Memorandum by RJB Morris (LGA 13)
1.1 This submission is written in response
to the personal invitation to submit a memorandum to the House
of Commons Urban Affairs Sub-Committee. It is offered on a personal
basis only and is not to be understood as necessarily representing
the views of Northampton Borough Council or anyone else.
1.2 The writer is a solicitor with 34 years'
local government experience, over twenty of which have been as
a Chief Executive at the City of Durham (1981-86) and at Northampton
(since 1986). I was President of the Society of Local Authority
Chief Executives in 1995-96.
2.1 The Local Government Act 2000 has been
arguably the most significant reform of local government executive
and associated procedures since the modern era began. Pasted into
the front of the first City of Durham minute book of 1836 is a
set of standing orders whose language is instantly familiar to
2.2 A number of developments have occurred,
of course, in over one and a half centuries since. In the later
years of Victoria's reign the tradition of party political impartiality
of officers grew to become the norm, on the surface at least,
while around the same time the doctrine of ultra vires
was similarly being established. In the 1960s the Maud and Mallaby
reports examined management approaches and processes; large numbers
of committees and sub-committees were usually reduced, and with
hindsight we can see that after the local government reorganisation
of 1974 the influence of the Bains report on management approaches
represented perhaps the last example of voluntary adoption by
almost all authorities in England and Wales of a template of approach
offered as the norm.
2.3 Finally in 1989 the Local Government
and Housing Actwhich felt onerously prescriptive at the
time and was introduced in response to the Government's perception
of unacceptable practices in the 1980srequired heads of
paid service, monitoring officers and politically proportional
committees and sub-committees. The convention of party political
neutrality for senior officers, forged over a hundred years earlier,
was made statutory (and interestingly the 2000 Act has begun further
to loosen, through the concept of the power to promote well-being
in sections 2-5, the bonds of ultra vires also forged at
around that same time).
2.4 Looking back over this long spanof
industrialisation, social evolutions, world wars, technological
marvels and more mundanely, local government structural reform,
we can see that procedures were relatively little touched. How
authorities were organised and took decisions was of little priority.
If the 167 years since 1835 were but twelve hours, for instance,
political parties would have been recognised in the conduct of
local government business (other than in the context of elections)
as recently as five past eleven. The level of concern with which
we today take such matters as access to, or freedom of, information,
public participation and human rights is really very recent.
2.5 Nevertheless we can also see a slowly
developing appreciation that process reform was needed. The Conservative
Government published a paper of internal management proposals
in the early 1990s (though nothing came of it); increasingly authorities
began to call for more flexibility in the way they were able to
organise their business. The Local Government Act 2000 is the
product of a determination to effect significant change both in
terms of political leadership and actual decision-making. This
memorandum offers some views based on a series of instructive
contrasts, and of this writer's experience of piloting a Leader
and Cabinet model during the 2001-02 municipal year.
THE 2000 ACT
3.1 The call was for greater flexibility,
but the result is overly prescriptive. Paradoxically the world
of committees, delegated powers and ultra vires had proved
itself malleable beyond the imaginings of the Victorians who enacted
it. The old system certainly had its limitations, but generations
of applied ingenuity had mapped and moulded most of them. Contributions
of determined councillors and officers were to be found delivering
high quality services regardless of many of the supposed legal
limitations. Even the notoriously difficult power to trade had
been extended despite Parliament's clear reluctance to grant it
3.2 Although the 2000 Act powers about well-being
are welcome, there is a sense in which the limited choice of types
of executive arrangements is a disappointment, or even an irrelevance,
in the position of best quality public services.
3.3 What is, and is not, within the powers
of the Executive (or Cabinet) is now elaborately prescribed in
a way which seems the antithesis of trust and confidence in local
government to act responsibly. Details of a kind appropriate to
control tax evasion sit oddly with the Government and Audit Commission's
calls for innovation, entrepreneurship, best value and, above
all, quality public services. An instance of this is the framework,
both statutory and advisory, in relation to "key decisions"
which manages both to be prescriptive and inconsistently imprecise,
but the consequences of which have significant implications for
the procedures elsewhere in the Act.
3.4 Does the 2000 Act empower local democracy
or does it focus on decisions to the detriment of debate? Views
on this will differ, no doubt, but a decade or so after the rights
of political proportionality were granted by the Local Government
and Housing Act 1989 many Councillors not from the controlling
group on Councils resent being effectively excluded by statute
from direct participation in the meetings of the Executive where
key decisions are made.
3.5 This has wider connotations. No doubt
many Councils have, like Northampton, traditionally approached
certain issues broadly on a cross-party basis and now find that
there are considerable technical difficulties in continuing this.
Take the awarding of grants for instance, on which Northampton
has spent some £2 million in the current year: there has
been a systematic cross-party process, with an appeal mechanism,
for hearing grant applications and determining how they meet the
3.6 Such a body is no longer compatible
with the newly required 2000 Act Executive arrangements. Applicants
understandably want to meet the Councillors who they feel make
the decisions; they are usually little concerned with party politics.
Now we have the legal power to make grants delegated to an officer
(myself, in this case) after consultation with a cross-party meeting
of Councillors. This is artificial and unhelpful. Whereas useful
concepts like overview and scrutiny require Councillors to lay
aside party political applications to a large extent, such limitations
as I have described have the opposite effect of making cross-party
working harder. It would be well for the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee
to hear evidence also on these issues from Councils with no overall
political control, or largely independent membership.
3.7 There is a further important contrast
affecting decision making. While the expectation is for wider
and more innovative partnership working, the legislation has been
about more narrowly focusing executive power. It is particularly
difficult, other than by formally constituted joint committees
and joint boards, to construct partnerships with clear powers
to take legally binding directions and spend money, and especially
so when non-council or non-public sector partners are concerned.
Yet the consequence of the 2000 Act is to provide narrowly defined
sets of executive arrangements each of which concentrates (to
a greater or lesser extent) real legal/political/executive power
in a few hands. Government expectations for better partnership
working could have been effectively promoted by flexibilities
here, and they might again have promoted easier cross-party, rather
than probable single-party, working and accountability.
3.8 There is some perception that new executive
arrangements are founded on a central (Westminster) approach to
local requirements. In a local setting overview and scrutiny is
not an equivalent of Parliamentary scrutiny by Select Committee,
at least not in the sense that what works in one context can readily
be transferred or scaled across to the other. Recent events at
the Department of Transport Local Government and the Regions have
focused attention on the conventions surrounding Civil Servants,
but their position is not closely akin to that of senior local
government officers, who must advise all political parties, give
advice in public, and be publicly accessible in a way that is
not paralleled in central government.
4.0 GOING FORWARD
4.1 The foregoing paragraphs could not of
course amount to a full critique of a complex and wide-ranging
piece of legislation. They have simply been an attempt to pick
up some of the ways in which different outcomes seemat
this early stage in our experience of making it workto
have occurred, or to have been intended, from what many in local
government appear to have wanted. Perhaps the greatest contradiction
of all is that the Act sought to make a radical change in the
nature of political accountability, but where it could have signalled
trust in the new paradigm it signalled lack of trust. It called
for ethical standards and constitutional rules, but it imperilled
the tradition of politically impartial senior officers serving
all the representatives of the community rather than just the
4.2 Nevertheless, it is not the purpose
of this Memorandum to call at this time for change. It is too
soon. We have barely operated the new constitutional arrangements
for the same number of days as the years for which the traditional
system held swayas it still largely can, of course, in
authorities below 85,000 population. We all need to give the new
Act time to work to its full potential.
4.3 Was there an alternative? Would it have
been preferable to have done nothing? No. New ways of working
were needed. It is a pity that the spirit which has allowed local
election experiments, for instance, did not apply to the trials
of new Executive arrangements. The task of defining Cabinet powers,
key decisions and the like have been prolonged and difficult,
but for the time being the results must stay as they are.
4.4 A better way would have been for central
government to have taken local government more into its trustfollowing
the recommendations of Lord Hunt's report a few years ago when
a subsequent Bill was lostin laying out a few statutory
principles from which local arrangements could in detail have
been derived. Local authorities respect the law. They are closely
and responsibly audited. They could have done what was required.
Is it not a final irony that the Act which gave Councils powers
of well-being in the interests of their communities felt unable
to give those selfsame Councils duties of good governance within
their own Council Chambers?
4.5 I hope that the foregoing paragraphs
are helpful, and I should be willing to elaborate on them if required.