Memorandum by London Borough of Merton
Main Opposition Group (LGA 36)
1. For any institution to remain relevant
and effective it must be prepared to change and adapt, but it
is equally important that through change we acknowledge the strengths
of our institutions and the principles and values that underpin
their effectiveness. This is true of local government as much
as any other institution and it is important to carefully reflect
on the changes taking place. The committee system, designed over
a century ago may well have warranted reform, and the experience
of the introduction of new structures and new roles for local
government has demonstrated some improvements to the way in which
Councils operate. It has also confirmed some of the strengths
of the traditional style of local government, which may have been
sacrificed to the Modernisation agenda.
2. New structures and role for local government
have been imposed upon local Councils and local people, as no
option for the retention of any semblance of the traditional arrangements
was permitted. The effectiveness of local government should be
judged against its propensity for democracy, openness and efficiency,
and this is an outcome of how government is run as much as how
it is structured.
3. This report sets out a brief view of
how the Modernisation process provided for under the Local Government
Act 2000 is working, from the perspective of the principal Opposition
group, based upon experience at the London Borough of Merton.
It will focus in particular upon the impact of the new constitutional
structures adopted and provides a view on some of the implications
of this to Local Government.
4. Part One of the Act requires local councils
to promote Community Wellbeing, that is, to promote and improve
the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their area.
Councils are now required to produce comprehensive "community
strategies" to set out how this is to be achieved, in partnership
with other relevant local organisations. The danger can be that
such plans will not be linked and integrated properly into existing
policies, plans and targets, eg within the Best Value process
and within the existing political process, and will provide another
round of confusing bureaucracy. It is important that such plans
are clearly linked and integrated with other Council initiatives,
that Community Leadership is focused, coherent, efficient and
effective. Community Wellbeing implies a more proactive role for
the Council, but there is little understanding as to exactly what
powers are enabled by this legislation and how Community Wellbeing
will be delivered in practice.
5. Part Three of the Act provides for a
new ethical framework relating to the conduct of Councillors and
officers. Improved protocols on officer-Member working relationships
may well be a helpful way to improve how Councillors and staff
work together, helping to deter unprofessional conduct and improve
the organisational culture within local government.
6. Part Two of the Act relates to the new
constitutional arrangements and the introduction of one of the
prescribed models of executive decision making structures. Merton
adopted the Leader and Cabinet constitutional model. The new arrangements
have made both positive and negative impacts upon the policy decision
making process and have inevitably impacted upon the role of Councillors
and the way in which citizens are able to democratically engage
with the policy process.
7. The London Borough of Merton introduced
a pilot of the new constitutional arrangements required as from
May 2000. This enabled officers and Members to trial and evaluate
the new system prior to its formal introduction on 17 October
8. The new constitution provides for a Leader,
elected by the Council, a Cabinet, which is the executive of the
Council, an Overview and Scrutiny Commission, which scrutinises
decisions, and the Full Council meeting. A Scheme of Delegation
defines which bodies take different kinds of decisions. Executive
decisions are made by portfolio holders, by the Cabinet or by
officers and Key Decisions may be called in by the Overview and
Scrutiny Commission. The Overview and Scrutiny Commission also
delegates to four Scrutiny Panels based around policy groupings.
Political Management and Administration
9. The requirements of Councillors as portfolio
holders and shadow front bench spokesmen, has led to high demands
upon them, as they take responsibility for a wide range of policy
issues. This is a high expectation in terms of time investment,
aptitude and ability.
10. The new portfolio system aims to provide
greater scope for improved and more coherent political management,
where a portfolio holder can take direct responsibility for an
area of policy, clearly defining goals and targets. For this to
work effectively, greater scope for the delimitation between political
management and policy administration needs to be realised. Whereas
the committee system tended to involve Members in more micro-policy
issues, the new executive arrangements perhaps favours a clearer
distinction between policy making and implementation. The political
executive needs to build its capacity for setting policy goals
and targets and measuring output and the administration needs
to focus on policy implementation, management, providing clear
technical advice and achieving targets.
11. The portfolio system aims to enable
better political accountability, but it can only do this if clear,
direct lines of accountability are realised within the organisation
itself. This means that portfolios need to be well defined and
functional, both to the organisation and to policy imperatives.
The policy implementation administrative apparatus, the organisation
of local government, needs to find a functional fit with political
portfolios to provide efficient lines of authority and accountability.
12. Under the committee system, Councillors
could build up a great deal of expertise on specific policy areas,
through long periods of service. The new arrangements have led
to the loss of the scope for Councillor "specialists".
It may prove harder for non-Executive Councillors to build up
such a degree of expertise as they are not exposed to the pre-decision
making discussion or advice from officers that may be gleaned
on policy making committees.
Transparency and Openness
13. One of the perceived weaknesses of the
old committee system is that it lacked clarity about where decisions
were being taken and by whom. There was then, an expectation that
the new arrangements would provide greater openness and transparency.
Paradoxically, a particular concern about the new arrangements
has in fact been the very issue of the availability of information
and the transparency of the decision making. Key Decisions are
required to be made in public, but there is some concern about
the definition of a "Key Decision" and non-"key"
decisions that are being taken outside of the public arena behind
closed doors. There is a perception that some important decisions
are not defined as Key and therefore are not channelled through
the Scrutiny process and not required to be made in public.
14. Another obstacle to openness derives
inevitably from the fact that the minority parties are now excluded
from participating in the Executive. Often it is more difficult
for the Opposition to take an in depth view as it is excluded
from the political executive. Although the Cabinet meets in public
to make Key Decisions, Councillors from minority groups are no
longer able to probe questions and reveal the background to decisions
when they are being considered. All of the information and advice
available to the portfolio holder may not be made available to
the Scrutiny Commission.
15. The new Forward Plan of up and coming
Key Decisions is a helpful tool to plan the policy and Scrutiny
process and its publication enables Councillors, the public and
Scrutiny greater awareness of where and when a decision is being
made. This is a welcome improvement and should help to improve
transparency. Accuracy of the timetable and the items for consideration
are of course key to its success, as otherwise information proves
rather to be misinformation, and this still requires improvement.
The introduction of reference numbers has helped to clarify items
as the name reference was sometimes subject to change during the
various stages of consideration.
Overview and Scrutiny
16. The Scrutiny process has been developing
since its pilot introduction and Members are becoming more able
to discern priority issues, avoid overload and inappropriate delays
in the decision making process. The Overview and Scrutiny Commission
are able to call in Key Decisions and make recommendations; this
provides a constructive check on decision making, and its strength
derives from the fact that it can bring experienced, non-executive
Members into the process from an objective or constructively critical
17. The efficient use of Scrutiny call in
has been shown to be important both to the ability of Scrutiny
to consider issues effectively and to provide an efficient policy
making process. A result of the experience of the pilot of the
new Executive and Scrutiny arrangements has been the introduction
of pre-decision Scrutiny by the Commission, and it has been shown
that Scrutiny is able to provide a constructive check on Key Decisions
both before and after consideration by the Executive.
18. The Overview and Scrutiny Commission
has also discovered some limitations on its powers with respect
to call in of Key Decisions. Scrutiny Members discovered that
the Chief Executive was effectively empowered by the Constitution
to overrule call in in exceptional circumstances, where he deems
to call in to be an invalid request.
19. The Scrutiny process has been proven
to be an important way to involve non-executive Councillors in
the consideration of executive decisions. As the Council has become
disenfranchised by the new arrangements, Scrutiny is the most
important and effective mechanism for holding the Executive in
check. As such it is an important vehicle for the Opposition to
hold the Executive to account and to scrutinise policy.
20. Scrutiny works best when it demonstrates
a more objective, critical, advisory role, when it can build up
a consensus-driven informed approach. To do this effectively,
to feed into the policy process, pulling out potential problems,
it needs a high degree of technical competence and credibility,
and this is to some extent at odds with the perception of political
motivations. Scrutiny is then in practice part technical-advisory,
and part political, and there is an apparent conflict between
21. One of the key expectations of the Modernisation
process is that it might provide a clearer definition of political
accountability and a more efficient decision making process. This
has to an extent been realised, as the new Cabinet system makes
portfolio holders visibly accountable for political decisions.
This enables Scrutiny to arrive from an outside and objective
source and provides a healthy division of powers and checks and
balances within the process. This translates further to a clearer
sense of political accountability to the public, as it better
defines responsibility for the outcomes of political choices made.
22. The fact that portfolio holders are
now no longer subject to the probing of minority group members
on the Executive, can however lead to the danger of an autocratic
style of decision making, which of course could lead to ill-considered
decisions. This is especially the case if there are limitations
on what can go into Scrutiny, eg either in terms of the definition
of Key Decisions or in the case of a call in of a Key Decision
being over ruled by the Chief Executive.
23. Political scrutiny, which has its place
more within the arena of the Full Council, is also an important
democratic function for non-executive Councillors and the Opposition,
as the Executive must be held to account politically. It is important
to provide proper checks and balances and to probe and expose
differences of policy and political management. Members need to
have a credible and public forum to ask pertinent questions on
behalf of their electors. The new arrangements have effectively
emasculated the role of the Council.
24. The Opposition in Council provides an
"outside" critical scrutiny to political decisions and
is an "administration in waiting". The disenfranchisement
of the Council and the exclusion of minority group Members from
the Executive have weakened the scope for political scrutiny,
and to that extent actually undermined political accountability.
25. There is a need to reconsider the role
of the Full Council, and its perceived and actual importance to
Members and to citizens. It is the sole body at which democratically
elected Members are able to represent local people, it is the
only Council body that is directly elected by the people.
26. There is a widespread perception among
many "back bench" Councillors that their ability to
influence the policy making process has been marginalised. The
scope for direct participation on committee has been curtailed
and the role, importance and policy making powers of the full
Council have been emaciated. As a result, many Councillors are
unhappy about being excluded from decisions now being taken by
a handful of Councillors on the Executive.
27. The Full Council meeting has lost some
of its perceived status as the final arbiter of policy and debate.
The political link of democratic accountability to local citizens
through elected Councillors has been subverted, channelled towards
greater centralisation and measurement of public opinion through
a plethora of surveys that bypass the democratic representative
system. Meanwhile the full Council struggles to find a role for
28. The new Area Forums have been set up
to provide feedback from the community and to provide an opportunity
for the Council and Councillors to engage directly with local
citizens. If this is to be effective it is important that the
Forums are well attended and that they tend to reflect the broad
interests within the community. Their role and purpose needs greater
definition and an appropriate mechanism for influencing the policy
debate needs to be developed and integrated with existing political
29. Far from improving local democracy,
the new arrangements do not seem to be raising the interest of
the public in local government. If the public are to be fully
engaged in the policy making process at a local level, local government
institutions need to be seen as accessible and democratic. Given
that the decision making process is now more centralised, public
participation needs to be improved and opened up. The public is
not made to feel welcome at Cabinet meetings, indeed are not encouraged
to participate at meetings at all. The Public Gallery, rarely
full, is now nearly always empty. Local Government has become
more remote as the ability of members of the public to influence
decisions through their elected Councillors has been diminished.