Returning to the Back Benches

Councillor David Smith

After eleven years as leader of Lichfield District Council it was with some feelings of uncertainty that I embarked on my role as a back bencher.  As Leader I had reluctantly been obliged to introduce the system of cabinet with overview and scrutiny panels and I still hold the view that this system moves members from community activists to being disenfranchised observers.

It is therefore interesting to see that as part of the Localism Act councils are now starting changes to new forms of delivery that, far from going back to the old slow and cumbersome committee system, are developing new approaches based on cabinet committees.

I understand that Kent County Council are amongst the trail blazers out of the large authorities but I am told talking to the leader of Tandridge District Council, which was not required to change to the cabinet system, that they have themselves developed a highly successful Leader and committee system that I would commend, certainly to districts.

It may be said that idle hands are a source for trouble but with the massive talent that we have amongst our councillors they are surely wasted in overviewing the decisions of others. It can also be said that councillors are probably closest to the ground roots of our communities and in their new changed role from community representative to community leader they can now respond to that challenge.

The Localism Act has essentially changed the way we do business.  Councils like to be told what to do by national Government so that it gives them something to push against.  By removing these constraints members can look again at what drove them to become councillors and how they wish to develop their changed role. Developing the LDF in many councils is going to present a major challenge that will push the back bench leadership role to its limits. The balance between the “needs analysis” of what a council will need to deliver and the “not in my back yard” situation will cause significant stresses.

All councillors must also come to terms with the need to actively participate in the planning system, no one will be able to say  “I don’t do planning.”  The need for all members to fully understand and be involved in early planning discussions on major applications is new territory for both members and  officers and in some cases opens the door of the planning department to what has been seen in the past as a forbidden area.

Indeed in some councils (not Lichfield) I was amazed to discover that planning officers were barred from speaking to members about applications.  I am sure the Localism Act will develop a new openness that will bring about a refreshing change to many areas within our councils.

Since giving up my role as Leader I have completely refreshed the relationship I have with my electorate.    My rolling case load of around eight has not changed but I now am able to spend more time in the local community.

The Localism Act gave me the opportunity to work with residents to prepare a 10 year strategy for the village I represent and on the advice of Greg Clark we submitted it for Government funding.  No one was more surprised than me to find we have been granted £20,000 to progress the plan.

Back in June of last year we developed a wish list for our community that developed into ten challenges and from this a group of 17 residents came together to develop the plan.

In November we submitted our plan to CLG as a front runner and also took it to our second village meeting.  I don’t know whether it’s just village communities or if we are something special, but each of our public meetings have packed the village hall with over 100 residents and with a total of 1,200 electorate we consider that there is a mandate for us to follow.

Amongst the nationwide applications for funding I am not sure that many came from community led groups, but I would commend any member to look at what they can achieve by a strategy that involves the entire community.  Surprisingly, for a village that sits in a vulnerable Green Belt location where no new development is proposed, the plan recognises the need to address the requirement for affordable homes and some sheltered accommodation.  Transport, highways, a new tree lined Jubilee Walk, a low carbon plan and a wish to find sites for 1,200 trees are all part of the challenges.

So my advice to members is to look at your new role, role up your sleeves and get stuck in.  It’s great fun and very rewarding.

Cllr David Smith is the former Leader of Lichfield District Council and plays an active and influential role in Local Government policy making and implementation at a national level.  David is the Chairman of the Local Government Research Partnership and has sat on the Local Government Association Environment and Housing Board.  In addition, he has joined the practitioner board of INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham.

Not a blizzard, just Pickles’ latest battlefield

My first thought, when I glimpsed it in a CLG departmental press notice, was that there had been a Conservative power grab within the Coalition. What looked for all the world like a snow report map suggested that Eric Pickles had snatched the Met Office away from the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, and, having sorted out local government, was turning to the weather and climate control.

The truth, sadly, proved more mundane. It was simply the Secretary of State’s latest move in his battle to bully local authorities into freezing or cutting their council tax next year, and the snowflake-covered map recorded the more than 300 who have so far apparently agreed to do so – each crystalline flake ingeniously representing a virtuous ‘freezer’.

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I really feel I must be getting soft in my old age. I have spent much of my academic life explaining to students, councillors, overseas visitors, and indeed anyone who’ll listen, just how centrally controlled and ministerially dominated our local government system is. Yet I’ve still found myself surprised at the lengths to which ministers have gone, at the duplicity of their arguments, and the intemperance of the language they’ve used, in this particular campaign over what, after all, was supposed to be one of those offers you could refuse.

I blogged about it back in January, during Pickles’ early attacks on councillors, when he tried to argue that it was not only their political responsibility but their moral duty to vote against a council tax freeze – even if, in doing so, they would be consciously leaving their council facing a funding shortfall and even higher tax increases in future years.

Ministers then, in quick succession: (1) claimed that the Government’s offer of funding for a 2012-13 freeze had been deliberately designed to limit the growth in councils’ tax bases – though no mention of it was made at the time; (2) confused this new position by suggesting that ongoing funding for the 2011-12 freeze might be protected beyond the current spending review period; and (3) anticipated a possible rule change, whereby councils raising their tax would not be permitted to keep their new tax base next year.

At the same time, having attacked the integrity of councillors, Ministers switched to questioning the professionalism of officers. Chief finance officers who advised their members to put up council tax were likely to be doing so with the intention of “filling the town hall coffers”, and risked involving themselves in politics. Now, through CLG press notices, we’re being treated to almost daily bulletins not merely reporting, but applauding, each new council of any political complexion that signals its intention to freeze or cut its tax.

Part of the reason for recalling these developments is that they coincided neatly with the publication of an interesting report – 2012 Reform Scorecard – from the centre-right think tank, Reform.

The report is an assessment of the achievements of the Coalition Government’s public service reform agenda during 2011, and the scorecard takes the form of an almost CPA-style assessment of the progress made, or not made, by each of the relevant Whitehall departments. “Real reform” has been achieved, the report reckons, by Justice – “has made the best arguments for competition of any department, and translated them into action”; Defence, with the Levene Review – the shining example of Civil Service reform across government”; and, perhaps surprisingly, by the Home Office, with its policing reforms.

At the other end of the spectrum are the departments judged to be “Going Backwards”: Health – “The Government’s original reforms were flawed and 2011’s retreat from reform has made them worse”; Higher Education – “greater freedom to set tuition fees has been overshadowed by market distortions and tighter restrictions on universities”; and HM Treasury – “ring-fencing of the health and schools budgets has put a handbrake on reform and efficiency in those sectors”.

In between these extremes are the departments assigned to a category initially proposed for the CPA, but later abandoned – “Coasting”.  One such department, by the process of elimination, is CLG. The Reform report has both positive and negative things to say under each of its main headings – Accountability, Flexibility, and Value for Money – but its overall assessment can be summarised as follows (pp.41-42):

“The Government’s rhetoric [on localism] has sent an important signal that it is willing to give councils the flexibility they need to deliver services as they see fit”.

Yet this ostensible commitment to localism has been repeatedly undermined by attempts to exercise power over local issues from Whitehall. The Communities and Local Government Secretary has repeatedly called upon councils to maintain weekly bin collections, terming them ‘a basic right’ and creating a £250 million fund to support weekly collections. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has circumvented local responsibility on the issues of adoption and problem families. In November, the Chancellor announced the extension of a freeze on council tax until 2012-13, mitigated by £675 million worth of funding support for councils to maintain levels of council tax.

“These attempts to impose central controls and pressure over essentially local issues subvert local responsibility and flexibility and firmly enforce Ministerial and bureaucratic responsibility in the place of local democratic accountability” (emphasis added).

And that, of course, was written before Ministers had even started implementing their ‘voluntary’ freeze.

Chris Game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Huge Whitehall battle over mayoral powers, reveals Heseltine

There was no camouflage flak jacket, no ceremonial mace to brandish, no Downing Street front door through which theatrically to exit a ministerial career, but who needs props, if, like Michael (now Lord) Heseltine, you’re one of the great headline-makers of your political generation. He managed it again at last week’s University of Birmingham Mayoral Debate, and against the odds.

For a start, the event seemed set up more as a rally than a debate – bringing together “leaders and representatives from business, education, politics, and the community, to discuss the benefits that an elected mayor could bring to Birmingham”.  Once Catherine Staite had set the scene and identified some of the key arguments , the views of the remaining speakers – Lords Heseltine and Adonis, and CBI Regional Director, Richard Butler, a late replacement for Petra Roth, elected mayor of Frankfurt, one of Birmingham’s partner cities – ranged, though not in order of speaker, from enthusiasm to evangelism.

Mayor Roth’s absence was unfortunate.  By comparing her own experience – Mayor since 1995, and previously a member of the Hesse Land (state) parliament – with the varying powers and responsibilities, terms of office, election and recall provisions of Germany’s other major city mayors, she could have broadened the discussion and maybe even provided a headline or two. Instead, Patrick Wintour, Political Editor of The Guardian and Chair of the debate, looked to and was well served by Lord Heseltine, British politics’ answer to Sunset Boulevard’s retired silent-film star, Norma Desmond: “I’m still big; it’s the stages that got smaller”.

The prompt was a question from Councillor Sir Albert Bore, former Leader of Birmingham City Council, Leader of its now minority Labour Group, but here a mere member of the audience.  One of Labour’s earliest and strongest mayoral supporters and an aspiring future candidate, Councillor Bore asked when Ministers were going to indicate explicitly the additional powers that could be transferred to cities voting for elected mayors in the May referendums: “The Government should come clean about what powers are on offer [to mayoral cites]. If they are no more than to a current council leader, they risk losing the referendums to a No vote”.

There was no imperative for Lord Heseltine to say anything of substance. He could have treated the question as rhetorical, or left it to the other panellists – but, of course, he couldn’t resist. He couldn’t, he confided conspiratorially, reveal too much, and indeed he didn’t. He said enough, though, to give Patrick Wintour his headline: Whitehall battling to avoid losing power to mayors, says Heseltine” .

There was a “huge battle” among Ministers, Heseltine intimated, over how much extra power should be granted to elected mayors across almost all relevant functions: money raising, transport, welfare, strategic planning, and economic policy. Some ministers – and no doubt their civil servants – aren’t keen on transferring anything of significance. The Lib Dems further complicate an already dual-track policy deriving from different sections of the Localism Act. Pro-decentralisation, but anti-mayors, they want devolved powers for any city able to make a case, regardless of its form of governance. Cameron, according to Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Observer, doesn’t want anything too radical, that could be attacked as yet another U-turn.  Oh yes, and the theoretical enforcer, Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation and Cities – responsible for the ‘City Deals’ policy that is the chief source of grief for Councillor Bore and other mayoralists – isn’t even able to punch the weight of a full Cabinet member, let alone take on the PM.

City Deals were introduced in last December’s Cabinet Office prospectus, Unlocking Growth in Cities – . The Government would work with individual cities to achieve a series of genuine two-way negotiated agreements that would enable cities to do things their way. The prospectus accordingly set out an “illustrative menu of bold options” (pp.8-9) that Ministers would be willing to discuss as part of the deal-making process – greater freedoms to invest in growth, the power to drive infrastructure development, new tools to help people acquire skills and jobs. In return, where cities wished to take on significant new powers and funding, “they will need to demonstrate strong, visible and accountable leadership and effective decision-making structures” (p.2 – emphasis added) – this last clause being universally understood as code for having an elected mayor.

In addition, “other than as part of a city deal negotiation, the Government does not intend to reach any view about specific powers that might be devolved.” (para.10 – emphasis again added)

The logic is sound, and the localist intent probably sincere. A mayoral system and the mayor (or leader) personally will determine the details of any city deal; the system will be determined by the referendum; so the content of the eventual deal cannot be known, let alone announced, before the referendum. Councillor Bore’s point, however, is equally irrefutable: without knowledge of the nature of the deal, voters may lack the incentive to vote for a mayoral system in the first place.

So is there a way out of this closed circle, or ways of signalling to voters the kinds of powers an elected mayor could bring to their city? Perhaps. First, Whitehall hostilities notwithstanding, the Government could do – maybe in the March 21st Spring Budget – what many were hoping for in its January response to its mayoral consultation, What can a mayor do for your city?, and give some indication of what mayoral cities specifically might expect from its “illustrative menu” of city deal options.

Though not comprehensive – with no mention of additional sources of revenue funding, or of police and fire services, for example – it was a wide-ranging list, much too lengthy to be reproduced here. However, it included: a single consolidated capital pot, rather than multiple funding streams; access to an additional £1 billion Regional Growth Fund; new infrastructure funding through Tax Increment Financing; devolution of local transport major funding and responsibility for commissioning rail services; devolution of Homes & Communities Agency spending and functions; and the creation of City Apprenticeship Hubs and a City Skills Fund, enabling adult skills to be tailored to the needs of employers.

No matter how enticing the list, though, it doesn’t in itself answer Councillor Bore’s question. The closest we can get to that is the one mayoral city deal that has been negotiated and publicised so far – with Liverpool. The Labour Council are bypassing the referendum process and moving straight to the election of a mayor in May, and have negotiated a deal that the Leader, Joe Anderson, hitherto a critic of a purely city mayor, feels is something both to shout about and campaign on.

The key elements of the Liverpool deal comprise:

  • A new Environmental Technology Zone, with the resulting growth in business rate income going to the LEP and five priority economic development areas (Mayoral Development Zones), and the Government prepared to add a further £75 million for economic development backed by a strong business case;
  • A Mayoral Investment Board to oversee the city’s economic and housing strategy, pooling Home & Communities Agency and other local land assets to drive economic growth;
  • Welfare Pilots, developed in collaboration with the Department for Work & Pensions, to deliver a programme of support for young people leaving the Work Programme, and a ‘Youth Contract’ pathfinder;
  • A Secondary School Investment Plan to build 12 new secondary schools, to help support the local economy and skills agenda.

The total package, according to the Council’s report, could bring the city close to £1 billion.  Multiplying up for Birmingham, with more than double Liverpool’s population, gives a number that will surely strike most people as rather more than “a few crumbs from the Westminster table” – to quote Lord Digby Jones’ recent dismissal of the value of a city mayor (Birmingham Post, March 1). Obviously, it would help mayoral campaigners and voters alike, if Ministers were prepared to support the policy they are pushing on cities with something more explicit and authoritative, but even now we have a lot more material to work with than just a few months ago.  

 

Chris Game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

An elected mayor for Birmingham?

On May 3rd, the people of Birmingham will decide if they want a directly elected mayor and if so, on 15th November they’ll decide who they want. There has been so much debate about what an elected mayor could achieve for Birmingham and the West Midlands, perhaps it is a good time to look at the evidence and compare it to the aspirations.

Do mayoral authorities perform better? Audit Commission performance data show that some mayoral authorities did improve significantly between 2005 and 2007. For example, North Tyneside and Hackney rose from ‘poor’ to ‘3 star’. This may well demonstrate the benefits of strong leadership and accountability for councils which historically had poor political leadership but correlation is not the same as causation. Many non-mayoral authorities also improved at the same time and there were exceptions to the pattern of improvement in mayoral authorities.  Doncaster and Stoke spring to mind.  Stoke is a complex story  but Doncaster is a classic example of how poor leadership and bad behaviour on the part of an elected mayor can undermine a town – whose residents turned to an elected mayor in the hope of a new start but merely replaced widespread corruption with wholesale under-performance and negligence.

Does directly accountable leadership make a difference? Research suggests that mayors have been able to use their personal leadership to good effect but so have the leaders of non-mayoral authorities.  Some cities and city regions such as Manchester and Leeds have done well in spite of not having a mayor. 

What can a mayor do for Birmingham and the West Midlands? Birmingham has long been perceived as an underperforming city, partly because of local political and economic history and partly because of regional issues such as a traditional resistance on the part of the other six  West Midlands councils to Birmingham exerting ‘too much’ influence. You can hear the hackles rise as potential mayoral candidates set out their region-wide ambitions for the role.

Cities are complex constructs: where does the city of Birmingham end and the West Midlands region begin? Many proponents of the benefits of elected mayors, such as Lord Heseltine, who has been making the case since 1991, and Lord Adonis talk about the benefits of regional or metro-mayors.  But that isn’t the model we’re getting here, in contrast to the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner, who’ll be elected on the same day with a region-wide remit.

What can mayors do? The powers of mayors under Local Government Act 2000 are limited: to be elected for four years, to decide the size and membership of the cabinet and delegation of powers and to set the budget and strategic policy framework of the council, which can be rejected by a two thirds of the council members.  Hardly a demagogues’ charter!

So what can a mayor do for Birmingham that a council leader can’t do? Under the Localism Act 2011, the Coalition Government is planning to devolve some ‘local public functions’ to councils. Cities will bid for new powers and freedoms on; economic growth, infrastructure, housing, planning and skills and employment.  Cities with mayors will automatically be considered for these new powers and freedoms because they can demonstrate ‘strong, accountable leadership’ – but they will not be granted automatically.

Might it be better to focus attention on the local, regional and national barriers to achievement in Birmingham and the West Midlands and tackle them collectively, rather than expecting the mayor to overcome them alone by heroism and enormous force of personality?  It’s a big ask.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.