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LAW & ADMINISTRATION: STANDARDS FLYING IN THE MARCH TO RENEWAL

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Most councils are committed to ensuring high standards of conduct and are making good progress towards modernisatio...
Most councils are committed to ensuring high standards of conduct and are making good progress towards modernisation, according to the results of a recent survey.

The results of the governance survey conducted by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, CIPFA and the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors in conjunction with Eversheds show some clear trends and a few surprises.

The questionnaire deliberately did not attempt to survey attitudes to individual governance structures, not least because the precise governance structures councils will be allowed to implement is not yet known. The survey tried instead to take an overall 'snapshot' of councils' attitude to governance as a priority issue and to find out how much exposure it had at member committees.

While only half the councils in the survey have a comprehensive code of governance, or one in preparation, more than 30% have introduced codes of conduct into selected areas. Most such codes were seen as technical guides for members and officers rather than for the public, but members were only involved in drawing them up in a minority of councils.

An impressive 92% of councils have a corporate procedure for dealing with ombudsman and other complaints. It would be interesting to know how much this has improved over the past five years.

Only 47% of councils have adopted the Nolan principles, albeit with 33% still considering whether to do so. However, this statistic seems to be based on deliberation rather than inactivity as 84% have formally considered both Nolan and the ethical framework consultation document.

The engagement of councils with modernising democracy is evidenced by 65% already discussing how the executive/scrutiny split in members' roles could be introduced, even though the scope of the legislation has yet to be seen.

A large proportion (67%) had separated the roles of chief executive and head of paid service from that of statutory monitoring officer, but opinion was very evenly divided as to whether the head of paid service should continue to be allowed to act as monitoring officer.

The question on community leadership, necessarily very general in nature, found only 53% of councils claiming an intention to develop this role.

The high number of councils which now have a formal system for recording hospitality is not surprising, but 7.3% still do not have a system for members.

Statutory registers of members' interests require any changes to be notified within a month, so it would be good practice to have a formal procedure to check such updating takes place - 22% of councils have no such procedure.

Just over a third of councils now have a standards committee or are introducing one, with over half of those with a committee having an independent member on it. Of those without a standards committee, most dealt with complaints against members informally through the political groups, with some having a formal process through a committee, often involving the monitoring officer.

Most councils now have a code of conduct for officers or have one in preparation.

It is perhaps surprising, bearing in mind the generally high standards of governance revealed by the survey, to see that 26.4% of councils still do not have a 'whistleblower' code or plan to introduce one.

Planning, because of the need for special care in a process which requires fairness, transparency and constant attention to maintain probity, received a great deal of consideration in the Nolan report. In the move to new democratic structures planning will need special consideration - it will probably not be appropriate for members with executive powers to make planning determinations. Once again the survey shows most councils are alive to these issues. Eighty-six per cent have a code following best practice for planning committees, or one in preparation.

Of the councils responding, 61.7% thought they needed to maintain or increase the profile given to probity issues; 22.3% thought they did not.

It would be unfair to use the questionnaire to see if those councils which did not see a need to maintain the profile of probity as an issue lacked a hospitality register or a whistleblower code!

Are there any general conclusions one can safely draw from the survey?

The vast majority of councils have taken the Nolan recommendations and the debate about standards very seriously and have started moving to best practice across all fields.

Bearing in mind the process is still at the stage of deliberation and no draft legislation is yet before us, most councils also seem to have started a serious debate on modernising their democratic structures.

But, it was rather disappointing to see that only 53% of councils are taking any initiative on leadership in their community.

Many councils have yet to be convinced that any of the three governance models proposed so far by the government provide a structure which meets their requirements and will match their culture. In the absence of anything better many councils will therefore opt for the 'cabinet with a leader' model, with all its faults, merely because it is the closest to existing structures. This is not the dramatic reinvigoration of local democracy which is being sought, and it must be hoped that the Local Government Association and other national bodies will produce additional governance models which prove more attractive to councils. All that is then required is for the government to have the confidence in councils to allow them to experiment with the wider range of governance models.

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