Memorandum by Gloucestershire County Council
The County Council welcomes the publication
of the Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill
and the opportunity this offers to influence the contents of the
Bill before it is presented to Parliament. It is hoped that the
Government will repeat this process as other Draft Bills are prepared.
The County Council welcomes also the Government's
wider agenda setting context for Modernising Government as illustrated
by the recent Modern Government White Paper which promotes fresh
stimulus for joined up working and spreading associated best practice.
The County Council has argued over many years
for a relaxation of the constraints within which it works thus
enabling it to have greater freedom to secure, across service
interests, local solutions to local problems.
The County Council recognises that such opportunities
may now be closer to hand. The positive messages from the Government,
however, need to be carried through in the initiatives it takes
and the legislation it promotes.
There is a danger that the Draft Bill may promote
solutions that do not take sufficient account of the diversity
of communities, leadership styles and approaches to probity that
exist across the country. The consultation paper gives the impression
at times that it is addressing primarily unitary metropolitan
authorities where one party control is in place generally. In
fact, most of England's population lives in counties with a mixed
rural/town aspect and with a two (County/District) three (County/District/Parish)
tier local government structure in which no overall political
control is a feature.
The County Council urges the Government, when
addressing the local government family as a whole, to promote
local flexibility across all elements of the Bill and avoid the
tendency in some parts of the Draft Bill for a predisposition
towards general prescription.
The County Council is one of many local authorities
across the country that has no overall political control. This
has been the position since 1985. Additionally, the Council serves
a geographically dispersed population within a re-affirmed and
locally advocated three-tier local government structure.
Since 1992 the Council has operated a slim-line
decision-making structure with a Strategy and Resource Committee,
five Programme Committees and a handful of Sub-Committees. This
is underpinned by extensive delegation arrangements to officers,
the use of policy panels and performance review boards and the
participation of the wider community across our decision-making
Individuals and organisations have access to
our decision-making structures, through co-option opportunities,
through early engagement in issues that affect them and through
opportunities to question the Council at its decision-making meetings.
In recent months the County Council has introduced
an Audit and Scrutiny Committee and will shortly be introducing
a Standards Committee. These initiatives have been stimulated
by the Government's Modernising Local Government Agenda and the
County Council will continue to pursue new opportunities ahead
of the Draft Bill becoming an Act of Parliament.
It is against this background that the County
Council assesses the Political Management proposals contained
in the Draft Bill and elaborated on in the Consultation Paper:
Local Leadership, Local Choice.
The County Council recognises and shares the
desire of Government to rekindle local engagement with the democratic
process and accepts that new opportunities for doing so should
be debated locally.
The County Council is comfortable about promoting
this local debate but is realistic about the extent to which the
models on political management structures are likely to stimulate
widespread interest across Gloucestershire, particularly given
that the electorate has consistently reaffirmed, since 1985, its
electoral right to deliver a politically balanced Council.
That is not to say that the County Council wish
to advocate the status quo option for its political management
structure. But as it continues to adjust its structures to reflect
local circumstances so it would want to place its current structures
alongside the models contained in the Draft Bill when promoting
local consultation. The County Council sees this as a legitimate
stage ahead of formal consultation on a new Constitution.
The County Council considers that the strengths
of the new models would be reinforced, however, if there was less
prescription about each model. This is relevant particularly to
the Cabinet with leader model and the individual member accountability
issue when applied within a balanced Council. There is equally
an issue about the size of the Executive. As proposed, its size
provides an impediment to multi-party working. In Gloucestershire
an Executive of 14 would be a more acceptable outcome.
The County Council would be more comfortable
with the models if they enabled different forms of leadership
to be used rather than seeking a unified approach across the whole
of local government in this country.
There is a danger also that consultation will
be less meaningful to local communities if the process is constrained
by having to use the terminology contained in the Bill. An illustration
of this concern is the term "elected mayor". In three
tier counties the term of mayor is well used and understood in
District and Town Council areas. The County Council considers
that local consultation will be improved if alternative terms
to that of "elected mayor" can be used to illustrate
the intended role. Such flexibility over the use of terms appears
available elsewhere in the Draft Bill eg clause 7 in relation
to Overview and Scrutiny Committees. This is welcomed but the
same flexibility should be applied elsewhere in the Draft Bill.
The move to expand the remit of Committees outside
the Executive to embrace "overview" as well as "scrutiny"
is welcomed as this, potentially, more accurately reflects the
role that all members should have in influencing the Executive
during policy formulation, through to determination, implementation
and review. It must be the right of all members to have access
to the whole spectrum not least through their representative role.
The County Council would welcome the creation
of an Independent Commission to oversee the use of referendums.
This would be an alternative proposition to the use of reserve
powers by the Secretary of State and would remove a potential
conflict of interest as the Secretary of State could be seen as
judge and jury in certain circumstances.
Finally, the County Council would wish to comment
on the issue of Community Leadership. This is an issue of particular
significance in three tier areas and there will be a need for
local protocols between the respective tiers. Although it is acknowledged
that there are opportunities for promoting the Community Leadership
role in other legislation, the Community Leadership role that
an individual member fulfils, at a local level needs greater recognition.
The County Council would look to the Draft Bill to provide new
impetus for promoting this local leadership role. One positive
way in which this can be addressed is by providing a model for
the executive that embraces devolved decision-making.
The County Council has a good track record with
regard to the probity of both its members and officers. Through
training, systems and processes the County Council aims to promote
the public service ethos amongst all members and officers.
The Council would not wish to give the impression
of complacency, however; currently it is working towards the introduction
of a Standards Committee as a further demonstration of the Council's
commitment to the highest standards of conduct throughout the
It is against this background that the County
Council assesses the Ethical framework proposals contained in
the Draft Bill and elaborated on in the Consultation Paper: Local
Leadership, Local Choice.
Whilst the County Council supports any measures
that will reinforce the highest standards of conduct throughout
local government, the Council is concerned that the Draft Bill
proposals will do little to restore "the bond of trust"
at local level given the limited opportunities there will be for
the local determination of breaches of the code of conduct.
The County Council would support a strengthening
of the independent element of a local Standards Committee as a
way of promoting confidence in the consideration locally of all
but the most serious breaches of the code of conduct.
The Council sees a further difficulty associated
with the effectiveness of a local Standards Committee. This concerns
the lack of any opportunity for a Committee to impose sanctions
on any member who has transgressed the code. The absence of sanctions
reinforces the Council's view that Standards Committees will only
address the most insignificant and trivial breaches. The County
Council would question whether independent persons will come forward
to preside over and/or deliberate on such complaints.
The County Council believes there is still an
issue to be addressed in relation to the apparent overlap between
the functions of the Standards Board, Adjudication Panel, District
Audit and the Ombudsman.
Finally, the County Council has a concern about
the speed of process. The mapping of the consideration of a complaint
suggests that, in the worst case scenario (involving a possible
appeal to the High Court), a complaint may not be determined within
18 months. The County Council considers there is a balance to
be struck between the interests of natural justice and efficient
The County Council reaffirms its commitment
to a framework that delivers the highest standards of conduct
across the County Council and promotes local leadership through
positive engagement with individuals and communities of interest
across the County.
The County Council believes that this is best
achieved by the Draft Bill being amended to promote:
local flexibility across all elements
of the Bill, and
recognition of the diversity of communities
and leadership styles that exist across the country.