Friday, October 27, 2006

Whitby is bored by government

To be honest, the local government white paper is unlikely to make it into the Sunday Times best seller charts. Exciting, it isn't. Important, it is. Mike has a view..

"It focuses on sterile governance issues and simply changes council’s leadership arrangements, without devolving more power from London... Sadly, this is a massive missed opportunity – what people really care about is economic prosperity and improved services – and there is little mention of that."
To coin a phrase - he would say that, wouldn't he. Well, some people reckon that deciding the structure of local government isn't simple or sterile, but actually rather important to the functioning (or otherwise) of your local council. Get the process right and there's a chance that decent leadership will evolve (we could certainly do with more than the single-celled organisms currently running Brum). This paper isn't about particular issues that face councils, but rather concerned with providing councils with the tools to handle the problems.

A couple of things spring out of the pages that are actually quite interesting. A couple of big steps forward are proposed for councillors. The Standards Board for England is due to be 'streamlined' and 'refocused as a light touch regulator' - a long-overdue reform and one of those rare occasions where you find me on the same ground as John Hemming, Iain Dale and, rather more usually, Bob Piper. This change can only be a good thing - discipline of councillors should be a local matter and ultimately the responsibility of the electorate, assuming that councillors don't actually go beyond the boundaries of the law. Additionally, the Code of Conduct is due for revision to allow councillors to speak on planning and licensing issues to voice the concerns of their local electorate. Councillors are also to be encouraged to increase their leadership role within their communities - which should be a given, but often isn't.

Councils currently face a daunting pile of targets - currently knocking around the 1200 mark - and the reduction to 200 national targets with an additional 35 individual targets for each council will prove significantly more manageable. Councils will also be able to introduce their own by-laws again without consultation with central government - returning them a freedom they last had a century ago.

There are other changes proposed. Yet again, the council's leadership model will shift. First option is the directly elected mayor. I don't believe that this is the right model for Birmingham, but I'm not easy that the Liberal Democrats and the Tories insist on retaining the veto. Secondly, there could be a directly elected cabinet of a leader and 2-9 other councillors, elected as part of 'whole-council' elections every four years. This offers the most entertainment potential, as it could offer the chance to elect a Labour executive and a Tory council (or vice-versa), which could provide no end of fun over four years.

The other model is a variation on a theme of what Birmingham has at the moment - an indirectly-elected leader and cabinet. The change would be that the leader would be appointed for a four year term, either as part of four-year 'whole council' elections or as part of the current thirds system (with elections in three out of four years). The leader could face a no-confidence vote or would have to stand down if their term of office came to an end.

I suspect that we'll end up with councillors continuing to be elected by thirds and a leader on a four-year term (at least until the political make-up changes and a no-confidence vote ensues). I'm not sure that the current Regressive Partnership will want to move to the four-year 'whole council' election model, as the current system is quite embedded. However, if the four-year leadership term is expected to pay the dividends of producing more long-term thinking, then it should be allied to a four-yearly electoral cycle, otherwise the leader could face the joys of an annual confidence vote.

The White Paper is full of the usual verbiage, but once you plough through that, you do find some new stuff and that is positive thinking about the future of local government. We'll see more when the sequel comes out around Christmas with Sir Michael Lyons' report on local government funding - the flipside to this paper about the structure and function of local politics. If we must make changes, let's make them, but it would be nice if they were left alone to bed in for a while, so that councils can be free to develop or fail without too much interference from central government. I'm not sure I hold out much hope for that, though - whatever the political complexion of the bodies involved.

1 comment:

Simon said...

I would be sorry to lose elections by thirds. I accept the argument that a leader elected on a four-year mandate might struggle with an annual 'confidence vote', but thirds elections allow for a reinvigoration of the body politic and encourage more frequent and direct engagement with voters by councillors.

Plus, I like voting and elections, I think they're fun, and I like the fact I get to vote once a year by living here.