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


Memorandum submitted by Professor Andre E M McLean, for "Camden Town Speaks"

  The Government has put out a plan for the next 10 years or more to alter the face of local government.

  In addition Camden has put out a consultation document (Make your Mark) about the new systems.

  The main points are a mixture of good sense, and lunacy. The plan that is being put into action promises improvements, but will in fact, make many things worse, unless it is radically reshaped.

  It is up to us, local people, to make sure that the plan is altered to meet our needs, not the ambitions of the bureaucracy, or the personal views of a few councillors or the financial plans of the the property developers.

The White Paper, main points. (Our comments)

  (1)  What is wrong with the present system?

  Local Government does not involve people, sometimes less than one in three vote, and far fewer are active. Councillors are too old, too white, too male. There is no effective discussion between people and councils. We do not know who really takes the decisions.

    (A few councillors and officers of the council, mainly the chairman of committees, know the details of proposed actions, the rest must take it on trust that the committee papers represent reality. The party whip is used to prevent revolt by councillors whose constituents are badly affected. The committee system means that mostly no one can be seen as responsible or held accountable for serious errors, inefficiencies or even fraud. Councillors outside the inner circle waste much time on committees which they cannot influence, instead of talking to local people and organisations. We have the disadvantages of the Executive Mayor and cabinet system, without any of the possible advantages.)

  (2)  Some councils spend more money and get less value than the better ones, and need to be brought into line. A "best value" system of evaluating performance, policy, and contracts, should be installed in place of compulsory competive tendering (CCT).

    (CCT produces "cheaper" council services, not better ones, but the old system, like council building departments, can too easily become rotten and corrupt).

  (3)  Councillors spent vast amounts of time on committees where they do not have real power of decision, and one cannot decide who is really responsible for mistakes or misdeeds.


  (4)  Reorganise the Management system—various incentives are offered to councils to change. The systems on offer are all rather similar "Management" based schemes.

    (a)  The Mayor is directly elected, and can then appoint a cabinet of councillors each responsible for the policy leadership of a department, such as Education.

    (b)  The elected councillors elect a leader, who then forms a cabinet.

    (c)  The Mayor is elected and there is a "Council Manager" appointed as a paid executive, and supported by paid officials.

  (5)  Councillors who are not in the inner "Cabinet" are left on the "scrutiny committees" with vague powers, to examine, criticise, and propose policies, but with no responsibility for particular policies:

    This separates the function of policy-making from criticism in a totally unrealistic way, not related to real management experience in business or government. It seems to be a theoretical construct which will leave real power in the hands of fewer and fewer people, with dangers of corruption and incompetence, especially as the promised openness and transparency of local government will become less than ever. The transition from backbench to frontbench will become more difficult as the separation of executive from critic develops, these professional critic councillors will not develop team leadership skills, working to improve matters. Policy will suffer from loss of input from the councillors most in touch with the electorate, and the electors will be more than ever out of touch with the council.

  (6)  Councils will be given greater spending freedom and a duty to "Promote the Economic, Social, and Environmental well being" of the Community. If they adopt the new management style they may be termed "beacon" councils and given more freedom to spend, and raise more council tax.

  (7)  Councils are encouraged to hold a referendum on these proposals, which of the alternatives do the electors prefer:

    Some councillors have already expressed dissatisfaction where the new system has been proposed or brought into action—see St Pancras Declaration in Ham and High July 9—News P5.

Our Further Comments and Proposal

  There will probably be a Referendum in Camden. It needs to spell out the proposals.We do not wish to be asked just if we would rather be boiled or fried!

  We want a referendum that states clearly what are the powers of the elected local councillors. It must ensure that the electorate, through its councillors, retains reasonable control of where the council is going, in its policy decisions, and how it is performing.

  If we retain the old committee system then we need promises that it will be reformed. Councillors need shorter committee papers, more time to examine detail, and support from a secretariat in getting real information to bear onto policies. Councillors need more involvement in policy making and execution at an early stage of policy development.

  If we are to go to a mayor and cabinet system, we need assurances that the scrutiny committees will have real power and be involved in policy formation, not just criticism afterwards. It means that scrutiny must apply to all of the council employees, at all levels, from heads of large departments, to street cleaners, traffic wardens, teachers, housing managers, and social services workers.

  The scrutiny committees need power, rather like a select committee in Parliament, to call for any document, for evidence from any officer, to report to the full council to block or put forward policy. The scrutiny panels must have a proper secretariat, and thought needs to be given as to how this fits into a career structure in local government. Will good service to a scrutiny panel be death to a career?

  Where the paid officers and council employees do not give satisfaction, there must be a route whereby the local people can voice their complaint, put forward solutions, and enforce their view.

  On balance, Camden Town Speaks, regards the new proposals as an error. We find widespread public opposition to the proposals. We think that an improved and revitalised committee system, with a better secretariat, more information access and more openness is what people need and want from their local council. We reject the "Executive Cabinet" system as unsuitable for local government, and advise members to vote against it if it comes to referendum.

12 July 1999


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Prepared 11 August 1999