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


APPENDIX 31

Memorandum by the Local Government Information Unit

  We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the committee. Our more detailed comments on the draft Bill are contained in our response to the consultation organised by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. Here we highlight four key issues:

  1.  The need to include the proposed new duty of economic, social and environmental well being in the Bill

  2.  Enhancing the options available for new political structures

  3.  Access to information and decision-making

  4.  Independent regulation of local constitutions and referendums

1.  ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL WELL-BEING

  1.1  We believe that the following provisions should be included in the Bill:

    —  a duty on councils to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas

    —  a discretionary power to promote the well-being of the area, that will facilitate the implementation of community planning

    —  a provision allowing the Secretary of State to amend existing legislation or confer new powers to facilitate community planning

  1.2  The purpose of this change would be to give effect to the government's proposals for promoting the well being of communities in Modern Local Government: In touch with the people, a modernisation programme which is a central part of the government's constitutional agenda.

  1.3  Each step in the process of introducing the wide range of proposals in the White Paper should be seen as a contributory building block rather than an initiative standing alone. The Bill will introduce new structures, but structural change is only one of the building blocks needed to bring real leadership to communities, and will not bring about substantive change on its own.

  1.4  The government has accepted that councils are restricted by the existing legal framework, and that greater clarity and certainty in the powers and responsibilities of councils are needed to bring their new role to fruition. It makes sense to take the opportunity to provide councils with the legal capacity to meet the aspirations of local people which it is confidently expected will be stimulated by structural change.

  1.5  The new duty to promote the social, economic and environmental well-being of the area, which would be the responsibility of the council as a whole, would confirm the status of local government in relation to other organisations and other tiers of government, and emphasise its role for the local community. The new duty, coupled with new powers, also has the potential to reassure potential partners and investors, and to assist the courts in interpreting the actions and decisions of councils in a way that more accurately reflects the intentions of parliament.

  1.6  A new duty could be primarily symbolic, or be attached to new powers which gave councils additional room for decision-making and activity. As can be appreciated, these distinctions have real significance for the status and powers of local authorities.

  1.7  The symbolic content of the duty would give councils direction and a broad definition of purpose, and for that reason would be widely welcomed. Nevertheless there are aspects of the government's programme that will require positive new powers if councils are to be able to deliver. The White Paper does propose that the new duty will be linked to a discretionary power to take steps to promote the overall well being of the area, subject to certain limitations. Without such a power, the duty would have a much more restricted impact upon the role of the council. This can be seen most clearly in those activities that the government is targeting: in partnerships and in community planning.

  1.8  It would be necessary for the duty to be linked to the proposed discretionary power for councils to be able to fully implement the community planning process. It will also be important for councils to have more confidence in their general powers.

2.  MAXIMISING LOCAL FLEXIBILITY

  2.1  Local leadership, local choice, refers to "councils giving their communities a real choice about the way in which they are governed". However, the Bill then gives a choice of only three models for political structures, with a requirement to respond to petitions and a referendum only for the models with a directly elected mayor. We believe the range of options should be wider to take account of local circumstances and choice.

  2.2  Factors which councils should be able to take into account in shaping new structures and constitutions include:

    —  issues which may emerge from local public consultation;

    —  support for decentralised decision-making alongside local community involvement;

    —  structures suitable for developing new ways of working within two and three tiers of local government;

    —  meeting the needs of small councils often in sparsely populated areas; and

    —  creating structures suitable for councils with no overall political control and with several small parties; and/or where there are a large number of independent councillors.

  2.3  Range of permissible models: the Bill should allow for a wider range of possible models. This should include, where this has local support, councils being able to delegate executive responsibilities and budgets to area based member bodies. As the Bill stands, currently effective schemes of decentralisation would be reduced to advisory bodies. If executive powers at a local or neighbourhood level are eliminated, this may discourage local people from taking part in public neighbourhood or area forums.

  2.4  Size of executive: the maximum size of executive of 10 or 15 per cent (whichever was the smaller) of the full council, is too inflexible, particularly for small councils. A maximum size of 10 or 25 per cent (whichever was the smaller) would be preferable. There is a need to allow for the range of portfolios, the representation of social and political groups, and geographical diversity within the area. The current formula creates a pressure to maintain or increase the size of the full council, whereas one of the possible constitutional changes some councils might want to consider is moving to a smaller number of councillors. (Under the formula of this Bill, the new Greater London Authority, with an assembly of 24, would be allowed an executive of two: the mayor and one other).

  2.5  Composition of scrutiny bodies: there should be greater scope to vary the composition of scrutiny bodies, with not all requiring party proportionality. This should allow for a stronger minority party role in some cases, or for geographically based bodies, reflecting the councillors of that area.

  2.6  Regulatory/quasi-judicial committees: it should be possible for the chairs of these committees to be executive members (for example, the chair of a planning committee). This is necessary to ensure that decisions about these major functions, particularly spatial planning, are integrated with other council responsibilities.

3.  ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND DECISION-MAKING

  3.1  The current proposals are a major reduction in open decision-making. The draft Bill allows the cabinet or executive to hold all its decision-making meetings in private.

  3.2  We accept there will be a need for informal private discussion and policy development by the executive both with and without officers present. However, the formal meetings of the cabinet or executive should be in public, with a limited list of categories of confidential decision. An increase in secrecy will not encourage trust in the new structures. It will encourage the importance of closed meetings of political groups and opaque behind the scenes manoeuvring, if all executive decisions can be taken in private, and without prior publication of agendas and papers.

  3.3  Publication of agendas and papers: currently the agendas and papers of all council and committee meetings must be published at least three days in advance. The Bill should maintain (or enchance) this provision for formal meetings of the cabinet.

  3.4  The Bill should be amended to require that papers should be published in advance, maintaining or improving on current requirements. In particular advanced notice of decisions needs to be available to the statutory officers, and non-executive councillors particularly affected ward councillors. Cabinet or executive agendas and papers should also be made available in advance of decisions to the public and media.

  3.5  Decisions taken by individuals with executive responsibilities: the Bill would lead to individual politicians, directly elected mayors, other leaders of council, and members of cabinets with individual portfolios, taking many decisions currently taken by committees in public and with published papers. There is a need for the Bill to require greater clarity and transparency for decision-making of this type.

  3.6  Recording decision-making: there needs to be provisions to ensure clear recording of decision-making, particularly by leaders/mayors and executive members with individual responsibilities.

  3.7  Access to information for non-executive councillors: there will be a need for clear rights to information and officer support, to enchance the representative role. The proposed Standards Committees could possibly have a role in ensuring these rights are known and ensured. There is also a need to ensure that officers do not come under pressure to exclude non-executive councillors from information and support. This is essential for the effective development of scrutiny and the representative role.

4.  INDEPENDENT REGULATION OF LOCAL CONSTITUTIONS AND REFERENDUMS

  4.1  An independent body, such as a Local Government Commission, rather than the Secretary of State, should adjudicate about the more detailed decisions about the forms of local constitution, within the framework of the legislation.

  4.2  Such a body could also regulate the conduct of referendums. There is a need for clear rules and regulation for referendums held by or affecting public bodies including councils. This regulation should cover:

    —  Fair wording of questions.

    —  Funding of campaigns.

    —  Provision of information from councils and other public bodies.

    —  Rules for ballots.

    —  Checking petitions.

  4.3  The White Paper Modern local government discussed the development of referendum use by local government more widely. Referendums are also possible to decide about elected assemblies in the English regions. Given these likely developments, there is a wider need to ensure referendums and referendum campaigns are properly conducted.

24 June 1999





 
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