Memorandum by Bedfordshire County Council
1. Bedfordshire County Council welcomes
the opportunity to respond to the consultation paper "Local
Leadership, Local Choice" and the draft Local Government
(Organisation and Standards) Bill. As an authority that has positively
moved towards modernising its structures and working practices
it believes it can offer comment from a perspective of practice
rather than only principle. In general the County Council sees
the consultation paper and the draft Bill as an opportunity to
develop further an approach that is consistent with the way the
County Council has already progressed in producing a local authority
for the 21st century.
2. The County Council also sees the consultation
paper as closely integrated with the Government's White Paper
"Modernising Government", and recognises the opportunities
new technologies bring to making local government services as
well as central government services more relevant and accessible
and enhanced in quality for the benefit of the communities we
The County Council strongly supports the emphasis
placed on the direct engagement of communities in the debate and
discussion about the options for change as set out in Chapter
2 of the Consultation Paper (para 2.1). However the County Council
believes this debate should be based on practical experience of
the benefits of modernising the way the Council works within the
limits of the current legislation. We must not make changes based
on untried theories.
The County Council sincerely hopes that Government
will not impose titles that are meant to reflect a common approach
across the country, but rather that each local authority should
be free to use the most appropriate title in the local context.
For example, the County Council has developed the scrutiny and
oversight role within "Select Committees" and it feels
that it would be helpful to maintain this title under the legislation.
The County Council's experience is that this scrutiny function
can add value by examining and promoting development of policy
as well as performance.
The County Council is concerned that the documents
seem at times to be heavily focused on Metropolitan Unitary Authorities.
There are many authorities like Bedfordshire which operate in
a three tier structure and a mix of small/medium sized towns and
rural areas. It is important that any model that is developed
takes account of the need to operate in such an environment.
The County Council would suggest that a bottom
up rather than top down approach would deliver a modern local
government and Government should strongly resist any temptation
to exercise the very wide ranging powers contained in the draft
Bill in the form of secondary legislation.
7. LOCAL CONSULTATION
The County Council supports the emphasis on
consultation with the community that each local authority serves.
However it does not believe that there should be prescription
on the form such consultation should take. Local authorities are
aware of what works and what does not locally and flexibility
should exist to fashion local solutions that work. The acid test
in respect of national standards will be felt through nationally
set External Audit arrangements and through the national service
The County Council considers that a 5 per cent
trigger of votes for a referendum on an elected mayor is reasonable.
The County Council would hope that Government
will introduce the draft Bill into Parliament at the earliest
opportunity so that any uncertainty can be minimised and proper
planning takes place for changes.
The County Council, in setting up its new arrangements
laid great emphasis on the fact that all Councillors should have
a powerful role and not just those in the Council's Executive.
It is unfortunate that the consultation paper focuses heavily
on the Executive role and comments only sparingly on the strengthened
scrutiny and community leadership role for all Councillors. In
this context it is unfortunate that the Government did not include
the new duty which was in the White Paper of promoting the economic,
social and environmental well-being of the area and the opportunity
should now be taken to reintroduce such a duty in the draft Bill.
In terms of the oversight and scrutiny role
the County Council's practical experience is that such a role
provides an opportunity to develop and strengthen a community
leadership role particularly with regard to non-elected, often
publicly funded bodies. To make the scrutiny and oversight role
fully effective the County Council believes both agencies which
are funded by local authorities and others whose role impacts
substantially on the local community should be expected, if not
required, to attend scrutiny hearings. In many cases so far such
bodies have been pleased to enter into a dialogue with the County
Council's Select Committees but a situation can be envisaged when
the absence of a response or failure to answer questions could
significantly weaken this scrutiny role on behalf of the community.
The County Council does recognise that practical agreements need
to be established, particularly in three-tier areas so that such
a requirement would not become too onerous for the bodies concerned
and indeed that there are clearly understood "spheres of
influence" for both district and county authorities.
12. SIZE OF
The County Council is comfortable with a small
Executive but believes prescribing a maximum of 15 per cent or
10 members is not helpful under these proposals. The County Council
would have to reduce its current Executive Committee to seven
from eight members when the current arrangements are working well.
Such changes would add complications that seem to have little
rationale in the Consultation Paper.
The County Council supports the principle that
all members of the Executive should be given specific areas of
responsibility with the executive authority in law to discharge
and be accountable for those responsibilities. This would mean
that such decisions will need to be recorded, registered and publicised
if the scrutiny function is to operate properly.
14. ACCESS TO
The County Council's experience is that such
new arrangements set out in the consultation paper will place
great emphasis on open and accountable decision making. This means
that new methods are necessary for disseminating information,
particularly by new technology in the form of e-mail and other
modern methods that need to be recognised and have not been so
to date in terms of regulation.
The County Council believes that if Local Government
is to attract and retain a wide representative cross-section of
the community to serve as Councillors then reasonable levels of
allowances must be paid. This is not in any way to take away from
the principle of public service, but the County Council has direct
experience of the loss of very able Councillors who were forced
to stand down because of the impact of their Council work on their
ability to earn an income. The County Council abolished attendance
allowances in April 1997 and agrees with the proposals to do so
nationally in the consultation paper and draft Bill (para 3.81).
The County Council recognises the need to review allowances on
a regular basis.
The County Council would strongly recommend
the establishment of a national advisory body to indicate appropriate
principles to be applied to the remuneration of Councillors, possibly
administered by an organisation such as the Local Government Association.
The County Council believes that this is a difficult
issue and that in addition to the factors mentioned of public
confidence in the council and political balance, consideration
also needs to be given to the representation of the councillor's
division or ward, if a councillor were to be suspended from office
until allegations were resolved. The question might be asked:
what would happen if the councillor remained in office? If for
example there were likely to be criminal activity affecting the
council, a case for suspension from office could be made. However
the County Council in general believes that suspension from office
pending investigation should be a last resort.
17. The County Council would hope that the
comments set out above are helpful in firming up the Government's
thinking particularly in a number of areas where detail is absent
in the Consultation Paper. The County Council would wish the Secretary
of State to know that it fully endorses the general thrust of
the consultation in making Local Government more relevant to the
community each authority serves and the strengthening of the community
leadership role envisaged in it.
26 May 1999