A year in the life of the newly-elected Independent Council

Councillor Paul Millar

Analysis by local government academic Chris Game shows that there were a total of 45 District Councils where no one political party/grouping could command a majority after the 2019 local elections. In the majority of these cases where the result was ‘No Overall Control’, rainbow coalitions were formed. East Devon provided a rare exception to this rule, and this article explores the struggles of running a minority administrations under a Leader-Cabinet system.

In May 2019, the political composition of East Devon District Council changed. The Conservatives had controlled the Council with a comfortable majority for over four decades.   When the Council was created in 1972, the Council was independent-run. Back then, there was a utopian vision of being a non-political Council. Though this convention remains at some town and parish Councils in the area, such as Sidmouth, it didn’t last for long at East Devon District. At the 1976 election, the majority of the Independents successfully ran as Conservatives and, the Council remained Conservative for the following 43 years.

Local elections in 2019 saw gains for independents across the country. East Devon was however a particular success story, with Independent candidates elected in all 31 seats they ran in – a 100% success rate. Most independents in East Devon campaigned on local issues, championing attention for their Wards. When I knocked on doors, while there were a few residents who wanted to rebel against the Conservatives because of the Brexit limbo in Parliament, many more expressed the sentiment that it was time for a change locally, with a general feeling that the East Devon Conservative Group had become complacent in office.

Despite these gains, it quickly became clear that some independent Councillors were too independent and unwilling to work together. A common vision of the strategic running of the Council could not be united around. Broadly, the 31 Independent Councillors were split into three distinct camps. The first comprised of broadly anti-development, anti-austerity Independents who believed the Council’s sole job was to deliver universal and high-quality public services. Many of these indepedents united around the ‘East Devon Alliance’ brand. This camp felt the Council had been let down by the Conservatives, and that inappropriate development schemes had been forced through at the expense of local living standards. This camp also believed that a stronger case made for the Council receiving greater financial support from government to deliver decent public services.

The second camp was mainly made up of broadly pro-development, neo-liberal minded independents who fully embraced the idea of the Council being run as a self-sufficient business, embracing high-risk borrowing for commercial investment, while happy to reduce and narrow the provision of public services which lose the Council money. This camp unsurprisingly contained independents who had previously represented the Conservatives. In my view, often they seemed to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. In the third camp sat independents who were yet to find their political identities and had not been heavily involved in previous local debates. I was somewhere between the first and third camps.

Before 1998, Members were able to run as Independent Conservative, but the Registration of Political Parties Act specifies that political candidates who are not members of the Conservative Party but are otherwise identify with their policies and are wedded to their values, can no run under such a label. In East Devon, a few Conservatives had become Independents due to being unable to fulfil their ambitions within the local party, or personal or policy clashes within their local party associations, sometimes over local matters.

Councillor Ben Ingham was elected Leader of the Council last May and decided to run the Council as a minority of 20 Independents, cutting off 11 whose views he considered were “too left-wing” out of the administration. I, having only recently resigned my membership of the Labour Party as the party had become unmanageable under Jeremy Corbyn, accepted a position in Cllr Ingham’s Cabinet. A Conservative Chairman was elected, and generous offers of positions were made, which made me feel a tad uncomfortable. I recall being reassured at the time that the Chairman of the Council was not a political role. Later, his office became political as the Chair voted against an Annual meeting to have his position elected.

Slowly, it became clear that an overly cosy relationship with the Conservative Group which the electorate had just voted out, had been forged. My election leaflet promised change. After raising concerns with the business-as-usual approach, I was sacked from the Cabinet and I decided to quit the ruling Independent Group and sit as an unaffiliated independent.

Cllr Ingham has a long experience as a Councillor dating back to 1995, the first ten years as a Councillor as a Conservative.  He left the party after launching a leadership bid and ‘No Confidence’ vote against the Leader of the East Devon District Council Conservative Group at the time, Sara Randall-Johnson.

Running a minority Council under a Cabinet system is as unideal as it gets. Constitutional amendments and two Scrutiny Call-Ins on two key issues prevented the Cabinet from administering key policies to significantly increase car parking charges and complete a deeply unpopular and long-running regeneration project in one of its seaside towns. Under a Committee system, some consensus might have been found. By January of this year, the Independent Group lost another Member due to a Cabinet decision not to invest in saving a community hospital despite officer recommendations, East Devon District Council had the smallest number of Councillors in a ruling administration of any Council in the country, well under a third of the membership.

By March, the ruling group could not get any major policy approved by the membership and had started to fight among themselves. One Cabinet meeting descended into a row as the Leader appeared to lose trust in even his closest colleagues. Some independents, the Liberal Democrats and Greens came together in a rainbow alliance and formed a majority new administration last month, while the former Leader has returned to his spiritual home of theConservative Group.

With true colours having finally been shown, the new administration has the immediate task of crisis response. When the crisis ends, the new administration will plan to implement ambitious policies to increase democracy, transparency as well as prioritising climate change, poverty and the economic recovery from COVID-19, which is reflected in a new Cabinet and three new positions.

Councillor Paul Millar is an Independent Councillor at East Devon District Council, Portfolio Holder for Democracy & Transparency, who now sits in the Democratic Alliance coalition.

 

England’s over-centralisation isn’t just a governance issue now – it’s a public health emergency

Jessica Studdert

The concentration of power at Westminster and Whitehall has long frustrated those of us who engage closely with the structures of governance and compare it to decentralised norms across much of Europe. Now, as with so many facets of the Covid-19 crisis, the pandemic has exposed national vulnerabilities and left us grappling with the consequences. The grip on initiative that rests in SW1 is one such weakness, which is impacting how our system is responding to the virus, in turn perpetuating the public health emergency we find ourselves in.

A degree of national direction is clearly needed in the midst of a serious pandemic. People look to the Government for leadership and reassurance. Those in positions of power certainly feel personal responsibility for leading the response. Measures to implement service strategy nationally, such as through the NHS, or to use national heft for international procurement buying power, are certainly necessary. But time after time during the unfolding crisis, the centralised instinct has clouded decision-making, with terrible results.

The structures for the top-down approach to the pandemic were set early on, when the Government chose not to deploy the existing Civil Contingencies Act which set out clear roles, responsibilities and resources for all local and national public bodies. They instead rushed the Coronavirus Act through Parliament, which gave the Executive a greater level of unchecked power and no defined local role. This has had ongoing consequences for the coordination of an effective response. Leaked findings from an internal Whitehall review found that local emergency planning teams believe their abilities have been compromised by a controlling and uncommunicative approach from the central government machine, which persistently withholds data and intelligence.

The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive. There has been a repeated preference for big, bold flashy schemes over smaller, sustained but potentially more impactful measures. In the early weeks of the crisis much media attention focussed on the new Nightingale hospitals, yet we are now seeing tragically how that time and resource could have been better invested in the more targeted shielding of hundreds of care homes. When faced with the need to quickly implement testing for Covid-19, the Secretary of State for Health reached for a high-profile 100,000 target and set up new large processing sites. This triumph of tactics over strategy directed the systemic response to focus on numbers over priority need and overlooked existing networks of local lab capacity. Even as attempts are made to set up contact tracing at scale to support the easing of lockdown restrictions, the Government seems to have more confidence in a new mobile app than it does existing local public health teams. This is despite the latter’s expertise in tracing the contacts of people who have highly infectious diseases and clear evidence from countries who have successfully managed their lockdown transition.

The formal power exercised at the centre is in direct contrast to the informal role for local authorities, which is having devastating consequences for their very viability. Because councils’ response has no statutory footing in the context of an emergency, they are left exposed to the whims of a few individuals making decisions in Westminster. At the start of the crisis, the Secretary of State for Local Government told local authorities to spend “whatever it takes” to protect their residents. Councils had immediately set about providing relief to shielded groups, protecting wider vulnerable groups and implementing public safety measures, all while ensuring essential services continued as usual. Rather than support these efforts, Government then rescinded this early clear backing, querying councils’ honesty over their cost assessments and leaving many facing a financial black hole.

The double standards central government imposes on its local counterparts is nowhere more apparent than when it comes to local government finance. An emergency on the scale of a global pandemic has required state-led responses on a scale inconceivable only months ago, and with widespread public approval. Central government spending has snowballed to accommodate unprecedented employee furlough schemes, emergency business support measures, not to mention the enormous costs to the NHS. The Chancellor has the leeway to respond to this through a number of different measures – incurring public debt, raising taxes, freezing public sector wages and reducing public spending, a combination of which he is reportedly considering.

Local government has no such room for fiscal manoeuvre. Councils are legally required to balance annual budgets and have only narrow revenue-raising powers through council tax and business rates which are themselves subject to centrally imposed controls. With a shock to their budgets of this scale they are at the mercy of decisions made by a few in Westminster. These have so far resulted in a couple of ad hoc cash injections of £1.6bn each, and a bit extra cobbled together earmarked for social care and rough sleepers – so far massively short of the estimated £10-13 billon shortfall councils collectively face.

It is no way to run a country. It never was, but in the context of the crisis the contradictions of our top-heavy system of governance are laid bare. The rumblings of discontent from Mayors in the north of England at their regions being side-lined, and from councils over plans to fully reopen schools in the absence of clear local test, track and trace infrastructure, suggest the popular tide is beginning to turn against blanket centrally-imposed measures. As local government is increasingly being seen as better placed to protect their residents, particularly in the context of a Government that is increasingly mis-stepping, there may now be an opportunity for a deeper discussion about how our country should be run in the interests of everyone.

Jessica Studdert is deputy director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a Londonbased think-tank. She leads NLGN’s thought leadership and research, and contributes strategic oversight of the organisation. Prior to joining NLGN, Jessica was political adviser to the Labour Group at the LGA. She led policy there, working closely on public service reform and devolution. Previously she worked in policy roles in the voluntary sector for a street homelessness and a childcare charity, and she began her career at the Fabian Society.

How Private Members’ legislation institutionalised ‘the free stuff’

Chris Game

One incidental phenomenon of this extraordinary period in our lives is all the free stuff around, and not just for NHS hero(in)es or frontline workers. For us septuagenarian social distancers there are almost limitless free games, films, ebooks, magazines, video stuff, educational goodies, hot drinks, pizzas – and rhubarb complex. No, me neither.

It took me back a few years – memory-jogged by a recent report from the ‘neo-localist’ think tank, Localis, of which more shortly – to the heyday of ‘free stuff’ in the local government world. Which in turn took me back, coinciding with MPs’ so-called return to work, to Parliament and a sometimes overlooked sphere of that work that every so often genuinely enhances public life – considerably more than most Question Times, in-person or virtual.

I’m talking Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) – the means by which non-ministerial MPs and Peers can attempt to get their names into the statute books. Or – much more usually – a one-line Hansard mention. I jest not – of the 386 PMBs introduced in the extended 2017-19 Parliamentary session, just 15 received Royal Assent.

Like everything else about our Parliament – fabric, functioning, and obviously electoral system – the whole PMB thing is decades overdue for overhaul and reform. Yet, almost despite itself, it regularly does produce seriously worthwhile law.

And there was one decade in which it excelled, creating a shelf of legislation that remains today hugely worthwhile – abolition of capital punishment, reform of law on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, theatre censorship, Sunday entertainment – and that was just the headline stuff.

The 1960s, of course – as I was discovering a genuine interest in politics, had university essays to write, and became fascinated by this way of handling ‘conscience legislation’ – which is probably why I still pay sporadic attention to what goes on.

I admit, though, I had little idea of how the show-off Presentation Bill procedure had mushroomed of late. The Hansard Society counted 147 of them in that extended last session – except that there weren’t, in any physical sense. For all you need do is, well, present your proposed Bill’s title – handfuls at a time, if you feel really shouty – to a sparsely occupied Friday Commons.

This still infant session is already set to leave that 147 total standing. Imagine that Thursday a fortnight ago, first day back at school, as the shoutiest boys (you can’t imagine women MPs bothering with this stuff, can you?) presented their holiday homework. Arch-Brexiteer Peter Bone managed 15 Bills, but his supposed mate, Sir Christopher Chope, left him almost wimpering with his (I think) 41.

Thankfully, you don’t even get to air what’s bothering you, because there’s no speech, no debate, and the things are frequently not even printed. Yes, there are occasional, vital exceptions – like the recent EU (Withdrawal) Bills sponsored by Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn that sought to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the absence of the Withdrawal Bill’s ratification.

But exceptions they were. If you have a serious cause, a genuine knowledge of the subject and the deficiencies of the present legislation, plus ideally access to ‘expert’ advice and parliamentary drafting skills, then you don’t shout, but try a Ten-Minute Rule Bill and/or chance your luck in the Private Members’ Bill ballot.

It’s a big parliamentary happening, at the start of each session. Most eligible MPs enter, their anonymised numbers inscribed on ping-pongy balls and pulled out of, obviously, a goldfish bowl for total transparency. The first 20 names then get, in reverse order, a guaranteed Friday slot in the parliamentary timetable to introduce and hopefully progress their chosen Bill.

Of the 15 PMBs passed in the last session nine were these Ballot Bills. Most focus on a specific need, injustice or population group, like the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, introduced by Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, who came 8th in the 2017 ballot, and which has finally came into operation last month.

Labelled ‘Jack’s Law’, after Jack Herd, whose mother Lucy led the campaign for the Bill, it authorises a minimum of two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for the several thousand employed parents each year who lose a child under the age of 18 or have a stillbirth from the 24th week of pregnancy.

The difficulty in taking on an obdurate Government on a politically big issue is sadly illustrated by SNP MP Dr Eilidh Whiteford, 7th in the 2016 ballot. She tried embarrassing the Government, already five years after signing the Council of Europe’s wide-ranging Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence Against Women, into actually ratifying it into UK law, instead of merely agreeing how jolly important it was and blocking it in the EU Council.

Three years later: surprise! Shamefully, still unratified. However, with the Counting Dead Women project estimating at least 16 domestic abuse killings during the first three weeks of lockdown, Home Secretary Priti Patel is reportedly considering setting up a new cross-government taskforce on domestic abuse. So that’s sorted, then.

Apologies for the extended diversion. I do realise that at least the climax to an INLOGOV blog should ideally be both local governmenty and positive – and this one is, courtesy of Chris White, Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington from 2010 to 2017.

With beginner’s luck, White came third in the 2010 Private Members’ Ballot, and used it outstandingly, to introduce the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. Working ‘with the grain’ of both central and local government progressive thinking, it required councils and other public bodies to pay regard to ‘social impact’ – social, economic and environmental well-being – when making procurement decisions.

Some councils needed no convincing, but others did. Yet, really quite rapidly, social value advanced – from campaign slogan, through the development of Social Value Strategies, to statutory requirement, to an almost universally recognised consideration in dealing with both public and frequently private sectors.

The Localis think tank argues – not for the first time, but in greater depth – that the Government should now go further. Councils should be required to produce publicly available Community Value Charters defining where social value offers would be best targeted, thereby aiding both commissioners and potentially bidding contractors.

Thanks significantly to Chris White, as the publication reminds us, we’ve come a long way from councillors and officers on the procurement side of a negotiating table asking, slightly self-consciously: “What about all the free stuff – sorry, the additional economic, environmental and social value?” – and bidders frantically guessing what might be required to seal the deal.

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Weber and the Politics of the Covid-19 Crisis

Koen Bartels

Now our wonderful Polish cleaner can no longer come by, we are cleaning our house ourselves. While I was cleaning downstairs last weekend, I was listening to my favourite Dutch radio programme. The Dutch Minister of Culture, Sports and Education was being interviewed. The presenter asked her how difficult she finds it to do politics at this time of crisis. She replied that she’s doing very little politics actually because people don’t want politics, they want action and problem-solving.

‘That makes sense’, I found myself thinking while dusting my bookshelves. Doing politics is too time-consuming. Right now, we need governments to act fast. We should not distract those in charge with too much unnecessary debate.

But then I laid eyes on book by Max Weber. His over a century-old work on bureaucracy continues to shape our understanding of modern government. A key element of which is that politics and administration are fundamentally different activities and should be kept separate based on a strict division of roles and responsibilities. Politics is about thinking, debate, making decisions, the public interest, values. Administration is about doing, following rules, rational expertise, efficiency. As Woodrow Wilson on the other side of the pond declared around the same time as Weber: “Administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions” (Wilson, 1887, p. 210).

It was this politics-administration dichotomy that the Minister was invoking and which has resounded across the globe during the Covid-19 crisis. Political leaders shun responsibility for decisions because everything they do is informed by ‘science’. Emergency interventions and safety nets from governments are ‘the most optimal solutions in a bad situation’. Nobody can challenge their noble intentions and expertise when all they are doing is ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

Yet, the politics-administration dichotomy is a fallacy. And a dangerous one at that. Already in 1900, Frank Goodnow argued that the distinction between politics and administration was analytically possible, but non-existent in practice. One of the most widely accepted insights in our field nowadays are that public managers operate in a political environment. Another is that even bureaucrats working at the front line are significant policy-makers. Ignoring or trying to suppress the politics of administration is not just inaccurate, it is deceitful.

Weber developed the dichotomy as a heuristic. That is, a sense-making device for studying the actual behaviour and relationships of politicians and bureaucrats. Weber argued that the very core of how government works is determined by how bureaucrats balance the formal rationality of their organisation (adhering to hierarchical orders and formal procedures) and its substantive rationality (making decisions about what public values to pursue). Weber’s central purpose was to reveal how this balancing act translated into the ways in which authoritative organisations dominate society and limit individual freedom.

So let’s remain aware that all responses to the current crisis are political. Each and every decision and intervention is based on certain values and a consideration of interests. Who is considered ‘eligible’ for state support or who counts as ‘vulnerable’ are political decisions. Procedures and criteria drawn up under great pressure are bound to fail those whose needs are the largest and most complex.

In the crisis management literature, the politics of it all is a key premise. Crisis are highly complex and uncertain. The imperative to act quickly means those in charge fixate on short term interests and rely on dominant values. Structural causes of the crises and long term implications for equality and justice, not so much of a concern. The shocking disproportionate  Covid-19 related death rate of the African-American population in the USA is a case in point. Poverty, poor housing and insufficient infrastructure all serve to weaken health and increase exposure.

Politics is about who gets what, when and how, as Harold Lasswell famously declared in 1936. Also, or especially in a time of crisis. Our cleaner, for instance, gets little to none now. In Weber’s spirit, therefore, we need to put public values and power at the heart of our responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

 

Koen Bartels joined INLOGOV in October 2018 as Senior Lecturer in Public Management. He holds a BSc and MPhil in Public Administration from Leiden University (the Netherlands) and a PhD in Politics from the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on public encounters between front-line workers and citizens in an urban context. He teaches courses in leadership, performance, participation, and public management. He is also co-convener of the ECPR Standing Group on Theoretical Perspectives on Policy Analysis and editorial board member for Administrative Theory & Praxis.

 

 

Public leadership as a call to action

Dr. Catherine Durose

In uncertain and challenging times, an important part of the role of leadership in public services can play lies in offering a narrative that helps people to understand what may be happening and mobilise their support to address the problem. But what tools can public leaders use to do this effectively?

Borrowing from the civil rights movements and grassroots and labour organizing, public narrative is a skill aiming to motivate others to join you in action. Associated with the work of Marshall Ganz at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, public narrative offers a framework to ‘show not tell’ how shared experiences reveal our shared values. This emphasis on leadership as a form of ‘sense making’ was the focus for discussion for a panel of local public leaders, who joined our Masters in Public Administration students last week. We invited leaders to share with our students, their motivations to lead.

Joining us fresh from the ‘momentous victory’ in the Birmingham care workers dispute, UNISON Regional Organiser, Ravi Subramanian drew a powerful link between his first-hand experiences of racism growing up in 1970s Grimsby and this recent campaign. Ravi reflected on the ‘golden thread’ of not being listened to by those in power, and the need to effectively organise to challenge this.

Claire Spencer, Acting Head of Inclusive Growth and Public Sector Reform at West Midlands Combined Authority, is developing strategy for how economic growth can benefit all in the city-region. Claire drew on her family experiences of displacement due to conflict to reflect on her own privilege and desire for everyone to have the safety and opportunity to thrive and how this has informed her journey as a leader.

Sophie Wilson, Director of Research for BVSC, an organisation that champions and supports the voluntary sector in Birmingham, reflected on how her early experiences of volunteering in a women’s refuge brought home the complex and inter-connected nature of issues such as homelessness, substance misuse and mental health, that has shaped her career as a leader in the third sector. Sophie shared both the emotional labour involved in leading through periods of change and uncertainty, and the opportunity that this offered for personal growth and learning.

By sharing their narratives with our students, these leaders humanised what it means to lead in public services, not only the moments of self-doubt and unlikely trajectories, but how early experiences can inform and catalyse leadership aspirations, and mobilise others to join you.

Catherine Durose is a Reader in Policy Sciences at the Institute of Local Government Studies and recent Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Government at the University of Birmingham. Catherine is a leading expert on urban governance and public policy, interested in questions of how we initiate and facilitate inclusive decision-making and social change in urban contexts. She has sought to address this question in her research, with particular focus on issues such as intermediation, participation, decentralisation and democratic innovation.

Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance.  Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong.  They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.

There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong.  There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care.  All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended  on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.

That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done.  That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else.  We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.

The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants.  That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness.  Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.

We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important.  Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.

Catherine Staite 02

Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.