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ASSOCIATION OF HAMPSHIRE AND ISLE OF WIGHT AUTHORITIES
27 March 1998
MODERNISING LOCAL GOVERNMENT - LOCAL DEMOCRACY, COMMUNITY
LEADERSHIP, AND BETTER VALUE
Report by the Policy Officer
(1) That a response to the Government consultation paper on local democracy and community leadership be based on this paper in the light of members' comments;
(2) That a response to the Government consultation paper on Best Value be drafted by the Chief Executives' Group in the light of members' comments and individual authorities' responses; and
(3) That member authorities also plan to make a joint response to future consultations.
The Government has published the first two of a series of consultation papers which will feed into a White Paper to be published later this year. These are:-
(1) "Modernising Local Government - Local Democracy and Community Leadership" - response sought by 9 April.
(2) "Modernising Local Government - Improving Services Through Best Value" - response sought by 1 May.
Future consultations will deal with local government finance and a new ethical framework (following Nolan). This paper deals with (1), and briefly outlines (2).
The Need for Change (Chapter 1)
1. The consultation paper on Local Democracy and Community Leadership is to be welcomed as an important contribution to the debate. In Hampshire and the Isle of Wight there are many examples of "new and imaginative ways of involving local people more directly in Council decisions, and of promoting the well being of their communities". Councils here are "experimenting with new political and management structures". We seek to learn from "the practices of the best". We are happy to "pilot innovative measures which suit local circumstances". We are certainly prepared to "review, regularly and publicly, the effectiveness of local democracy" in our area. Two of our member authorities were shortlisted for the 1998 "Council of the Year" awards.
2. The consultation paper provides a useful benchmark listing the many ways in which local authorities are consulting and involving their communities. However we note in the consultation paper a tendency to be negative and to assume that there is much which is wrong with the present internal management arrangements. Unfortunately the paper signally fails to address the lack of democracy in the management of so many public services through "Quangos" and patronage based on Westminster. It does not appear to recognise the role of
parish and town councils, and it does not deal with the need to allow younger people to stand as councillors. The paper does not help to "get Government off our backs". It does not propose more self-regulation, more freedoms and options for local representatives rather than duties, or more ability to innovate without Whitehall's approval.
3. Question 1 in the paper asks for views on the idea of statutory requirements on local authorities to experiment with new political and management structures. In general we might respond that authorities should be given more freedom to experiment. Existing restraints should be removed.
Annual Elections (Question 2)
4. At present it is open to councils to decide on annual (by thirds) or four yearly (full) council elections. At present we have both approaches in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The Government proposes to move to annual elections. Do members regard this as an unwelcome restriction on local authority freedom, or as a useful enhancement to local accountability?
Increasing Electoral Turnout (Questions 3 to 11)
5. Member authorities are likely to wholeheartedly support measures at local level to increase electoral registration. Various ideas to achieve this are canvassed in the consultation paper:
ability to register at any time
longer polling hours
ability to vote at any polling station
easier arrangements for absent voting and postal voting
These ideas are welcome as an addition to the debate. Also, it is suggested that we might press for the age-limit for standing as councillor to be reduced from 21 to 18.
Proportional Representation (PR)
6. It is noted that, though the Consultation Paper refers to PR only obliquely, the Government's priority is to press ahead with the other arrangements described to reform the electoral, political and consultation processes.
7. This subject links closely with the second consultation paper on 'Best Value'. The Consultation paper on Local Democracy and Community Leadership states (4.4) that "the degree to which an authority is engaged with its stakeholders may become a touchstone for the authority's general effectiveness". Question 12 in the paper seeks views on whether there should be a statutory requirement on local authorities to set out a strategy for consultation and encouraging participation. Whilst the emphasis on consultation is welcomed, Members might agree that this would be an unnecessary measure and an unwelcome additional requirement for yet more statutory publications.
Innovations in involvement and consultation
8. Question 13 seeks views on sharing best practice on focus groups, citizens' juries and panels. The Local Government Association in consultation with central government would be a suitable body to issue central guidance on good practice. HIOW should be glad to play a part in this.
9. Question 14 asks whether we would want to see legislation in place to give local authorities the power to hold local referenda on specific issues. Whilst such a power might occasionally be welcome, it must surely rank as a fairly low priority for primary legislation. Local authorities already have many ways of consulting their electorate and some are outlined in the Government paper. If a local authority has the resources to carry out a referendum it is unlikely that current legislation would prevent it from doing so.
Education for Citizenship
10. The paper (paragraph 4.27) draws attention to the importance of this factor. Hampshire County Council is piloting an "education for citizenship" programme for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in consultation with the district councils. We expect to be able to report back to the new Advisory Group on Teaching of Citizenship and Democracy very positively on our efforts in this regard, and a report will be made to HIOW on the subject. The paper does not refer to adult education, but there is also a role to play here. Question 15 asks about this and other ideas for good practice in supporting local democracy.
Legislation for consultation (question 16)
11. A general duty to prepare community plans in consultation with stakeholders and the public might be welcomed. But the legal framework already allows local authorities a great deal of discretion in developing methods of consultation. If the law is to be strengthened it might best address the need for quangos and other partners to work with local authorities.
MODERNISING THE WAY COUNCILS WORK (Chapter 5)
Committees and Structures
12. The statement at the start of this chapter (5.1), that "the way local government currently operates with its traditional committee structure is inefficient and opaque" is a very superficial starting point. Local government is acutely aware of the need to cut out wasteful time sitting in council chambers and committees. But the committee system has important strengths not recognised by the consultation.
13. With committees, all councillors are involved in decision-making as well as scrutiny. New councillors can get involved immediately. Experienced councillors can move forward to chair/vice chair, and to different committees. No-one is consigned to the back-benches.
14. The paper also fails to recognise the usefulness of the non-executive mayoral system. Local authorities have a great many civic and procedural functions to perform. The British tradition of a monarchy with an executive lends general support to the common practice of a civic Mayoral or Chairman function, running alongside and complementing the executive or Leader function.
The Leader of the Council
15. The paper waxes lyrical on leadership eg "political leadership translates the wishes of the community into action" (paragraph 5.12) but at no point even mentions the key innovation of the last half-century: the development of the role of Leader of the Council. This role, now commonplace in local government, has enabled councils to address many of the issues of leadership and clarity raised by the Government. The paper also ignores the role of parish and town councils in community leadership.
Cabinet systems and other "executive" systems
16. The consultation paper extols the role of the back-bencher as well as the need for a strong and clear leadership within a council. The paper states that the Government will give every assistance to the "Hunt" Bill and encourage the use of the proposed freedom to experiment with decision-making processes such as cabinet systems and executive mayors.The key criticism of these processes, not recognised in the paper, is that they militate against involving more people in decision making. They can encourage the back-room caucus decision-making to which the paper objects.
17. Although the paper does make use of international comparisons, it fails to note that the French Executive Mayor system is most successful at local council level. Local (parish and town) councils are hardly mentioned in this paper. They should be given the freedom to experiment that local authorities are seeking.
18. Question 17 asks whether we would prefer legislation to offer local government a "wide range of political and management structures" or whether we would prefer to have our structures "codified in a narrow range of approved arrangements". The very fact that a consultation paper can ask such a question demonstrates how far the new central-local Accord has still to develop! It is suggested that the HIOW response should press for the wide range approach - to facilitate models which do not simply focus on the exclusive concepts particularly highlighted.
19. Question 18, at the end of the section on structure of the council, seeks views on what deters citizens from standing as councillors and what can be done to make being a councillor more attractive. Members' views are invited.
COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP (Chapter 6)
20. "The Government believes that all councils should take the lead in developing a community planning process for their area" (6.9). The Government wants community planning - where the local authority involves all relevant partners in the development of a vision - to become widely adopted. The paper points out that new powers currently purposed in the fields of health and community safety will enhance authorities' ability to take a lead in the community. Question 19 seeks views on community plans and whether new powers are needed. This does give us the opportunity to press for new general powers of community leadership and community planning.
Duty to promote well-being
21. The Government intends to place on councils a duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. This responsibility would require councils to take a holistic view of their areas, and it would tie in with the idea of a community plan, Agenda 21, and other modern approaches. This proposal (Question 20) is welcome, and might best be seen (as suggested in the last paragraph) as a new general duty allied to the ideas of community plans and best value.
22. Question 21 asks about Section 111. This section of the Local Government Act 1972 allows authorities to carry out anything incidental to the discharge of their normal functions. However the section has weaknesses and the Government proposes to replace it with a broader power to support any local government function. This would, for example, allow authorities to set up or support companies or joint arrangements which implemented their policies. This "modernisation" of the legislation is to be welcomed.
Greater responsibility through delegation
23. Question 22 asks for views about the creation of special action zones where selected local authorities would have a measure of "dispensation from national laws and regulations in order to test other means of dealing with the tasks of local government". A number of other European countries have experimented in this way eg the Nordic Free Communes. This is an interesting idea and Members may wish to welcome it.
24. The Government is considering legislation to empower authorities formally to enquire into their own performance. This seems unnecessary on the face of it but might be considered as part of the "Best Value" regime and it is recommended that the Chief Executives' Group gives it some further consideration before we respond. Many member authorities already have formalised Scrutiny or Audit Committee (or similar) arrangements.
Local public forums
25. The Government also suggests we need powers to set up inquiries and reviews into community matters locally. This might be welcome to Members as an extension to local authorities' ability to bring pressure to bear on partner organisations. However it would be preferable if the Government moved some of the Quangos into local democratic control at the same time.
26. The separate consultation paper on Best Value is currently being considered by member authorities. The proposed duty of Best Value is designed to ensure that councils provide the services that people require economically, efficiently and effectively (these familiar "three e's" are restated in the basic definition), and are able to demonstrate this to local people. The Government intends to prescribe a "broad but rigorous performance management framework, which will include external audit and inspection."
The Consultation Paper indicates that such a framework for the Council is expected to require the following key steps:-
a corporate view of what we want to achieve and how we perform, measured against key indicators and the aspirations of the local community.
an agreed programme of fundamental performance reviews, with the presumption that it will look first at areas where performance is worst.
the completion of a full cycle of reviews over a 4/5 year period
each review needs to challenge the purpose of a service or group of services, compare our performance with others, consult the community, and provide for competition where appropriate (Consultation Paper emphasis)
the setting of targets for improved performance and efficiency, together with clear identification of how those improvements are to be achieved
the publication of these targets and reports of performance against those targets in a Local Performance Plan
an independent audit/inspection of the integrity of the service reviews and performance targets and certification of the monitoring information.
Best Value is another central part of the Government's approach. The deadline for comments is 1 May. It is suggested that the Chief Executives' Group prepares a full response based on members' comments now, and on authorities' individual responses.
|Author:||Nick Goulder, Policy Manager|
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