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ACSeS TO POWER

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As delegates leave this year's Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors conference in Swansea, ACSeS faces...
As delegates leave this year's Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors conference in Swansea, ACSeS faces the challenge of making its voice heard as central government seeks to reform local government.

Felix Hetherington, the association's new president, will spend his year in office focusing on the recommendations of the Nolan committee.

Standards in public life remain a key political issue and ensuring probity in local government is essential if councils are to secure the extra freedoms they crave. Much of this is a question of perception. It is difficult to justify granting local authorities more powers if the public believes that councillors, in particular, are on the take.

Lawyers are ideally placed to influence how the Nolan recommendations can be practically implemented.

Some of the recommendations have been warmly welcomed by members and officers alike. Nolan's call to abolish surcharge brought the biggest cheer, not least from council lawyers who would feel a good deal more comfortable if the present system was reformed to reflect something like the principles of natural justice.

But elsewhere Nolan is more problematic. The chief area of concern is the proposal that each authority should set up a standards committee. These committees would judge cases of alleged impropriety against a local code of practice, which would reflect a model code.

Such a proposal ignores the fact that measures to improve standards in public life are as much about restoring public confidence as actually tackling cases of impropriety. There is a danger that the public will question the independence of standards committees in the absence of independent representation.

Mr Hetherington's first vice-president is Richard Mellor. Mr Mellor has announced that he will concentrate his efforts on ensuring that ACSeS has its say on the promised local government bill.

Again, this is an area in which the association can play a significant role. High on the agenda will be issues such as a power of community initiative for local authorities, clarification of powers to trade and annual council elections.

Introducing a power of community initiative or, perhaps even one of general competence, will require careful drafting. Council lawyers can help ensure that the scope of local government power is properly mapped out.

All of this will take place in the context of best value. In many ways, best value must be a source of irritation to lawyers used to dealing in facts and arguing over precise definitions. Best value offers little in the way of detail. But at least this means that lawyers and other local government professionals can help shape the policy.

It is up to individual council lawyers and administrators to make their voices heard on these and other issues via their regional ACSeS branches - a similar opportunity to influence events will not come around again quickly.

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