Memorandum by the Royal Borough of Kensington
The Royal Borough has agreed that the following
evidence in respect of the draft Local Government (Organisation
and Standards) Bill published in the consultation paper "Local
Leadership, Local Choice" be submitted to the Joint Committee.
We would be pleased to attend to present the evidence detailed
1.2 The Need for Change?
1.2.1 The consultation paper's proposals
are based on a range of assumptions that may apply to some local
authorities but not to those, such as the Royal Borough, that
already operate in an open and business-like manner.
1.2.2 The paper asserts that personalising
local authorities especially by providing for elected mayors,
will generate greater interest and excitement in local government
(the introduction of veto arrangements is commended in this context
in paragraph 3.68), and will enhance the capacity of councils
to provide "community leadership", but it provides no
rationale for this assumption.
1.2.3 As part of the reasoning behind the
need for change, the paper asserts that local people currently
"do not know who to praise or blame", but it makes no
suggestions as to how this situation can be changed. Local services
will continue to be provided by various bodies of which the Council
is only one and an elected mayor could still be praised or blamed
for a service over which he or she has no control. In this context
the public understanding of responsibilities is very limited.
A simple example would be street lighting on a strategic route
in London: which Mayor is responsible? The average resident would
assume it would be Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea, whereas it
would in fact be the Mayor of London.
1.2.4 Council services make a vital contribution
to the quality of life of local residents, but generating interest
and excitement is not necessarily a requirement of the electorate.
Opinion polls continue to suggest that what people seek is to
be kept informed rather than involved.
1.3.1 One of the Government's aims is to
increase electoral turnout. This will remain low, however, as
long as there is a lack of issues over which genuine debate is
possible. The continuing central direction of many services by
government departments limits the powers of local authorities
to make significant differences to the lives of local people or
to have their own policies which generate political differences.
Until this is possible, voter turnout will not improve.
1.3.2 Electoral turnout should also be seen
in the context of the local community as a whole. For instance,
the Royal Borough includes a disproportionately large number of
residents who are ineligible to vote in certain elections and
has one of the highest annual population turnover rates in the
country. Improvements to the electoral roll arrangements (in particular
the rolling register) would have a significant effect.
1.4 New Forms of Local Governance
1.4.1 A number of local authorities are
however keen to try out new management arrangements (and some
are currently being put in place) and the Government is justified
in seeking to make changes to local government law in order to
facilitate such experimentation. However, it is wrong for the
Government to force changes on those local authorities which are
1.4.2 For its part, the Royal Borough has,
without making changes to its broad organisational structure,
embraced a not insignificant proportion of the "modernisation
agenda" (even before it was invented)it is noteworthy
that we have already addressed seven out of the 12 "reassessments"
listed on page 51 of the paper.
1.5 Model Political StructuresPrescription
1.5.1 Lord Hunt's original Bill offered
local government a range of new approaches to governance on the
basis that these could be piloted by councils wishing to embrace
such changes. The Government's previous White Paper indicated
that "no change was not an option", but nevertheless
indicated that local Councils would be free to adopt and adapt
one of the new models to suit their local requirements. The draft
Bill is however prescriptive (it is possible that this is a reflection
of the Government's disappointment that so many councils are opting
for the "cabinet" rather than the "elected mayor"
model). The following are examples of the prescriptive approach:
The DETR will set parameters within
which the new "constitution" must be drafted and there
will also be a lengthy checklist to work through.
The role and functions of "the
executive" are to be prescribed, as is its minimum and maximum
The powers and functions of the overview
and scrutiny committee(s) will be stipulated.
Scrutiny committees will be required
to have a remit coterminous with the executive's total remit.
Possible prescription around the
delegation arrangements within the executive.
There will be the strictest possible
control of the referendum process (which, as with so much in this
White Paper, does not sit comfortably with the expressed wish
to foster "mutual trust" and "partnership"
between central and local government).
1.5.2 The Government has not made a case
for abandoning Lord Hunt's proposals. This Council supports the
permissive approach set out in the Hunt Bill and is not in favour
of the imposition of untried, uniform "solutions" to
1.5.3 A broader-brush approach, leaving
far more not only for local discretion but also for local experimentation,
should be adopted. Local authorities should be free to pilot the
proposed new arrangements on a voluntary basis and, of particular
importance, to have the opportunity of exchanging best practice
and of making changes locally that seem to be working well elsewhere.
There is, after all, no shortage now of volunteers. There should
be an unfettered option of "no change".
1.5.4 The Government is not justified in
compelling local authorities to adopt new forms of management
as a means of bringing about good service delivery. If it had
confidence in such an approach, this would throw into question
the need for the panoply of inspections and controls that it has
now put in place.
1.5.5 A five per cent threshold has been
proposed in Clause 14 for voters who wish to trigger a referendum
for a directly elected mayor. The consultation paper says "a
threshold higher than 5 per cent would risk ruling out genuine
local demand for a directly elected mayor being tested".
For this Authority, 5 per cent equates to around 5,000 voters.
The Council considers this threshold too low and certainly low
enough to be a target for single issue groups which could completely
unbalance the overall long-term arrangements of the authority.
1.5.6 The Government's proposals are largely
based on models from the USA, but there is no compulsion in the
United States to adopt any one particular model. This, however,
is what the Government is proposing for this country. It is clear
that the Government is only really interested in directly elected
mayors, despite the fact that there is no evidence that people
want this, and some to the contrary that voters understand and
support the committee system.
1.6 The Role of Members
1.6.1 The paper asserts that there will
be a "powerful role" for all Councillors. That will
clearly be so with executive members (there would be a maximum
of eight in the Royal Borough) but, although the assertion is
frequently repeated, the paper does not make a convincing case
so far as "backbench" members are concerned.
1.6.2 Councillors seek office in order to
participate in the process of representing and providing services
for their local community, but such participation would be denied
to the remaining 46 Royal Borough Members. Apart from serving
on regulatory committees, approving the annual budget and endorsing
major strategies, their role will be confined to questioning decisions
after the event. It is surely self-evident that such a "scrutiny"
role will be unsatisfactory and, ultimately, frustrating. When
allowance is made for the citizens juries, interest groups, regular
referendums etc that are also being promoted by the Government,
even their "representational" role will be limited.
It is also noteworthy that an earlier paper envisaged the eventual
reduction in the number of members on each council, and perhaps
this is one of the Government's unexplained intentions.
1.6.3 The new system of the "executive"
would produce a sudden demand for a core of full-time, salaried,
"elected officials", thereby changing the character
of the local councillor to a professional local politician who
would be a specialist and not a generalist. The Council doubts
whether, in London in particular, local people interested in becoming
involved in local politics would interrupt their careers for four
years to become full-time councillors. Furthermore, in the new
regime the executive could be cherry-picked by the leadership
and there would be little encouragement for the backbencher to
develop and progress.
1.6.4 Minority Party councillors would also
be side-lined and be severely disadvantaged by the introduction
of a full-time paid one-party Executive, reaching decisions in
1.6.5 The Government is concerned about
the lack of interest in local people becoming councillorsthe
Council sees nothing in the proposals that will encourage them.
Indeed, the executive could become a self-perpetuating political
clique even less representative of the public than at present.
1.6.6 Taken together, this all seems to
point to a future local government system controlled by a small
number of full-time salaried "elected officials". The
Royal Borough considers that this will diminish rather than enhance
local democracy in this country and could ultimately extinguish
1.7.1 The paper frequently asserts that
the Government's proposals will result in far more open local
government. Councils, however, are currently required to give
advance public notice of decisions they are going to be taking;
the papers on which those decisions are to be taken must be open
to all, and the press and public can attend when those decisions
are being taken. Only a minority of papers, all of which have
reasons for confidentiality, are considered by Committee in private.
[It is noteworthy that no other public body in this country operates
in so open a fashion].
1.7.2 Under the new arrangements all of
the executive's decisions would be taken in private (either by
individual or groups of executive members) and the public, together
with other Members, will be entitled to be informed only after
the event. The Royal Borough calls upon the DETR to explain how
such a system can be described as more open than the current arrangements.
1.7.3 The consultation paper asserts that
all important decisions are now being taken in private and that
the current arrangements are therefore a sham. As indicated in
this Council's Member/Officer Protocols, arrangements are made
for the private discussion of major matters of policy and most
other councils (and no doubt most other organisations) do the
same. However, all policy decisions are made only after discussion
in open Committee.
1.7.4 Under the new dispensation, all of
the executive's decisions will be taken in private and the executive
members who will generally be from one Party will then be able
to implement those decisions without any prior public debate.
These proposals seem to fly in the face of all that the Widdecombe
enquiry achieved for openness in Government.
2.1 This is a mis-match between the paper's
welcome assertion that "the vast majority of [councillors]
operate in a conscientious and professional manner" and the
perceived need for a new ethical framework "to support"
them. It should be acknowledged that there is a need for greater
clarity in what the law really means about pecuniary and other
interests, and about who is responsible for regulating the process.
2.2 The proposed reforms are broadly welcome,
but are still only half the picture. They cannot be judged as
a whole until the proposals about the new criminal offence to
replace surcharge have been published and can be seen alongside
these new arrangements. This part of the consultation paper is
all about process, a frameworkand little or nothing about
substance ie exactly what should be in the members' and officers'
codes, and what the substance of the criminal offence will be.
It might well be more severe, in the sense of potentially capturing
a greater variety of activity, than the rather remote, if, draconian
threat of surcharge.
2.3 There will be a need for clarity about
the role of the Standards Board vis a vis the other regulatorsombudsmen,
audit commission, auditors.
2.4 The local Standards Committee's role
is unclear. It is said that it will be a "source of advice
and guidance", but issues around the treatment of members'
interests often arise at very short, sometimes no, notice and
the advice of officers is sought. It is to be hoped that it will
be backed up by the Standards Board! There is also a danger that
the Standards Committee could become a proxy battleground, to
be used by those opposed to a decision, where currently such issues
can be aired at committee meetings. There will clearly need to
be some threshold before the Standards Committee could consider
2.5 Overall, it seems clear that the role
of the monitoring officer will become more overt than has been
the practice in most authorities.
28 June 1999