Sunday, 23 March 2008

The Council

I am increasingly impressed by our local councillors. This comes as surprise to me as I didn't vote for them, mainly because as a student I spent too much time with members of that Party, and their sanctimony, self-righteousness and frankly middle class arrogance knew no bounds. I am very glad to have had this prejudice gently removed from my shoulders!

They are doing exactly what they should be doing. They act as community leaders, bringing people together to talk about the issues that matter on this patch. They represent opinion in the neighbourhood so that it is taken into account by the local decision makers. They challenge the local executive over their decisions.

In short, they are doing precisely what government policy towards local decision making is supposed to be about. The 2000 Local Government Act split the Executive and Scrutiny arrangements in local government to improve the visibiliy of decision making, to hold it to account and to improve local leadership.

I think my local councillors are holding to their side of the bargain very well indeed. The point is, though, that this is a bargain, and the other side of it is visible and accountable local leadership. I was a late convert to the cause of elected local mayors, but I now think they make a real difference. There's a lot that needs to happen to make executives function better, but by any assessment the current system with divergence between those making the decisions and those holding them to account on behalf of the neighbourhoods they represent is far, far better than the old committee system, and its illegitimate child, the leader and cabinet model.

In France mayors are an accepted part of the political landscape. I hope that becomes the case here too.


Sue Luxton said...

Thank you! Only just found your blog again after commenting on it a few weeks ago - have now added it to my blogroll.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with you the Ladywell councillors are very active in representing the views of their community and challenging the Mayor. I disagree the elected mayor system leads to the mayor and decisions being better scrutinised.

The elected system has been in place since 2002 but till May 2006 of the 54 councillors 44 were of the same party as the mayor, quite often at council they never asked questions.

Since 2006 the majority party was reduced to 25, this is when scrutiny kicked in and I think the number of councillors question rose from about 15 to 50-60 per council meeting.

In the main decision making is in the hands of the mayor, is it any better or more transparent than the committee system?

In 2002 the elected mayor needed to sign a contract within 6 months, it was another 3 years before it was signed.

The failure to provide a new secondary school by 2006 is all down to decisions of the mayor.

Yes Crossways went through smoothly and the Sundermead flats seemed to go to plan.

But I suspect there have been as many successes and failures as there would have been under the old system. If the balance of power within the council reverts to how it was before 2006 I expect the number of questions by councillors to the Mayor will take a nosedive.

William Canynge said...

Some interesting points there, Anonymous, but I'm afraid I'm going to stick to my guns. I would agree that the executive/scrutiny function as owkred out in Lewisham isn't perfect, but I'm not sure that this is all due to the creation of an executive/scrutiny split.

My solution would be to elect the mayor at a different time to the council - and to do both through PR. That way you'd have a more representative council.

The mayor should still draw his or her executive from the council (the current example of the GLA shows what nepotistic disasters befall you otherwise) but I'm sure that this would solve some of the problems you identify.

There are two things which also need to happen. The first is for scrutiny councillors to act as advocates for the neighbourhoods and to make it their role to hold the executive to account. The powers are there in the current legislation if elected members had the wit to use them. Sadly, only a minority do. The other is for local electors to use their votes in a much more intelligent fashion - which is very difficult when the parties and media use local elections as national opinion polls, but again this failing can't be laid at the door of the split between executive and scrutiny. Indeed, the concept of the elected mayor alongside vigorous local scrutiny can break the vicious cycle of inert local leadership allowing local elections to be nothing more than national opinion polls. But that will take initiative on the part of local politicians.

You cite Lewisham decisions which, in your opinion, are poor, but I would say that it is not the decisions that are in question here - it is the process of local decision making.

The means to improve this are there for the taking - it's up to local politicians and local people to exploit them fully.

Finally, I would add that my experience of the committee system as an officer (not in Lewisham) left me in no doubt that any way of making local decisions is better than what we used to have!

Andrew Brown said...

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I campaigned to get the Mayoral system, I'm in agreement with you, William. And I'm not sure that questions to the Mayor at full Council are the automatic indicator of good scrutiny that your anonymous commentator tries to make the case for.

I'd rather look at the work of the scrutiny committees as the place where the executive should be held to account. I'm afraid that I've not been paying much attention to that over the last 2 years, but before that I was occasionally hauled in front of one, and before that led the Health and Social Care committee.

I felt that the select committees were really good at getting into the cracks of public policy and services - the places which didn't get enough attention from the executive - and shining a light on the inadequacies of service provision.

For example, I was scrutinised about the number of public toilets in the borough, with my Labour colleague John Muldoon pulling no punches in his belief that we weren't meeting the need, and that the contract for the few that there are wasn't being run as well as it could have been. His fellow committee member Darren Johnson, offered some helpful examples of how other parts of London manage the balance between their own investment in public loos and getting businesses to allow members of the public to use facilities that are already there.

Coming out of the meetings I felt suitably chastised and that I'd been given a route map to improving things. Of course, then the elections came along and I no longer had a reason to press for better toilets in the borough, but I'm sure that John's now making the same case to who ever it is in the executive who has the political responsibility for public conveniences.