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FEATURES - ACTS AND OMISSIONS

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The white paper offers excessive prescription and less community influence, assumes central inspectorates cannot be...
The white paper offers excessive prescription and less community influence, assumes central inspectorates cannot be wrong and ignores electoral reform

The government was committed in its 1997 election manifesto to annual elections for all councils, a pledge repeated in its 1998 consultation paper on local democracy and community leadership.

Later in 1998, the white paper Modern local government - in touch with the people proposed annual elections for all unitary councils, including London boroughs. Every year that is except for a 'fallow year' in which 'other elections', specifically mayoral elections, could be held. Counties and districts would then elect 'by halves in alternate years' so that an election would be held every year. It stated: 'Such a pattern will be readily understood by local electors.' Powers for ministers to carry out these or other changes were taken in the Local Government Act 2000, but so far have not been used.

The white paper focuses not on the need for annual elections but on differences in the current cycle between councils which it argues are 'confusing'. It notes that present arrangements 'can lessen the impact of voters' behaviour on council control'.

What this observation signifies is uncertain. It appears to mean that the government no longer favours elections of a third or a half of the council, since a party could lose such elections without its control over the council being affected. If the government has changed its position and now rejects annual elections, it should say so clearly. The issue has been passed to the Electoral Commission to propose options to simplify the cycle, but the commission, like us, will want to know if the white paper means that the government has changed its mind.

One of the most important matters missing from the white paper is the electoral system. It fails to consider the introduction of a system of proportional representation. The previous white paper in 1998 rejected it with the strange statement that the government 'does not view changes to the voting system as a panacea for the current weaknesses in local government'. It did not argue whether or not such a change was desirable, but only that it was not 'a panacea', implying that PR was put forward as an alternative to all the other changes advanced in the government's programme. Each item in that programme could have been rejected on that basis, since no single change - directly-elected mayors, public service agreements, central/local partnerships - is 'a panacea'. No one argues PR is either. The government should set out its views about PR as an electoral system.

The government has identified obstacles in the way of effective performance, but it does not list the critical problem of over-prescription, perhaps because it does not recognise it. There is no better example of over-prescription than the almost endless guidance, regulation and direction associated with the new political structures.

These mounds of prescription make a remarkable contrast with the committee system which operated for over 150 years without the need for such detailed prescription, and which was seen as immensely successful until the last 30 years - people came from all over the world to see it in action.

It would have been much better to legislate generally and to leave councils to work out the detailed problems of implementation. After all, councils know better than central government how to run their affairs. Less prescription gives councils room for initiative and innovation - over-prescription denies it.

The white paper recognises problems caused by the lack of joined-up government. It rightly argues: 'Across all departments, government needs to move away from a fragmented and unco-ordinated approach.' But we cannot find how this fine aspiration is to be achieved. The white paper should have laid out a programme of action. Relying simply on public service agreements is not sufficient to resolve the issue.

Many in local government are disappointed with the white paper because of their concern that the emphasis on PSAs, set within a national framework of standards and accountability, will turn the PSAs into more of an instrument of central control rather than a means for expression of local community issues and priorities.

There is a need, neglected in the white paper, for a full appraisal of the role of inspectors before further weight is put on their judgments by the proposed comprehensive assessment scheme.

A recent paper by Sir Ian Byatt and Sir Michael Lyons confirms the need for an appraisal of inspectorates, and points the way for further work. It is odd the white paper contains not a jot of awareness that the judgment of inspectors could be fallible. It is a key hidden issue underlying the white paper and one of its major proposals. A top-down inspectorate can easily drive out bottom-up initiatives.

The paper shows no appreciation of this danger, perhaps because the centre does not recognise how much is to be learned from councils and from local communities, rather than prescribed to them by

external inspectors.

George Jones is a professor of government at the London School of Economics and John Stewart is a professor of local government at Inlogov, University of Birmingham

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