Bring back committees – all is forgiven!

Andrew Coulson

Governance by Committees goes back to the origins of local government in the UK. It precedes the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which created a legal framework whereby local government can only do what central government says it can do. It is the natural way to run an organisation. The boards of directors who run companies (or quangos) are committees. The trustees of a charity are a committee. A parliament is a committee – albeit a large and unwieldy one.

Of course not everyone on a committee is equal. The Chair has a unique position, with control of agendas, public relations, and often patronage. The secretary writes the minutes – with the subtle power to play up or play down some of what has happened. The treasurer controls the money, day to day.

Committees served local government well for at least 150 years. They were the envy of public administrators in many other parts of the world. Harold Laski promoted them, in 1935, as an extension of Athenian democracy – the advantages of a city-state running its own affairs. Forty five years later, George Jones saw them as “an essential element of a pluralist society” and a bulwark of countervailing power against an over-mighty centralising state. Thousands of councillors, over the years, learnt their trade in committees, listening to officials explaining what they wanted to do, and more experienced councillors asking questions, and having a real sense of ownership in the decisions that resulted.

Why then were committees in English local government so brusquely brushed away, to be replaced by directly elected mayors (the Labour government’s clearly preferred choice at the time) or cabinets and leaders? Why, in contrast, were they preserved, in emasculated form, in Development Control and Licensing Committees, and in councils representing populations of less than 85,000? And why are they now slowly coming back, under the liberating powers of the Localism Act, through which perhaps as many as 30 councils may have moved back to governance by committees by 2014?

By 2000 the system had, perhaps, grown out of control. The desire of councillors to be involved in every significant decision led to a proliferation of committees and subcommittees. Birmingham had more than 60. Many had delegated powers. They enabled small cliques of councillors to get things done, but many of them could not be described as open or democratic. This system also meant that cross-cutting matters (and most matters in local government are cross cutting to greater or lesser extent) went the rounds of several committees before a final decision was made – a slow and frustrating process, especially for officials. The system institutionalised silos – as each committee tenaciously defended its interests and its budgets. And it was often taken over by the party-group system, which ensured that almost all the important decisions were taken in private meetings of a political party before the official meetings in public.

It is sometimes said that committees were abolished because of Hilary Armstrong’s frustrations as a backbench member of the unwieldy and ineffective Education Committee of Durham County Council, on which she sat before becoming the MP who took the Local Government Act through the House of Commons. But it is also clear that much was wrong, that the system needed to be streamlined, and that it struggled in the new emerging world of partnerships and contracting out. F expressed in The Audit Commission summed up the frustrations in its 1990 pamphlet, We can’t go on meeting like this.

But the grass is not always greener on the other side of the hill. We can now see the limitations of mayors and cabinets. An over-concentration of power in a small number of hands, which may not be representative, or reflect the plurality of interests in something as complex as a city or county. A still confusing lack of clarity as to whether paid officials or politicians hold the real power. Weakness in standing up to bosses in London – and a creeping centralisation.

Above all, councillors are not content – especially backbench and Opposition councillors, who could make major contributions under the committee system but have almost no similar opportunities with cabinets or mayors.

And so the tide turned. The Localism Act enshrined a Conservative promise ahead of the 2010 election to give councils the chance to return to committee governance. There was no great rush – only four councils changed in 2012 (Nottinghamshire County, the London Borough of Sutton, Brighton and Hove, and South Gloucestershire). They brought in streamlined systems, with much power in the hands of Policy and Resources Committees or equivalent. These may involve little more than giving voting and speaking rights to Opposition councillors on what is still, effectively, a small cabinet or executive. But at least another 10 councils are likely to make the change at their 2013 Annual General Meetings. Others are talking about it or considering it.

INLOGOV is one of the few places that has been monitoring this change, and assisting councils to think through the issues – how to plan the detail to get the best out of a return to committees while avoiding the unsatisfactory practices that could be a problem in the past.

We have convened two workshops for councils or councillors considering making the change – and a third will take place on 27 June. Councillors and officers from councils which have changed will be present. We will not take a stand, that one system is right and the other wrong – it depends on the detail, and on local circumstances. But we will defend the right of councils to make the change, and to govern themselves as they think fit (in fact we would like to see a much wider set of systems open for consideration and experiment). If the previous workshops are anything to go by, the debate will be lively and extremely well informed.

To book a place at the workshop on 27th June, complete this booking form.

andrew coulson blog

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.

One thought on “Bring back committees – all is forgiven!

  1. This is an useful summary, but what we need is a debate on the future purpose of local government, a review of the proportionate balance of Councillors per Ward for the local government we desire in 20-30 years time. For me, the answer is not in Committees.

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