Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 340 - 359)



  340. Did you find any enormous variation in general views about local government at that particular time between the more urban areas and the less urban areas in that very large piece of research?

  A. I think the answer is yes but I have not got it in front of me.

  341. Is it possible to supply the Committee with that information?

  A. Absolutely. It is all in the public domain, we are happy to do that. People do feel very differently. The key thing about local government, and what the legislation has to reflect, is its diversity. I do not think universally imposing directly elected mayors, as some suggest, across the whole of local government would be popular. It does have to reflect the local diversity.

  342. Did you do qualitative research at that particular stage?

  A. Yes, all the time. Very often before we conduct quantitative research into an issue, we would conduct qualitative research to make sure we are asking the questions which are pertinent, particularly a detailed piece of work for a local authority, and to understand how people see the issues and to make sure we are asking the questions which accurately reflect the concerns of the public rather than the concerns perhaps of politicians and policy-makers.

  343. So you piloted your quantitative questions on a qualitative basis?

  A. Yes. To get a detailed understanding of how people perceive local government and what an effective and affected community it is, we conducted a great deal of qualitative research at that time.

  344. On the basis of the qualitative research you carried out in your paper here, there seems to be an interesting difference in public perception than in some of the discussions we have had in this Committee, and that is that the public appear to believe—or those people you have talked to—that the mayor will have a mandate and be able and responsible for carrying it through but perhaps needs some restraint in doing that.

  A. That is not an unfair generalisation.

  345. I am referring to paragraph 3 on page 3, under Perceived Weaknesses. "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." Then in paragraph 2, higher up the page, "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."

  A. Yes. That is what people want to see. They want to see somebody who stands on very clear pledges and then hopes they deliver them. In one of the community workshops we conducted—and these are members of the public who have a more detailed understanding of this—they suggest there should be an independent adjudicator to make sure that the mayor delivers what they promised.

  346. Taking paragraph 3 under Perceived Weaknesses, what sort of constraints did you get a feeling for?

  A. What you are looking at is knowing what they do not want, I suppose, the idea of somebody who is elected as mayor, chooses all his friends in the cabinet and then rides roughshod over perhaps opposition parties and due debate and diligence. They do not obviously have a detailed understanding of the structure of local government or how the scrutiny functions work, but what they are concerned about is that the scrutiny function comes to look at decisions that the executive has made after a very long interval and perhaps also if the scrutiny people are of the same party or even close associates of the mayor; they want an effective scrutiny function.

Sir Paul Beresford

  347. Would you agree, particularly in the metropolitan areas, local government has a very hard role? It is dealing with some extremely difficult problems and the perception of the public of local government in general, because things do not always go right and because the problems are so difficult, is probably even less than that of a second-hand car salesman?

  A. Well—

  348. Let's be reasonable about it. So it would come as no surprise to learn that local government in each of the 205 metropolitan areas is the biggest group for complaints. What I am getting at is, do you not feel, as you have put out on page 1 under item 1 under Qualitative Research, that what the public really wants is local government to improve, or improve their environment, rather than necessarily change, or if they want them to change it is a change for the improvement?

  A. I do not have any problem with that whatsoever. What the public is asking for is an improvement in services and I think I put a quote in there somewhere that actually all these changes we are discussing are largely irrelevant.

  349. So if you offer them Richard Branson to run their local council, it would be a gem of an idea and they would rush in to have this figurehead without a thought of the reality of actually finding a Richard Branson?

  A. That idea is superficially popular but when people look at it in a bit more depth, they do wonder. If you use the example of somebody like Anneka Rice, a bubbly, popular, TV personality, who might come and run your council, some people are concerned that people like that might stand for mayor who would not be able to deliver when they were elected. They do passionately want to see service improvements. There are some people who have said in the qualitative research we have been conducting, "This is all fine and dandy, but none of this actually addresses my key concerns."

  350. The next obvious turn to that is that if there was a fourth option, which is improvements in the nature of the services or the nature of the way in which local government is now run, that is what they would want?

  A. In one of the workshops we have conducted, the broad conclusion they came to was that actually none of the models proposed was going to be effective in making things more transparent or accountable. In one of the workshops we conducted, yes, they felt the current system could work perfectly well if the people inside it were more of the sort of people they would like to have as councillors and the authority was more efficient.

  351. One of the polls which has always fascinated me was a poll in New Zealand conducted nationally by the Government on proportional representation. The public when I was out there at that time had a perception of the result which they did not get, and there was a huge swing towards it. If you go and poll there now, there is a perceived view against it. If you ask people, the response is, "We did not understand what we were going to get." Could you apply this to some of this research?

  A. Until people see how it plays out on the ground, it is very difficult to answer some of these issues.

  Sir Paul Beresford: So, yes.

Mr Pike

  352. Going back to this question of the mayor, you said the mayor was popular now but what we are now talking of within the Bill is a totally different person, is it not?

  A. The idea of being able to directly elect a figure with considerable authority who is clearly accountable and stands or falls on whether or not they deliver, despite the problems which I think we must discuss, is probably popular.

  353. Yes I accept it may be but are the public understanding that it may not be doing exactly what the mayor does at the present time?

  A. They can appreciate under this model that there are far more executive powers invested in the mayor than there are currently in the person with the gold chain.

  Mr Pike: If the mayor is not able to deliver what we are expecting him to deliver, if we look at the election of a mayor for London and we had the referendum on the mayor of London and great play was put on transport, everybody who works or lives in London knows that the problem with London Transport has been lack of investment for many, many years and it is going to need investment for a long, long time. So when that mayor comes up for re-election are they going to be very happy? Are they going to give a different answer on your opinion poll survey at that time as to whether that is the best way of running local government? It is a serious question.

Baroness Thornton

  354. You do not have to answer every question.

  A. If I had the power of prescience I probably would not be sitting here today. We will have to wait and see. It may be that we cannot pour millions or billions into London Transport but there may be other things the mayor does that would be extremely popular.

Mr Pike

  355. But the mayor of Lewisham may have to close the swimming baths.

  A. Let's take this mythical mayor of Lewisham, provided the mythical mayor of Lewisham is good at explaining why he is closing the swimming baths and provides something else, I would not necessarily rule out him being re-elected.

  356. What is your view on referendums?

  A. People generally like referendums because they like to have a say but whether they turn out and vote is another matter.

  357. Do you think there is a danger if we have a referendum and more consultation that we get consultation fatigue? Is there fatigue from answering opinion polls and things?

  A. Perhaps about frivolous subjects such as baked beans, but the serious matters of local government, if we look at what people want their local authority to do they want them to listen to them. If we ask them how they would like them to listen to them they say, amongst other things, opinion polls and, secondly, if you actually look at an authority that does a lot opinion polling and perhaps has 200,000 residents it is going to take a long time to ask them all what they think about the council. So I do not think that is the case although there are certain small areas of the councils where there is perhaps lots of work going on in education action zones, employment action zones and SRB projects where there is a danger of that if it is not well coordinated, but it is generally not an issue.

  358. On the draft Bill in the White Paper how would you improve it if you were the Minister taking that Bill? What do you think it falls down on or is it right?

  A. I think some of the things that people want addressed—and none of you have asked me so far about people's views about politicians which is one of the key concerns of residents. These are phrases used to describe councillors "Totally remote", "greedy", "too party political", "they have their own agenda", "all they want is your vote and then they disappear", "the council is pretty invisible". People want people who passionately believe in the areas they represent, are in touch with the areas they represent and at the moment there is some feeling that party politics at a local level does not do that and, if anything, can be antithetical to it.


  359. You have given that interpretation of politicians and I am not arguing with you about that. How much do you think the response to your question on the mayor is that people actually have a different view about the mayor? Not that they do not understand the change but they perceive a mayor as essentially non-political, representational and associated with good things and they see political leadership associated with all the things that they disagree with? As one who has moved from one position to the other, I do understand the difference, but I am concerned about how much it reflects in that.

  A. I think there is some hope. They are not going to want somebody who they see as a "party hack "but you can be a popular politician or a grey-suited anonymous politician. There is a feeling there that perhaps a broader range of people and not the sort of people who are currently councillors, more dynamic people as they see it, might stand.

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