Whose budget is it – the mayor’s or the council’s?

Chris Game

Earlier in the year, during the mayoral referendum debates, I remember using the example of North Tyneside to illustrate how the constant attempts to compare our elected mayors with those in the US were seriously misleading, as ours had and would have considerably more constrained powers than their American counterparts.

Budget-setting was one example I had in mind.  Technically it’s a ‘co-decision’ power shared with the full council, which, if it can assemble a two-thirds majority, can amend or reject an elected mayor’s proposed budget and the council’s other policy framework documents.  That’s what happened this year in three existing mayoral authorities – Hartlepool, North Tyneside and Doncaster – but whether all the voting councillors grasped fully the process they were engaged in seems unlikely.

Hartlepool’s mayor is Stuart Drummond, erstwhile football mascot, but elected three times now as an Independent against all other parties.  He’s never had a majority of supporters on the council, but, with a cross-party cabinet, has managed to govern effectively and generally peaceably.  Not this year, though.

Labour cabinet members, having agreed a budget containing proposals that included the controversial privatisation of the council’s IT services, were evidently pressured by their party colleagues and failed to attend, and therefore vote in, the relevant full council meeting.  The mayor lost his budget, was saddled with Labour’s alternative, and, not surprisingly, removed the mutineers from his cabinet.

North Tyneside’s mayor is Conservative Linda Arkley.  She governs with an entirely Conservative cabinet, although her party is and was in a minority on the council.  In fact, back in March, Labour (34) and the Lib Dems (6) could muster, just, the two-thirds of votes necessary on the 60-seat council to reject her budget – which they did.

The mayor, therefore, was forced to accept a budget containing the opposition parties’ alternative proposals.  These included scrapping above-inflation increases in fees for allotments, sports facilities and bowling greens, and freezing the price of school dinners and meals-on-wheels, but also measures delivering savings aimed at obviating the need for the mayor’s mass outsourcing strategy: axing the post of chief executive, asking high-earning staff to accept a voluntary 10% pay cut, and all council staff to take a one-hour reduction in working hours.

It’s at this point that understandable confusion can arise, even among councillors, over the respective roles and powers of mayor and council.  Indeed, ‘whose budget is it?’ is one of the many issues that could usefully have been addressed in the public information campaign that ministers ought to have seen as their responsibility to mount in the run up to the mayoral referendums.

‘The budget’ in this context means the key figures proposed, in a mayoral authority, by the mayor and cabinet: revenue expenditure for the coming year on various services and projects, and sources of income to cover this expenditure, including the real biggie, the level of council tax.  The full council’s role is to approve the mayor’s framework or, with the requisite two-thirds majority, substitute an agreed alternative.  Even in the latter circumstances, though, implementation of the budget is the mayor’s job – necessarily, as the framers of the Local Government Act 2000 saw it in their guidance to local authorities.

“Once the budget has been adopted, the executive will need to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances, which might require reallocation of funds from one service to another.  A local authority’s financial regulations will need, therefore, to allow the executive to reallocate monies within the budget [or] take any decision contrary to or not wholly in accordance with the budget, providing that any additional costs incurred can be offset by additional income, contingency funds, or savings from elsewhere within the budgetary allocations“.

The phraseology may sound sloppy, but it does indicate where the 2000 Act intended to draw the line between the mayor/executive and the full council.  The full council’s role is to make financial provision for the spending proposed in the budget, not to determine, let alone micro-manage, its content.

When the Act forbids the mayor/executive from acting “contrary to, or not wholly in accordance with, the budget“, it should be taken as referring to the total budgetary allocation, not to any detailed items.  Spending contrary to the budget is OK, providing it can be covered within the agreed total.  Logically, therefore, not spending on something specified in the budget must also be OK.

This latter situation is what they’ve been arguing about in Doncaster, and, if the role division in the 2000 Act wasn’t previously clear enough, we now, following a constitutionally significant Administrative Court case concerning the town’s libraries, have it on judicial authority.

Doncaster’s elected mayor is Peter Davies, an English Democrat, who chairs a Conservative-Lib Dem cabinet in a 64-member council, 50 of whom are Labour.  Arithmetically it’s not a formula for unalloyed harmony, and there isn’t much, especially where libraries are concerned.

Despite reportedly never having borrowed a public library book himself, the mayor’s library strategy aims to improve the town’s service: better stocked libraries opening for longer hours, in improved buildings in convenient locations – but just not so many of them and more reliant on volunteers.  That’s the problem – the closures, two of which had already happened.

The mayor’s draft budget incorporated the library proposals and was approved by 43 to 6 in full council, but with a significant amendment, allocating funds to re-open the closed libraries and retain the staff required to run the 12 others.  The mayor, however, stuck with his strategy.  There were no re-openings, and a local resident, back by the Save Our Libraries campaign, applied successfully for judicial review.

The review itself, though, was less successful, except in the cause of constitutional clarification.  The pleasingly named Judge Gary Hickinbottom doesn’t do nuance: “It would be a remarkable invasion of the executive function of the Mayor if, as part of the budgetary process, the full Council could interfere and reverse such an executive decision by amending the budget to give, not only an allocation of funds for the library service, but a direction that funds must be spent and spent precisely in accordance with the direction that they have made“.

Back in North Tyneside, the council’s Labour-Lib Dem majority – now four-fifths following the May elections – must feel similarly thwarted.  The invitations to those earning over £50,000 to accept a voluntary pay cut were more and less politely declined, and – surprise, surprise! – the unions weren’t terribly keen on the reduced working hours for all staff, so that too bit the dust.

Now the Council has announced the outcome of the key partner procurement phase of the mayor’s Change, Efficiency and Improvement – or mass outsourcing – programme.  Two hefty blocks of services – a Business Package, comprising finance, procurement, revenues and benefits, ICT, customer services, and human resources – and a Technical Package, comprising property services, planning, engineering, consumer protection, and environmental health – have been let respectively to Balfour Beatty and Capita Symonds on potentially 15-year contracts.

Coming within days of Local Government Association Chairman Sir Merrick Cockell‘s warning to councils of the dangers of having a blind faith in the virtues of outsourcing, and of becoming commissioners rather than providers of services, Mayor Arkley’s announcement might have been better timed.  But, as they say, that’s for another day.  The subject here is not what mayors do, but the incontrovertible legality with which they do it.


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.

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