Ministers are keen to stop petty complaints about councillors and end confusion over predetermination of decisions, but their new standards regime looks set to exacerbate both problems rather than solve them, argues Ann Reeder
Ministers had been clear that the existing national Code of Conduct would be swept away and councils would be free to draw up their own codes without any top-down interference. So it may have come as something of a surprise to councils to find last week that not one but two suggested codes have been issued by central bodies, seemingly without reference to each other.
First the Local Government Association produced a ‘template’ code for councils and then, the following day, ministers at the Department for Communities & Local Government produced an ‘illustrative text’. So which is a council to take as the best and are either likely to meet the aims laid down by ministers, when abolishing the old framework, of stopping petty, vexatious or politically-motivated complaints?
In the early days of the old standards regime, I was involved at a national level trying to resolve a number of complaints involving councillors. So I know at first hand both that there have always been, and always will be, frivolous complaints for political point scoring or members of the public who are agitated about something they feel a councillor has or hasn’t done for them. And I also know that there have been some very serious examples of misconduct and abuse of public office across the political groups.
I fear that the LGA and DCLG models, if taken at face value, risk leaving us with the worst of all worlds - encouraging petty complaints while not bearing down enough on serious misbehaviour.
As an example, most decisions councils make - particularly in the regulatory field - risk annoying one person or another. So an agreement to a supermarket development or a bail hostel, or even to a neighbour’s extension, can mean feelings run high. The old code steered a very clear course that it was not interested in the merits of decision-making, only in whether a councillor as an individual was gaining an inappropriate advantage from a decision.
Yet both new models seem to open this up to public complaint. DCLG now say that councillors ‘must act solely in the public interest’ - a very laudable aim but difficult to prove to an angry resident or pressure group who feel they haven’t been listened to.
The LGA meanwhile says that councillors ‘must listen to the interests of all parties … remain objective and make decisions on merit’. But what is a member of the public to think if two councillors vote in opposing ways on a contentious issue. Have they both listened to all parties and made a decision on merit? We no doubt understand that they can, but this is now part of a recommended code of conduct and seems to invite the public to complain each time they disagree with a decision, claiming that a councillor did not listen to all interests seriously.
It also, incidentally, runs the risk of bringing issues of predetermination and bias into the code for the first time, ironically when government ministers have been saying that they were sweeping this very concept away.
I fear that if councils follow these courses and move away from the more measurable standards we had in the past, they could find themselves with a public who start to believe that members are guilty of misconduct simply for not making the ‘right’ decision as they see it and become increasingly frustrated when they see their concerns not being acted upon.
At the same time, when serious misconduct does come to light I fear the lack of sanctions available to councils in future will come back to bite the sector and local government’s reputation will suffer.
Ann Reeder advises councils on governance for Frontline Consulting and was formerly the Labour Party’s head of local government where she oversaw standards.