Chris White writes…‘We can’t keep meeting like this…’

There are some issues that the public finds it difficult to care about and councillors find fascinating. One of these is the governance model for local government – about to change once more.

The Coalition, bafflingly, is about to reintroduce the committee system (or rather to allow its reintroduction) while also forcing 12 large cities to have executive mayors. There is next to no intellectual rationale for facing both ways at once. Nevertheless it is probably a good idea to think more carefully about the basic principles here.

What is the committee system? Why do we instinctively prefer committees and oppose ‘Cabinets’ and executive mayors?

The traditional committee system meant that councillors sat on endless, often rather large bodies which had powers of decision. These usually had a raft of subcommittees reporting in to them, so that the true bureaucrat could spend all his or her time in the town hall apparently representing the community but in reality serving the structure.

The chairs of committees (and indeed the chairs or mayors of councils) wielded great power and were not dissimilar to ‘portfolioholders’ today.

The Audit Commission queried this in the 1990s and the Labour Government used its report as an excuse to entrench a ruling elite which would theoretically be held to account by not just the opposition but also by its own backbenchers.

In one way this was to try and get round the problem of one party states where the ruling group could never be removed because of the workings of the first part the post electoral system. The idea that STV might deliver a real opposition and a real challenge was too radical for most Labour minds.

The committee system of course never really went away. All councils have quasi-judicial committees and a few still continue the committee system for the whole of their operations.

My own county council reintroduced committees within the current legislation: each Cabinet member chairs one or more cross-party Panels, which make recommendations to Cabinet after vigorous public debate. Cabinet then rubberstamps the decision in purely formal meetings which rarely last half an hour. As an Opposition, we are content with this because it means we can influence decisions.

So all that may happen in the Localism Bill is that a council will be allowed to choose not to have a one-party cabinet with decision-making powers. There is no guarantee – unless a particular council so chose – for there to be any greater role for backbenchers in challenging the ruling group.

In some ways therefore it’s a non-issue: a council is governed well if it is governed well – regardless of the legislative background.

Twelve new executive mayors would be fine if they were all inclusive Liberal Democrats taking into account the views of the entire community and reacting to criticism.

Sadly some of them will be Labour and will throw their weight around even if there are committees designed to stop them.

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11 Comments

  • tonygreaves 24th Nov '10 - 9:39pm

    The evidence is that mayoral elections result in a significant proportion of authorities electing oddities, idiots, extremists or self-publicists. But it seem that the people in Whitehall never learn from experience.

    As for the Localism Bill it will allow Councils (all but the arbitrarily chosen 12 where elected mayors will be imposed from above!) to choose their own system. The term “committee system” covers a multitude of options but the great advantage is that they have to be proportional and they have to make decisiosn in public.

    The best system is one which includes strong area committees of all the councillors in the area 9and you can do this within an Executive/Scrutiny split).

    Tony Greaves

  • David Evans 25th Nov '10 - 4:59am

    As a party we should oppose elected mayors on principle, due to the reasons Tony has put forward above, plus the fundamental one that we oppose the abuse of power by the powerful, and setting up one individual in total power removes all democratic control until elections get close.

    I can’t see how this could ever be spun as being part of the coalition agreement, so every one of our MPs from Nick down should stand square against it.

  • You left out Conservative controlled councils, also liking to throw their weight around without any input either from backbenchers or the public. At least if we had the committee system those of us who are non-Executive or opposition councillors would get an opportuntiy to at least comment on decisions before they arrive at the Executive to be nodded through. At the moment in our LA we have no policy development in O & S, no ward dimension at all (no area committees, no ward budgets, no nothing), no sight of Exec reports before the publication of the agendas, and no right to speak at Exec meetings except one written question each per meeting plus a supplementary. Not a good way to run an authority.

  • Committees allow a much more obvious opportunity for decisions to be taken in public, and in a way which allows the best of all ideas to be discussed. Here in Scotland, there is the option for Councils to do both, but to my knowledge this isn’t actually used by many, if at all. If the committees are populated based on the political balance of the Council, then it’s still possible for the administration to do what it wants to do but without the ability to do it behind closed doors.

    The downside, though, is more committee meetings. But since councillors are elected to make decisions, why would you want to hide from it?

  • Peter Chegwyn 25th Nov '10 - 1:45pm

    Having just spent the morning sitting in a full meeting of Hampshire County Council where the ruling Conservatives keep rubbishing the Lib. Dems. (no coalition here!), it’s worth noting that when Labour were in Government the Conservative Leader in Hampshire kept calling for the return of the Committee system. Now he’s being offered the chance to re-introduce it he’s decided not to do so. He prefers a more controllable Executive where a small number of his mates can take all the decisions, often without any other councillors, press or members of public being present. Indeed he told the Council this morning that Lib. Dem. councillors wishing to attend and speak at Executive Member meetings on issues affecting their own divisions wil only be able to do so with the permission of the Conservative Executive Member concerned.

    As Tony Greaves rightly says above, the committee system may not be perfect but it is more open, democratic and accountable than the Executive system. Strange then that Conservative Councils still prefer to take decisions in secretive, one-person, one-party Executive Member meetings.

    Or maybe it just shows that whatever Nick Clegg might think, the Conservative beast which Liberal Democrat councillors have to deal with on a daily basis is just as ugly a beast as ever it was!

  • Mark Smulian 25th Nov '10 - 2:26pm

    Some of my work as a journalist covers local government and the most common complaint I hare from councillors outside cabinets is that present system leaves them with little to do (other than casework) and no powers.
    They tend to feel that scrutiny was thought up as a means to keep them occupied and that the ability to ask questions and make suggestions isn’t really what they came into politics to do.
    Some have said scrutiny gives them a ‘power of embarassment’, but that that works only if there is an effective and engaged locla media to make the embarassment known.

  • Steve Comer 25th Nov '10 - 6:06pm

    I served for four years as a Councillor in the Committee system, thn returned as a Councillor after an 18 year gap.
    I’ve served in a Cabinet for two years and now Chair Overview & Scrutiny, so I’ve no real axe to grind, but Lib Dem Councillors should think about what structure they want in their area. The danger is we just accept the Blairite Cabinet/Scrutiny split just because its there now.
    Mark Smulian is right, Scrutiny Commissions (especially standing ones) take up a huge amount a time, produce vast volumes of paper, sometimes discuss issues in depth, but when you look at the outcomes you think – well what outcomes? It was supposed to speed up decision making. but it actually slows things down. If a report goes to Scrutiny then Cabinet, then gets called in, the whole process takes about a month!

    The Committee system had its faults, mainly that it encouraged a Departmentalist approach by Councillors. But at least you didn’t have two tiers of Councillor in the way you do know. Some Councils operated with a strong Policy and Resources Committee that took a strong corporate approach, others didn’t, but why should the centre impose models of governance?

    I believe there is a hybrid between Cabinet/Scrutiny and full Committee system which could work better than either. In Bristol we are looking at changing our scrutiny and Governance model, but of course we could be stymied if we end up with a Mayoral system. Still at least that will go to a ballot prior to this coming in now (unlike the original proposals for a referendum after the event)..

  • Don’t forget that Scrutiny covers areas outside the Council’s direct remit, such as health. If Scrutiny were to be scrapped, or “presumed” to be part of the function of departmental committees, it would not be possible for councillors to invite in chief executives of the local PCT and hospitals and question them in public. I believe that Scrutiny done properly is invaluable, and I have seen clear benefits in the way that local healthcare is provided as a result of Scrutiny reviews. Some LAs take Scrutiny more seriously than others. Some employ dedicated Scrutiny officers (usually on about £40k per annum), while others dump it on Committee Services managers as an extra.

    Peter Chegwyn tells us why County Councils are in desperate need of reform. Morning meetings? In this day and age? How many people can make morning meetings, other than Colonel Blimps, blue rinse ladies, or those on the scrapheap through choice or necessity? Historically, County Council elections have attracted lower turnouts than 2nd tier elections, even though counties spend nearly ten times as much money. County Councils have done a terrible job communicating with their residents over the years, and are seen as remote and unimportant. Unsurprisingly, given that most of them are run by Tories who don’t work.

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