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


Memorandum by MORI


  1.  The White Paper highlights the way in which the government seeks to make local government more accountable, transparent and relevant to the public and seeks to address them by offering revitalised mechanisms for political management in local government.

  2.  Below we look at public reactions to the proposed Models and other methods for boosting accountability, based on MORI's research (for the New Local Government Network in major metropolitan authorities, via the People's Panel, in surveys for individual authorities and much more in-depth studies of the views of smaller groups of citizens in Camden, and other authorities).

  3.  We have summarised public attitudes to the proposed models for decision-making in local government below. It is also crucial to consider the context in which public reactions to the proposed changes sit and how they compare with public aspirations. We have therefore briefly summarised public attitudes towards local government and local councillors as background information below (on page 10 onwards).


  1.  There is no doubt that the public wants local government to change.

  2.  The evidence to date is that of the three models - the option of a directly elected mayor - is the most "popular".

  3.  The surveys that have been conducted in the Metropolitan areas by MORI and across the whole of GB by ICM (both commissioned by the New Local Government Network which is publicly campaigning for elected mayors) have shown that there is majority support for the principle of directly-elected mayors, and for referenda to be held to allow local people to decide on whether or not to have a mayor.

  4.  However, beyond the headline figures, the pictures is less clear. First the public know relatively little about the proposals, and so while around 59 per cent in the Metropolitan authorities surveyed by MORI say they are in favour (as did Lewisham's own poll of its Panel, and the ICM survey), this is not a high salience issue for the public and there are sizeable proportions who do not feel able to answer either way.

  5.  On the Government's People's Panel—a survey of over 3,000 residents across the UK—when given a list of different options to make local government more accountable, elected mayors were least likely to be supported as a method of having one's say on how services are run (although a majority did support it); chosen ahead of it were the use of techniques to ensure politicians did actually understand the views of local people—a theme in qualitative research MORI has conducted.

  6.  So public support for mayors in the polls conducted to date reflects dissatisfaction with the current way councils are perceived to work, and the popularity of the idea of being able to directly elect a figurehead.

  7.  However, qualitative research conducted by MORI for a variety of different authorities highlights a range of concerns which the three models—while encouraging—are not seen so far to fully address. In particular they do not address public concerns about getting local councillors to be "closer" to the communities they represent, the consultation of the public or the issue of latent dislike of party politics ata local level. The bottom line is that the public is much more interested in outcomes than in politicalstructures.

  8.  In the following pages we look at public reactions to the various Models from day-long community workshops that MORI has conducted for a variety of authorities. This research is not statistically reliable—nor is it intended to be—what it does do is throw some light on the thinking and priorities of the public in relation to the proposed changes.


Perceived Strengths

  1.  The fact that the Mayor is not chosen from within the council is seen as a key advantage of this system. The principle of being able to directly choose an individual with clear responsibilities is definitely popular with the public.

  2.  There is a general feeling that, as he or she is elected by the public, then the Mayor will be responsible for carrying through the mandate on which they have been elected, and therefore some feeling that this system might produce decisions more in touch with local people. In addition, some feel that the Mayor and individual cabinet members would be held accountable to the public, and would therefore be more responsive to public opinion than more anonymous committee members.

  3.  People think that having the opportunity to vote for a directly elected Mayor would increase the turnout in local government elections, although there is some concern that, in the longer term, apathy could return, as the novelty of voting under this system wears off.

  4.  One of the strongest features of having a directly elected Mayor and Cabinet is seen as the speed with which decisions could be made and policy could be implemented, although this is not a key priority for the public.


Perceived Weaknesses

  1.  While the idea of a strong, driven personality running an area is popular—and a mayor would be expected to be charismatic—there is recognition, and in some cases, concern, that the line between policy and personality may become blurred. A directly elected Mayor must be a good communicator who appeals to the electorate, but some are concerned that good communication skills are matched by the ability and knowledge to make key decisions across the authority. Some are worried that being a Mayor might be as much about being a personality as someone determined to improve key services.

  2.  There are some concerns that weak or ineffective scrutiny functions (which the public have great difficulty understanding—or seeing as particularly effective) together with a strong mayor may produce too many opportunities for career politicians to take advantage of their position and surround themselves with allies, and ignore concerns of the community as a whole.

  3.  Because of this while the Mayoral model is the most popular there are concerns that too much power may be centralised in the hands of the Mayor. With this in mind, residents suggest that sufficient checks on the Mayor's power should be built into the system.

  4.  One of the workshops expressed concern about the perceived difficulty of removing the Mayor from office, should he or she fall from favour.

  5.  At present, public perceptions of what scrutiny committees are likely to be means they are perceived as a potential disadvantage of all of the proposed models. Some feel they will simply rubber stamp decisions presented almost as a fait accompli, partly because it is perceived that by the time they look at something, it will be too late to make any change.

  6.  Some feel that the Mayoral Model diminishes the role that backbenchers and politicians from opposition parties are currently perceived to play in the policy making process.

  7.  In London there are concerns over potential clashes between the Mayor of London, and Mayors for each Borough, as well as other elected representatives (eg MPs), although this is not a major issue.

Evaluation Against Key Criteria

  1.  People are generally enthusiastic about a directly elected Mayor, although there is a feeling that anyone who is elected must work to a strong and popular mandate with clear policy goals. Some participants in recent research suggest some sort of independent adjudicator to ensure mayoral candidates make clear pledges and are then seen to deliver them—again highlighting lack of understanding of the scrutiny models that are being proposed—but also a clear desire for much greater accountability.

  2.  If there are clearly publicised pledges that the public can choose their mayor on, to this extent, people see this model as one which could produce decisions more in touch with local views. However, if this were not the case, people suggest that the Mayor would soon lose popularity and legitimacy.

  3.  Out of the three proposed systems, this model is perceived as the one which will do most to meet the key criteria of making the decision making process more efficient and effective, improving transparency and producing decisions more attuned to local opinion.

  4.  However, this does not mean it is seen as a universal panacea, and there remains concerns that "all of these changes are irrelevant", because none of them—in the eyes of the public—go far enough in truly making politicians want to be more accountable or really listen to the public after they are elected. In one workshop MORI conducted recently, distrust of existing politicians is such that participants proposed that "no-one who belongs to a political party should be allowed to stand for mayor", while realising that this was unrealistic. Such comments do reflect the more general concerns about party politics in local government.


Perceived Strengths

  1.  The main perceived strength of this system lies in the fact that as the Council has the ability to appoint (and dismiss) the leader; it contains more checks and balances than the mayoral Model. The Council's choosing the Leader is felt to make it less likely that Leader would be a demagogue, looking to score cheap points with the electorate. Rather, as the leader would be chosen by his/her peers in the Council itself, proponents think it more likely that he or she would be elected for his skills both as a politician and as a policy maker. Some feel that someone elected under this system would be less extreme.

  2.  For some its strength is that it is most similar to the current system of the three Models (but for others this is a key weakness: it does not go far enough, particularly where feelings of council inertia are strong and where it is felt that any change would be positive).

  3.  Although not directly elected, the accountability of the leader to the Cabinet and Council is seen as a key strength of this system.

Perceived Weaknesses

  1.  Negatives about this Model are that it is simply too similar to the status quo. Control is taken away from the public, as a leader elected by the Council will be less accountable to local people compared to an elected mayor, although he/she might be less populist than a directly elected mayor, and make more considered policy decisions.

  2.  For those concerned about over-centralisation of power, as with the first Model, there is a feeling that too much decision making power would be placed in the hands of too few people. Lack of awareness of the scrutiny function—and feelings it may be toothless—compounds this.

  3.  People also raise the point that, as a leader is not democratically elected by the general public, then he is less likely to push "popular" policy through. While this can be seen as a positive, such a leader might be more likely to be regarded as impotent in that they will always be held accountable to the Cabinet. People believe that this will become more problematic if the Cabinet contains members from other parties. This perceived weakness leads to the view that this model will fail to produce more efficient and effective decision making.

  4.  For some, in an authority where one party has a large majority, it was seen to be important that representation of other parties in the Cabinet is ensured, particularly if the minority parties represent different geographic areas to the majority party.

Evaluation Against Key Criteria

  1.  The leader lacks the direct mandate a mayor has for an area. In one workshop in London that MORI conducted there was also interest in being able to directly elect cabinet Members, either simultaneously or at a later election (if a Mayor was involved). This reflects public interest in being able to have a real choice of not just the mayor, but other key players, even if somewhat reluctantly, they realise this would be impractical.

  2.  There is relatively little support for this model when assessed against transparency of decision making and producing decisions more in touch with local views.

  3.  Few feel that this model would allow decisions to be made more efficiently and effectively than the elected Mayor and Cabinet system. People associate this model with a less powerful leader, which may lead to the potential for gridlock in the decision making process.

  4.  As with the other models, many want much more clarity about the role of the scrutiny function and arrangements for involving the public.

  5.  It is not thought that this system would lead to increased voter turn-out at election time or greater involvement at grass-roots level, without radical changes in the behaviour and attitudes of individual Members (although this is wanted regardless of the arrangements made for decision making at an authority).


Perceived Strengths

  1.  The only real strength that residents see in this system is its simplicity, which is thought would translate into effective and speedy decision making.

Perceived Weaknesses

  1.  The public feel that this model tends to concentrate power too heavily, and the public's own choice—the mayor—is seen by many as too weak relative to the council manager, who is seen to be too powerful.

  2.  Neither are seen as being particularly accountable to the electorate, especially the council manager, who some see as being very powerful, but the least accountable of all the figures in the proposed models. And some wonder why one needs a mayor at all in this model—feeling that one decision-maker is enough.

  3.  This system is seen to widen the gap between the executive and backbench councillors. The public are concerned that the role of scrutiny panels will be limited and provide an insufficient counter-balance to the powers of the Mayor and Council Manager.

Evaluation Against Key Criteria

  1.  There is very little enthusiasm for this final model. The main problem is the perceived lack of accountability to the general public, the over-centralisation of power and information, and lack of understanding as to what the scrutiny function might be.

  2.  On the key criteria of more efficient and effective decision making, transparency of the process, producing decisions more in touch with local views and increasing public involvement, this model receives very little support.


  1.  Of the three systems MORI has assessed, an elected Mayor and Cabinet are—on balance—felt to be the most likely to meet the key criteria of more efficient and effective decision making and more transparency in the decision making process.

  2.  However, while this model is most appealing—on the basis of MORI's research to date—none of the models—including this one, are seen as particularly likely to lead to decisions that are in touch with local views, or as importantly to meet other important criteria for the public, including ensuring that local government listens and communicates with them more effectively, and involves them more in decision-making.

  3.  After examining the models, people return to two concerns; these are that rigorous scrutiny can be applied to all decisions, and, crucially, that the quality of Council services improves as a result of any changes to the decision making process. There is uncertainty as to whether this will be achieved in practise, but many see change as promising.

  4.  At the same time many people are keen to see a diminished role for "professional" "party" politics in local government. They want—perhaps idealistically—to encourage people to judge candidates on their merits, rather than their party. The mayoral model offers some promise of this but not enough to be entirely convincing.

  5.  Reflecting the fact that the public reluctantly recognise that local government is now so complicated that full time "professional" councillors are needed, some participants suggest the idea of a two-tier system of local government in which there would be room for "professional" cabinet politicians, who would be more political, to operate at the centre of the Council and to make policy decisions. Alongside these would be a wider range (and possibly even increased number) of backbenchers who are more representative of the community, but are only expected to contribute four to five hours a week, to allow parents and people with demanding jobs to be more widely represented.

  6.  There is interest in the idea of randomly selecting members of the public to serve on particular Scrutiny Committees for six months or so to ensure independent views are involved.

  7.  Most strongly, people would like to see an improved representative role for backbench Councillors which would allow them to spend more time listening to and representing the local community. They want to see Members in the community, listening to residents, and living in the wards they are elected for. They recognise this is a sometimes thankless task but they want to be able to feel that their wards are really represented by identifiable people who have a deep understanding of local issues and realities. At present the public—even after discussing the proposed Models for hours—are not convinced that the Scrutiny role for backbenchers envisaged guarantees this, or that it will give them the type of councillors they want.


  1.  Compared to many other public services, local government—despite being elected—is not particularly well regarded. It tends to be seen as remote (in the personal, not geographic sense). Even authorities which perform relatively well in terms of their service delivery are regarded much more weakly as corporate entities, and as "a law unto themselves" to quote one participant in a MORI community workshop recently.

  2.  The chart below shows how highly regarded some services like refuse collection and libraries are: the one below shows how different types of authorities are regarded.

  3.  Compare this with the chart looking at how individual authorities themselves are regarded; scores are much lower than services.


  4.  In particular authorities are poor at listening to residents and weak communicators—their position on this chart is similar to the Inland Revenue's, despite being elected, and providing a range of essential services to the public.


  5.  Nevertheless, there is also plenty of evidence that local government's collective performance is improving. Although there is still considerable scope for further improvement, there has been real progress over the last decade. The chart below shows aggregate results from over 200 surveys for individual authorities MORI has conducted in the last decade.


  6.  Although more people agree their authority is too remote and impersonal than disagree, fewer do so than in the late 1980s. And while most authorities are poor at communicating with the public—telling them about services, explaining what they are doing and how decisions are made—on this, as on many aspects, there have been improvements and a key feature is diversity, with wildly different performances across local government.

  7.  As well as needing to improve its communications—and doing so will increase overall satisfaction with local government—most of the public feel that local government does not listen to them enough—or that if it does listen, more often than not it ignores what it hears. The chart below, from MORI's survey of nearly 2,500 residents in the Best Value pilots, conducted as part of the Warwick/DETR evaluation of the pilots shows this clearly.


Views of local Councillors

  1.  MORI's work for over 200 local authorities since 1979 has highlighted how little people know about the existing structures of local government, or their councillors. As everyone knows, most people do not vote in local elections. Even fewer are aware of who their councillors are (MORI typically finds under 10 per cent know who they are). Asked what councillors do, many admit they have little idea, but tend to assume that they spend a good deal of time in meetings. Those few members of the public who have attended council meetings as observers are often dismayed by the level of debate—or indeed the lack of debate.

  2.  Top of mind impressions of councillors are negative—of party politicians, who tend to be self-aggrandising, who spend all their time in the town hall, who do not know the realities of living in the areas they represent, and are out of touch. Many feel that they do not consult before making decisions—as we have seen the key role many want for local councillors is for them to listen more, rather than attending committee meetings. Below are some typical results when asked about the job of being an elected councillor.



  3.  At present most do not feel that councillors are out in the community listening to them. A typical gut reaction is to describe them as "smarmy gits in suits". Very often these perceptions are based on media stereotypes, rather than detailed knowledge. Local government is not seen as interesting or relevant for those who do not need services to spend much time talking to it: those who are most satisfied with their council are those who never contact it.

  4.  However, those who have a better understanding of the demands placed on councillors' time—and the workload involved—recognise that this in itself limits the number of people able to get involved; people with young children or demanding jobs are seen as completely unable to do what would be demanded of them—and because of this only certain types of people—particularly those who are very "party political" will either be able or willing to get involved.

  5.  This leads on to another key aspect of the image of local councillors—and that is that they are "too political". Many qualitative studies MORI conducts looking at these issues highlight this as a key reason for feeling alienated from local government. There is a feeling that party politics at a local level—together with party discipline, whipping and so forth, meaning that councillors often vote on party lines, rather than in the best interests of their own wards.

  6.  There is also some feeling that national government has such a firm grip on local government that whoever is elected has little power to change services and outcomes locally—another reason for not voting or getting involved with local councils; see the chart below from a MORI survey for the LGA in April 1998;


  7.  It is also worth remembering that while local government does need to make much more of an effort to get "in touch with the people", most people do not actually seek a particularly intimate relationship with their council. They want it to listen to them, to be efficient and professional, and tell them about the services it provides, but only a minority want to be more involved with it. The results from Leicester below are typical of the result MORI finds across Britain.


29 June 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 11 August 1999