A recent centre spread in the LGC has the headline “Committee System may be Outdated, Councils Warned”, even though the option to return to government by committees is one of the main planks of the Localism Act and a central plank of Conservative and especially LibDem policy.
The research reported on, by Ed Hammond of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, reports that four councils are expected to make the change in May 2012. There will also be some “hybrid” arrangements, such as that likely to come into effect in Kent, where advisory committees are given greatly strengthened powers, even though technically decisions will remain in the hands of individual cabinet members, and the cabinet, though that is not expected to meet very often.
Up to 40 councils are believed to be giving serious consideration to making the change, including some of those where there will be mayoral referenda on 3 May. If those referenda are lost, some of these councils may well revert to committee governance in May 2013.
Why? Because, as they see it, committees are much more inclusive than any other form of governance. They give a voice to all the elected councillors, and potentially bring to the table all their talents. They make it harder to take decisions in secret. They give councillors a means of putting into effect the commitments they make when they stand for election, and they keep council officers on their toes because they can never be quite sure what will happen when they attend a committee – even if most of the major changes that might be made to a report will have been agreed in the group meeting of a majority party beforehand. They also allow backbench councillors to specialise, and provide a means to induct them into how council services are run. They develop leadership – many strong leaders emerged over the years from the committee system.
This is not to say that committees were perfect or are inevitably the best solution. They can, and often were, criticised – for being slow to make decisions, leaving it unclear who was responsible for decisions, and for sustaining silos (such as Education authorities) which at times seemed to have little involvement with other parts of the council. The criticisms can be answered. The committee system can be fast, and keep confidences, when it matters. With a cabinet, or indeed an elected mayor, leadership is still distributed – with chief executives or chief officers often the real leaders. Silos can be broken down if there is the political will to do so. But none of this is easy, and there were plenty of disillusioned and frustrated councillors and officers in the past. All we can say with confidence is that no system is perfect and that each council needs to work out what is best for its own purposes.
There are different forms of committee systems, ranging from a single committee with important decisions taken in full council (as in a number of the present Fourth Option councils, with populations less than 85,000, who have never given up their committees) to the massively complex structures in some counties and metropolitan districts before 2000 which had committees or sub-committees for almost everything that a councillor could become involved in – over 50 in total in one case. No-one is proposing to go back to that.
There have to be means of dealing with cross-cutting issues, urgent business between meetings, the size of committees and sub-committees, how often they meet, systems of councillors’ allowances, and policy review, to take but some of the issues of detail that must be addressed. Scrutiny will for most councils remain a function that needs to be done, and there are different ways of integrating it into a committee system. Maybe there is much to be said for not rushing into making the changes, and learning from what is happening now.
A day workshop at INLOGOV on 6 July will present a balanced picture and facilitate a discussion of the pros and cons of making the change and the detail issues that need to be taken into account in any new constitution. Several of the councils making the change will be represented or make presentations. Ed Hammond, the researcher who wrote the Centre for Public Scrutiny report, will speak. There will be comment from the Local Government Association, and support from FOSIG, the group that represents fourth option councils.
It will provide a unique opportunity to listen to the enthusiasts for making a change, and cross question them, and to understand the alternatives, and the possible downsides, and the need to address the detail. More about this workshop, including a booking form, can be found by clicking here.
Dr. Andrew Coulson is Lead Consultant on Overview and Scrutiny at INLOGOV,University of Birmingham, with wide experience of Overview and Scrutiny. He has recently launched one of the first assessed qualifications on the subject. His further research interests include partnerships and governance, economic and environmental strategies, and local government in Central and Eastern Europe.