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LGC OPINION - IT'S UP, UP AND AWAY WITH SUPERMANAGER

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The mayor/council manager model is finally receiving the attention it deserves. ...
The mayor/council manager model is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

A study published by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Improvement and Development Agency describes the model in detail and promotes it as a good one, especially for small or hung councils where the political leadership may need the firm hand of a hired professional.

Author of the study Professor Robin Hambleton says the model has worked 'reasonably well' in the US and New Zealand. In fact what he is proposing is slightly different from the examples in these two countries.

In brief, the mayor/council manager model is this: 'A directly elected mayor with an officer appointed by the council (known as the council manager) who are together responsible for the executive's function.'

But the British model includes a separation of powers between a political executive and assembly. In addition, the council manager will sit on the executive with the politicians.

This magnifies both the gains and the risks. The model is supposed to clarify the role of members and managers, but could blur them as managers take on more power. Accountability could become vague if a strict eye is not kept on the new arrangements.

But the gains could be tremendous. Just think of the implications for a borough like Hackney, or a metropolitan council like Leeds. In both these cases political infighting and a lack of leadership were important factors in their difficulties.

For Leeds this led to a blistering Ofsted report and the largest outsourcing of education services to date (LGC, 16 June). For Hackney the result was 'the most grave and serious situation' according to a memorable IDeA review report (LGC, 3 December 1999). It said the council was on the brink of losing all credibility with residents.

Chief executives already play a crucial role in such councils as politically neutral yet highly skilled leaders who can help bring about effective cross-party working. But if Hackney chief executive Max Caller had council manager status and sat on the cabinet, would he be able to do that little bit more?

There are other gains. A council manager could work more closely with the community and help form the council's vision, strengthening its community leadership role, and the more dynamic role of council manager has been shown in other countries to foster cutting-edge managerial leadership.

The chance to try this model should be jumped at. Risks there may be, but they are worth it. This model is the 'forgotten option' in the Local Government Bill, yet it is potentially as radical and beneficial for local government as the mayor option, which has attracted far more media hype.

Experimentation and original ideas are the lifeblood of progressive, innovative local government. This report from SOLACE and the IDeA should be required reading for councillors and chief executives. There are already too few alternative structures in the Bill - it would be a missed opportunity if one from the government's paltry list was ignored.

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