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Paper 3 - 26 November 1999 Meeting


26 November 1999


Report by the Policy Manager


That, in the light of the Queen's Speech on 17 November, Members consider the potential for joint workshops on new political management arrangements.


1. Members will be well aware of the Government's proposals for new political management arrangements. This item is on the agenda for debate to allow Members to compare their authorities' approaches to the proposals, and to consider the possibility of arranging workshops for Members through the Association, as the Government proposals develop.


2. By the time of the meeting, we will have seen the references to these proposals in the Queen's Speech. This paper provides some background by drawing from an article by Professors George Jones and John Stewart in the Local Government Chronicle of 15 October 1999. The article deals with a report of the Joint Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament on the draft Local Government Bill.

3. The report identifies the following issues:-

Difficulties with the principle of separation of powers if taken too far. The Committee found the Government's emphasis on "the sanctity" of this principle to be unrealistic. It noted that overseas this separation between the Executive and the Council "is in reality far less marked than the theory might lead one to conclude". It was inevitable that "there would be far more interaction ... than the Government seemed to suppose". The report points out the dangers of being obsessed with this separation of powers. The relationship between the Executive and the Council should be faced locally. Nothing in the legislation should impose an over-rigid framework on Councils because "ultimately the boundaries of Executive action may well have to be determined locally from experience". Professors Jones and Stewart advise local authorities to take that point to heart and not become obsessed with the need to separate the Executive from the Council.

Uncertainty over the criteria to be used by the Secretary of State in determining the functions of the Executive and Council. As in so many other parts of the Bill, all will be determined by regulation. But the Committee looked in vain for the criteria the secretary of state would use. This uncertainty rightly worried the Committee.

Giving decision-making powers to Area Committees and joint county/district partnerships. This possibility had not previously been recognised in the Government's papers. While Local Leadership: local choice discussed decentralised structures, there was no suggestion they could be given Executive powers, presumably because of the obsession with separating the Executive from the Council. Fortunately the Government now appears to be willing to consider this provision. As the Committee notes, decentralised Committees exercising decision-making powers are commonly associated in the rest of Europe with structures containing political Executives. They are seen as providing a counterbalance to the centralising nature of cabinet or mayoral systems. Councils introducing new political structures should consider this possibility, advise the Professors.

The recognition that in some Councils the committee system works well and could still meet the fundamental principles of transparency, accountability and efficiency. The Committee admitted the diversity of local Government and in particular that some Councils enjoyed an independent tradition of relaxed political control. It discovered an ambiguity in the Government's approach about what happened after a referendum had defeated a proposal to have a directly elected mayor. Here, it seems, the Committee system could be retained - or could it?

The Joint Committee proposed that the legislation should contain provision for options without an elected mayor to be adopted if a referendum defeated a proposition for one. It also recommended that Councils should be able to apply to the Secretary of State to approve arrangements that did not involve a separate Executive, if these met the fundamental principles of transparency, accountability and efficiency.

The need to sustain open Government. The Committee recognised the danger that proposals designed to ensure transparency might have the reverse effect. It was anxious that "a framework of principles governing the recording of decisions ... be inserted on the face of the Bill". The Professors advise that Councils should recognise the importance of this issue in the design of new structures.

4. Many other issues were raised:

The need for powerful roles for non-Executive councillors
The potentially very significant scrutiny role for councillors
The possibility of further options
The importance of including duties or powers of community concern in the Bill
The possibility of recall procedures for directly elected mayors.

5. "Councils and the Government receive more helpful guidance from this report than from much that is written by the advocates of the modernising proposals. It has faced up to the real issues" say the Professors.

6. "The report shows the value of a pre-legislative stage in widening the debate beyond the enclosed walls of a Government department and its confidential chats with the Local Government Association. The Committee could well have prepared an even more useful report, as it recognises. There was too little time, and it was unable to understand the Government's intentions because so much is to be provided by regulation.

"Where so much legislation is to be expressed in subsequent ministerial regulations, it is important that draft regulations should be available to any Committee considering a draft Bill. It would be even better if more detail were included in the draft Bill itself. The report of the Joint Committee provides much-needed guidance, even when it is pointing out difficulties."

Last update: 12/10/2000
Author: Nick Goulder, Policy Manager

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