itself standards of conduct above those normally required. Furthermore, the County Council has recently voluntarily adopted a code of conduct for members and officers on probity on planning matters and has separately agreed at the last Personnel Sub-Committee a policy on fraud and corruption, often referred to as a Whistle-blowing policy. This shows how seriously the County Council takes the issue of conduct.

  5.2  The main proposals covered in the discussion Paper concern:

    —  standards of conduct are to be laid down in statutory codes of conduct for members and officers;

    —  standards committees are to oversee conduct in each council;

    —  there will be independent investigation of alleged unethical conduct;

    —  there will be fair hearings with effective penalties for proven cases. STANDARDS COMMITTEES

      5.3  The County Council will be required to establish a standards committee to encourage, develop and maintain high standards of conduct for all members. It will also investigate and deal with the less serious allegations of impropriety referred to them by the standards board. The standards committee will also be required to have at least one independent member, co-opted and able to vote. The standards committee will be required to have at least two council members but not more than one may be appointed from the Political Executive of the Council and that person should not be a directly elected Mayor and will not be allowed to be chairman of the committee.

      5.4  Officer support to the standards committee will be given by the monitoring officer, who will have an enhanced role in providing advice and assistance on ethical standard issues.

    STANDARDS BOARD

      5.5  This will be a new independent body set up to handle any alleged breaches of a Council's code of conduct.

      5.6  This proposal to have an independent body investigating and determining allegations of misconduct repeats the proposal in the White Paper. However, it is contrary to the proposals recommended in the Nolan Committee Report and those favoured by the County Council. Both the Nolan Committee and County Council favoured an approach whereby allegations of misconduct were investigated and dealt with locally by the County Council, with the availability of an external appeal to an independent body. The County Council's view was that such a system would better reflect local accountability.

    CONCLUSIONS

      6.1  It is regrettable that the Government continues to press for a system of local governance which the County Council has rejected as an attack on open, transparent and democratic local government. It is considered, however, that the County Council should adhere to the application of these principles in any future changes that may be made in the local governance of the County Council. It is also important that the democratically elected representatives of the people continue to play a full role in the life of the County Council.

      6.2  The Government is, however, placing a very heavy emphasis on local government moving away from the existing committee system. Evidence of such movement will need to be demonstrated, for example, in any applications that the County Council makes for Beacon Status.

      6.3  There is a postscript to the discussion paper which outlines the steps which the Government suggests Councils should take to implement the proposals in the draft bill. This is attached to this report as an Appendix.

    RECOMMENDATIONS

      1.  That the proposals contained in the government discussion paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice" be noted.

      2.  That a copy of this report be forwarded to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions as the County Council's response to "Local Leadership, Local Choice" and the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill.

      3.  That the Chief Executive report to a future meeting of the committee on an option for local governance for the County Council which satisfies the Council's requirements as expressed in this report, within the framework suggested by the Government.

April 1999





 
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