Friday, October 27, 2006


Can Local Government really govern locally now?

The Government yesterday produced its long awaited "Strong and Prosperous Communities" White Paper on the future of Local Government, and I for one think that there is much within it to applaud. Aside from the headline-grabbing news about Councils being allowed to impose byelaws and on-the-spot fines for breaking them, there is lots of intrigue beneath the surface.

So forgive me this lengthy post. I know that the minutiae of Local Government White Papers aren't everybody's cup of tea. But at least you can't say you weren't warned...

As someone who works as an officer for a Council, and works with a fair few Elected Members in my spare time with the Lib Dems as well, I am fairly well placed to see arguments from all sides. On the one hand there is the incessant striving for efficiency in service provision, economies of scale, commissioning of services rather than direct provision. And on the other hand, a desire to place real power in the hands of communities at a local level, with separate localities afforded wide-ranging powers themselves to do as they please.

Whilst the two arguments seem incompatible, the proposals this week seem to go a long way to achieving both aims. The White Paper is broad in scope, and I don’t know enough about much of what was spoken about to offer a meaningful comment on it all. But I do know about Local Government Performance Assessment (because that’s what I do for a living), and I also know about how “backbench” Councillors feel, because I know lots of them. So we can talk about that.

The proposals for revision to Performance Assessment are as follows: The government wants to do away with the current system of Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) and replace it with something called Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA).

CPA has many faults, in my opinion. It relies very heavily on a huge basket of national performance indicators. Its complicated scoring formula means that sometimes even strongly improving Council are stuck on a particular grade through no real fault of their own. And whilst claiming to be Comprehensive, it doesn’t take into account massive parts of a Local Authority’s role, such as that of community leader working in partnership with others.

CAA seems to address many of these issues. The massive number of indicators (there are about 1,200 overall) is being cut to around 200. This appeases those who say that Central Government controls Councils too much, and also makes the whole process a lot less cumbersome and prone to statistical volatility. Lots of the indicators will be locally based as well, with the remaining national indicators based on clear national priorities.

CAA also does away with a “cycle” of inspections and assessments, which meant that Councils sometimes had to wait many years before being re-assessed. Now scores across the board will change each year, to give local people the chance to be better informed about how the local Council is really doing.

But perhaps most importantly, CAA will make sure that Councils and other local agencies really work together for the good of local people. For the first time, Councils will be judged in the round as to how they are engaging with local communities, consulting with stakeholders, and exercising their role as leaders of Local Strategic Partnerships. Local Area Agreements, a key way of joining up policy direction for Local Authority Areas across all types of agency and area of interest, will become far more important, setting the tone for inspections and targets. I think that this is great news, and will really allow for local people to become more engaged. Lines of accountability will become clearer, and Councils will come under even more pressure to more fully engage with citizens.

As far as proposals for Members go, a clear course towards stronger local leadership has been set. At present a majority of Councils have adopted a “Leader and Cabinet” model of leadership, whereby the Council is run by a Leader, internally elected by the other Councillors. The Leader appoints his “Cabinet” members, each of whom has a portfolio area and is in charge of that. Often, Council Leaders can be challenged annually, and if replaced, this creates a shift in power and a lack of stability and strong leadership.

The “Leader and Cabinet” option was one of three available to Councils. The others involve directly elected Mayors, but very few Councils have these.

Now Councils have three new options to choose from. Elected Mayors is still one of them, but now Council Leaders will have to be elected, directly or indirectly, for a term of four years. Of course, they will remain Councillors and vulnerable to losing their seat, but at least if they are electorally secure, they can continue as Leader for four years. This will hopefully provide clear strategic direction and strong leadership. I think that it is a good idea.

More power is also being given to Backbench members, through enhanced powers for “Overview and Scrutiny” commissions, including greater powers of public access. This too is good news, as it will hopefully energise local Councillors to become more effective community activists – which is of course their primary role.

Some interesting ideas about elections have also been put forward – namely that “election by thirds” be scrapped in favour of all out elections. The practice of election by thirds is fairly common, whereby each ward has three Councillors, each up for election annually in turn, with the fourth year off (usually set aside for a General Election). This means that, at any election, only a third of Council seats are up for grabs, and this has been cited as a reason for poor turnout. Why bother voting if you can only get rid of a third of them?

All-out elections are certainly one idea to boost turnout, although it would mean that residents would be stuck with a Council for four years… It would also deprive the populous of a chance to show national government what they thought of them on an annual basis! And of course, given the current political climate, I can’t imagine many Labour Councils jumping at the chance to hold all out elections now, and consign themselves to probable opposition for four years…

One final interesting idea is the abolition of multi-member wards altogether. It is not made clear whether or not the idea is to reduce the number of Councillors by two thirds, or reduce the size of the wards and split the Councillors up accordingly. I think the former idea is undemocratic, and unfair to Councillors who’s workload would treble overnight. But creating smaller wards is certainly an idea that appeals. It would put Councillors in touch with a much smaller section of the community – but allow them to get deeper into issues and potentially resolve far more.

So those are my thoughts.

I know not everyone finds local government White Papers interesting, but I do. Which is probably why nobody has asked me out this Friday night, and I’m here typing about them…

Have a good weekend!

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