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



The threshold for a referendum

  The triggering of a referendum is a serious matter, not to be lightly undertaken. Precedents are being set should the use of citizen's initiatives develop. Five per cent triggers are low. In Switzerland the triggers normally vary between 10 per cent and 20 per cent. If support for elected mayors is widespread, 10 per cent should be readily obtainable. Signing petitions has been shown by research to be the most readily undertaken public activity apart from voting in national elections, with 63 per cent of the population having done so at some time (George Parry, George Moyser and Neil Day (1992) Public Participation in Britain).

  There is an argument that where a referendum is held, there should be a threshold for the percentage of the electorate voting before change was justified. It would seem to be unwise to change the structure of local government if there was so little interest that the turnout was below that in local elections.

The conduct of a referendum

  The government has powers to determine the nature of the issue posed in a referendum. This will not carry credibility as ensuring fair conduct, as the government have clear views on the issue. Arguments against government controlling the conduct of the referendum are as strong as those against the local authority. It would be an appropriate task for the proposed Elections Commission or in its absence an independent committee.

Independent-style authorities

  There are authorities in which party politics are limited and an "Independent-style" is adopted with committees being settings in which meaningful discussions take place and decisions are made. Where existing structures are working in this way, it seems unwise to require a change or even to enforce a referendum for an executive model, which does not sit easily with independent-style politics. This could be met by laying down criteria specifying when the intervention powers of the Secretary of State both can and cannot be used.

The size of the executive

  It seems unnecessary to specify in legislation the size of the executive and attempts to do so lead to inevitable difficulties in unitary authorities with a small number of councillors. Public and press pressure have proved an effective restraint upon authorities in relation to payments for councillors and would be a constraint on over-large executives if payments were at stake. It is better to allow for these constraints within a local democracy than to rely on prescription.

The removal of a mayor

  There is no provision in the proposed legislation for the removal of a directly elected mayor other than for crimes or breaches of the code of conduct. This means there is no way of removing an ineffective or incompetent mayor until the four-year term is expired, making it a unique executive political position in this country. In other countries methods can be found, such as the right of recall or qualified votes of confidence. Such methods should not be easily triggered but should be available as safeguards and a check whose very availability could be a valuable constraint.

Other options

  Other options are possible which should be considered. One such option would incorporate area executives. Another option would be a council manager option with a leader, which is an option close to the original council manager model in the United States. The inclusion of other options would signal the readiness of the government to encourage innovation and diversity.

July 1999

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Prepared 11 August 1999