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FEATURES-THE WRITE STUFF

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As political restructuring promises significant changes to members' roles, Bob Chilton looks for the right words to...
As political restructuring promises significant changes to members' roles, Bob Chilton looks for the right words to describe their new powers and freedoms

It never feels quite right for an officer to write about councillors. It is a pity members themselves do not take up the pen more often. The Audit Commission wrote powerfully about councillors a decade ago in its report, We can't go on meeting like this. But, in truth, little changed.

Political restructuring means changes to councillors' roles are unavoidable. The latest commission publication, To whom much is given, explores the consequences

for member activity from the perspective of the principles of corporate governance in up-to-date, effective

systems.

In many ways, executive members have the most obvious future - they need to be clear about their responsibilities, their links with the community and the media, and with the scrutiny function. Whether the executive and scrutiny functions will draw officer support from a common pool or establish dedicated support teams is a key local choice, as is the redefinition of the council's scheme of delegation.

A companion paper from the Audit Commission, May you live in interesting times, explores questions about the consequences of political restructuring for officers.

Councillors on scrutiny panels may feel they have lost out, but the power of this function should not be underestimated. Members have new freedoms to escape the treadmill of the traditional committee agenda, as they are able to select their own investigative agenda, receiving evidence raw from the community rather than packaged into reports by officers.

But such job descriptions are only part of the story. When local government works well, it usually has a constructive culture in which integrity, openness and inclusivity prevail. Officers frequently complain about bullying, intimidating councillors, as do other councillors. Political restructuring creates a new moment for councils to engage in candid discussions to review their cultures.

Making a success of the arrangements will depend on councillors' abilities to use a repertoire of styles. Party differences are fundamentally important to democratic choice, but all councillors have a common interest in the reputation of local government. Interpersonal spats can lead to the mutually assured destruction of a council's reputation in the eyes of the community.

The role of the independent element on the Standards Committee could prove crucial. We know very little about these players, but they could make the Standards Committee an engine of integrity, relentlessly reviewing and promoting the council's standards.

Change is always disturbing. Some councillors will hesitate to relinquish known ways of working. Training, engagement with other councils and openness to the community will help speed up change. Perhaps it will not be long before we hear from councillors about the successes they are achieving on behalf of their communities.

www.audit-commission.gov.uk

Bob Chilton

Consultant and author

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