Memorandum by the London Forum of Amenity
and Civic Societies
The London Forum represents a significant cross-section
of Geater London's population, through diverse non-party-political
"grass-roots" organisations that act as intermediaries
between local citizens and their borough councilsand also
incidentally strive to keep those councils on their toes. We are
in constant dialogue with our local authorities.
The London Forum currently has some 120 member
societies. Its members are dedicated to the sound working of local
government and local democracy; and the present and future health
of local government in Greater London is dependent to a significant
degree on the way it works creatively with these local societies.
1. This submission by the London Forum of
Amenity and Civic Societies, representing some 120 societies throughout
Greater London, is made against a background of increasing concern
among our members about organisational changes already made or
planned by the London boroughs in response to last year's White
Paper and Government exhortationsboth the scale of the
changes and the speed with which they are being implemented. The
planned legislation simply heightens that concern.
2. In this submission we are concentrating
on three aspects of the Bill and associated changes: the recommendations
on executive/cabinet governance; the issue of public participation
in policy formulation and decision-making; and the implications
for town planning and environmental issues in particular.
3. The London Forum agrees tht there is
a general need to improve the operation of local government. However,
we hold the view that the Government in its recommendations and
in its planned legislation puts too much emphasis on how policy
and executive decisions are made and too little on the way those
decisions are shaped. We think the emphasis on leadership, by
mayor or council leader and cabinet, puts too much power in too
few hands. It encourages strong decision-making, but it increases
the chances of the decisions being poorly informed. It is also
likely to make councils more rather than less remote from the
public they servethe very opposite of one of the underlying
aims of the Government's current initiatives.
4. The quality of local governance varies
considerably from one authority to another, of course, but where
people express dissatisfaction it is mainly on three grounds:
poor-quality services; inefficiency or suspected corruption; a
failure to listen and respond to local opinion. The new "best
value" procedures and Part II of the draft Bill on conduct
deal with the first two grounds; but the "listening and responding"
issue is not so easily addressed by structural change.
5. Public consultation is an important aspect
of "listening and responding," but the way in which
this is carried out varies widely from authority to authority,
from the thorough to the perfunctory. There is clearly a need
to go farther than a general duty or requirement to consult, as
set out in the draft Bill. There is a case for more precise rules
of conduct for different types of public consultation.
6. Another aspect of "listening and
responding" is public access to the people and places where
and when policy decisions are made. The Government proposes the
abolition of the current committees structure on the grounds that
it is "opaque", but it has the virtue of providing public
access to the decision-making arenaand we do not believe
that, in general, those seeking access regard it as opaque. We
think the proposed new executive (cabinet) structure will clearly
not allow comparable access.
7. The emphasis the Government has but on
open decision-making and accountability is very welcome. But in
practice they could prove to be little more than fine words. And
in any case active members of the community, through their many
organisations, look for somthing more than that. They look for
participation and involvement in the way the council runs its
business on behalf of the community, through their many organisations,
look for something more than that. They look for timely and constructive
dialogue with the decision-makers of their local authorities,
before the decisions are made. In our view that looks less rather
than more likely under the proposed new arrangements.
8. In our view the greatest need in local
government is not to change the decision-making processes, but
rather to improve the processes of public consultation and to
strengthen councils' accountability to the public beyond the electoral
mandate. The central problem in many local authorities is not
inefficiency, but insensitivity and at worst deafnessto
the public and public interest. The changes now taking place or
proposed in local government will undoubtedly worsen that problem
rather than reduce it.
9. Underlying this planned legislation and
related recommended changes is the questionable view that electoral
apathy at local level is a result of unclear or convoluted decision-making
at the town hall and of councillors seriously out of touch with
their communities. Even more questionable is whether the changes
recommended would in reality and in the long run make local govenment
"more open and accountable". In our view a main cause
of electroal apathy is the public's general lack of understanding
(often for good reason) whether the council or the Government
should be given the credit or the blame for local policies. As
log as the Government, through legislation and regulation, holds
local authorities on such a tight rein, that problem will remain.
10. The concept of a cabinet drawn from
the majority party (when there is one) or appointed by an executive
mayor, scrutinised by committees and reporting to full council
is effectively the Westminster Parliament model. But there is
no logical reason why that model would suit local authorities.
Local councils not only have a fundamentally different range and
type of functions from central government; they also are by definition
much closer to the public they serve. With their emphasis on strong
leaders (mayor or leader and cabinet) and leadership these changes
would inevitably undermine the core principle (seen traditionally
as the basic objective) of local representative democracy.
11. Admittedly the Government is considering
making, in due course, one change that should strengthen representative
democracy: requiring annual elections for a proportion of council
seats (which would offer opportunities to amend the popular mandate
more frequently). But, unless an election were to alter significantly
the balance of power on the council, the outcome would simply
pass a message to the "backbench" scrutineers rather
than change the decision-making executive.
12. In the end, the test must be whether
any decision-making structure, with all its built-in safeguards,
makes it possible for the exercise of power granted by electoral
mandate to become an abuse of power. Government guidelines rightly
point out that too many council decisions are now made behind
closed doors (by "whipped" political party groups).
They suggestbut surely naively?that under the new
proposals that would not happen. But the council executive or
cabinet can meet behind closed doors , and the public release
of reports to the executive is clearly designed more for post
hoc accountability than for public input or representation.
13. The central issue, perhaps, is the effect
of single-party control on the governance of a council. Ominously
the draft Bill would abolish the current legal requirement to
have politically-balanced councils and committees reflecting the
number of seats held by each partyone of the main safegards
of public access to the decision-making arena and of the concept
of representative democracy. We regard the intention to abolish
this requirement as deplorable.
14. Town planning and environmental issues
are of particular concern to amenity and civic societies. They
also embrace many matters in which a wider public takes an interest
and seeks to be involved in the decision-making process. In the
London boroughs that has taken several forms: advisory committees
and forum (for example, on conservation and Agenda 21 issues);
community representatives on standing committees in an advisory
capacity: the ability to speak to committees on major or sensitive
15. It seems to us that much of this is
put at risk by the structural changes proposed in this Bill (and
already being implemented). Policies and decisions will in some
cases become firm, if not fixed, long before the public and its
representative groups hear what is proposed. Most of the committees
where traditionally the public have heard the cross-party debate,
and where necessary made representations, will have disappeared.
Antagonisms between the decision-making executive marginalised
backbench councillors and a frustrated public are bound to increase.
16. The town planning committee, as a quasi-judicial
committee, may be protected, but the way it would operate under
the new legislation is a matter of concern. If the abolition of
the political-balance requirement were applied to this committee,
the committee could become a steam-roller for vested interests.
But even if the political-balance requirement is retained, the
planning process stands to be weakened under the new arrangements
by the separation of strategic planning from development controlrelated
matters calling on the same professional disciplines, but already
becoming separated by departmental restructuring.
17. Already there is deep concern in some
boroughs about major planning developments being "fixed"
between interested parties, including the council, long before
they reach public forum. That too would almost certainly become
more common under the new decision-making structure proposed in
18. Conservation area policies and their
implementation are of particular concern to amenity societies,
and we wish to see local authorities being as positive as possible
in the implementation. That requires wider initiatives than the
exercise of development controlinitiatives currently often
processed through other standing committees. Under present arrangements
that is all within the public arena, with opportunities for an
input from organisations such as ours. It is not clear where those
matters will be dealt with under the new structures, but we fear
there is a serious risk that they will be dealt with less openly.
19. Our concerns about planning and related
issues are set against a background of reports and rumours of
pressures to "ease" planning controls to give more help
to developers. These concerns are increased by some of the references
in the DETR Consultation Paper Modernising Planning. For example,
"a continous search for improvements in local efficiency",
delegation of "simpler planning applications" to officers,
and using "economic instruments" (tax incentives, subsidies
or tradeable permits) to achieve "positive planning".
In the London boroughs there is already widespread concern that
there are too few enforcement officers and conservation officers
to safeguard adequately the built environment. With the abolition
of most specialised committees and the urging of greater "efficiency",
we see a serious risk of the downgrading of important parts of
councils' planning and environmental protection work.
20. Our worries about the draft Local Government
(Organisation and Standards) Bill are essentially about the recommended
structure, which we consider neither desirable nor necessary to
achieve greater efficiency or higher standards of conduct. We
think those aims can best be achieved by other methods. We are
not of the view that the traditional council and committee structure
is out of date because it is over 100 years old. We take the view,
while accepting that a case can be made for modification, that
it is a structure with a long and worthy history that has stood
the test of time. Our main fear about the structure contained
in the Bill is not that it would not work, but that it would too
easily be misused by a "hardline" council (of any political
party) and that it will inevitably reduce the scope for public
participation and involvement in local government matters. A stated
Government objective is to reduce public apathy towards local
government. We believe the proposed changes will actually increase
apathy, through alienation.
30 June 1999