Can I Vote, Please? Councillors, Budgets and Illegality

Philip Whiteman

This week, there is plenty of news about granting 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote.  You may therefore be surprised to learn that another group may have their right to vote withdrawn.  Okay, I am being slightly flippant here, but there is a potentially serious oversight on whether councillors should be allowed to vote at the full council budget setting meeting.

On a number of occasions I have criticised the Localism Act as a poorly drafted piece of legislation that leaks like the proverbial legislative sieve. From the inability of standards committees to sanction their own members, to questions on whether standing councillors are required to sign a declaration of interest, there are plenty of examples to choose from. So here is another to wet your palate.

Councillors are naturally bound to vote on their annual budgets and also on their allowance packages at Full Council.  Nothing too complex about that, you would think.  However, the new Declaration of Pecuniary Interest could result in a breach, should councillors vote at their annual budget meeting or on their allowances.   As both tax-payers and recipients of allowances, this leaves councillors vulnerable to members of the public lodging official complaints.  In all probability, a police investigation would not be pursued but it is a risky situation.

Monitoring Officers with a sharp-eye should be able to circumvent this problem through a motion to Full Council granting dispensations to the council en-bloc.  Whether the dispensation lasts for a full four years or for the remainder of council’s term until the election, care is required to ensure that dispensations are kept up to date for all named councillors.

Ensuring the right of councillors to vote at budget setting meetings is an essential component of representative democracy.  To forbid that right would be counter to the whole belief in local government.  The idea that they could face prosecution for breaching pecuniary interest would be quite ridiculous.

Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.  He is also Editor of the journal Local Government Studies.

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.

The New Virtual Town Hall

Ian Briggs

They wear tweeds, ride fold up bicycles and have a strange obsession with bandstands, they are often viewed as being at the fringes of society – a minority interest group with a small but powerfully loyal following – they are those who hold dear to their hearts that our 19th century heritage should never be lost. They value the majesty of the Town Hall as a Victorian edifice that spoke of the power of the elected (or in most cases the appointed) in society – have they lost sight of the importance of downsizing public organisations, ensuring that we have a quasi retail approach to services and that we should administer them from anodyne, faceless replicants of a local branch of an insurance company?

Certainly for many within cities and towns the structures that spoke so loudly of the power of the local community served not just to reinforce the civic dignity of the individuals who were called upon to govern but also were – and perhaps still are important icons of civic place and power. True, they are a huge burden to the local purse but at a time of dwindling concern for the council (mindful of a story told a few days ago of a recent election in a ward where only 16 people bothered to vote) we perhaps need a kind of iconography to remind us all that choice and voice at a local level is so profoundly different from the way we have our political views represented at a national level that we need to have some physical representation of the distinctiveness of local democratic place.

All this came out in a conversation with a senior member at this week’s LGA conference here in Birmingham. How he was so troubled by the ‘Moulton fold up bike brigade’ (MFBB) who were repeatedly making his life such a misery with their expertise in the preservation of the civic heritage and their near obsessive persistence that large amounts of expenditure must be made to keep the Town Hall in the condition that our forefathers wished it to be in irrespective of the impact upon other services that he was genuinely afraid for his seat!  However, if we cannot afford the physical iconography can it be replaced with a virtual one? This became an interesting question – opportunities offered by social networking when exploited with care and sensitivity could perhaps replace or compound the iconography of the traditional approach to ‘civicness’? As we are developing our understanding of the community leadership role of councillors should we be thinking more about the overall impact of placing the locally elected in a virtual space as well as a physical space? These are skills that councillors are now just beginning to develop – they understand that their role extends beyond the importance of effective problem centred decision making to being the custodian of the local narrative. In the past the narrative has for many places been the Town Hall representing the power of civic dignity and profound distinctiveness of place. The contemporary narrative is one of connectedness, blending historical tradition with the requirement to maintain and better local conditions so the ‘MFBB’ of the future will look upon our ipads, tweets and blogs as worthy of preservation as much as the Victorian edifices are valued by some today. Watch out – it will happen.

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

The 21st Century Chief Executive

Councillor Graham Chapman

It’s not only clothes and pop music which are subject to the vacillations of fashion. They affect the more mundane world of local government too. Elected mayors for example are a fashion of the ‘naughties’, when larger-than-life bankers, entrepreneurs, football managers, celebrities of all types were supposed to provide solutions to a whole range of problems by dint of pure charisma and personality.  Even the staid role of the chief executive is subject to fashion.

The traditional function of the chief executive with a legal background overseeing due process and formal decision making, gave way in the 80s to the more managerial approach, and perhaps was the heyday for the role. In the 90s and early 2000s it took another turn. Under the cover of the CPA and star ratings, where the chief executive was given a far more important role by the inspectors than the leader, and encouraged by SOLACE and the Blair Government, the ‘personality’ Chief Executive emerged. It was thankfully not totally pervasive but frequent enough to create conflict with the role of the elected members, and to increase chief executive remuneration in some cases to a point of embarrassment.  We are now going through a counter-revolution, partly because a minority of chief executives overplayed their hands, partly because of the recent antagonism whipped up against the public sector and because chief executives, as some of the most highly paid public servants, are an easy target. The counter-revolution now questions the need for the role at all and a number of authorities have abolished it, or are in the process of doing so.

My view is that chief executives are essential. A good chief executive provides continuity and integrity to the local government system, and a healthy counterpoint to political decision making. The system is part of a British tradition of local government which, being British, we do not appreciate sufficiently.  But if the role is to be accepted, de facto it does need to rid itself of some of the fashions it has been subject to and it needs to establish a set of core principles. The best, perhaps the only, set available has been devised by Roger Taylor, former chief executive of Manchester and Birmingham.  The principles should be of particular interest to the more buccaneering breed of chief executives who see themselves as more important than their members.

So here they are in précis in Roger Taylor’s own words.

1. However powerful a chief executive may seem, his/her success is always dependent upon gaining and maintaining high levels of political confidence and approval.

2. Chief executives need to develop a clear sense of the corporate  which is informed by, and contributes to, the politics of place

3. However difficult it may be for the political leadership at the time, it is vital that chief executives can demonstrate a clear moral and ethical compass and foundation to their work.

4. Chief executives are at the nexus between the democratically elected council and it’s paid servants. While they will be the leaders to the paid service, they can never allow themselves to become partisan.

5. Chief Executives must always avoid being “the story”. Some of the best chief executives are those who eschew the limelight and concentrate on the affairs of the council.

6. How well chief executives are likely to ‘gel’ with officer colleagues will always be less important than their intellectual capacity and ability to explain complex things clearly.

7. Chief executives need to have, and to demonstrate, the political skills to manage effectively in the spaces between leadership and opposition councillors.

8. Competent chief executives never need fear the working communications between their colleagues and the political leadership.

9. Chief executives need to have some empathy with the complexities and the arduous nature of leadership in the Council.

10. Chief executives who work with a political faction and against the leadership should never be trusted, especially by the political faction they work with.

11. Chief executives need always to bear in mind that neither the conferences nor the special roles pay the salary.  Chief executives constantly need to bear in mind what their day job is.

12. The heart of any relationship between leader and chief executive has to be trust, truth and tolerance.  It should never be an intimate friendship but it should always have with it an informality and an appreciation of each other’s company.

13. Leaders should have a clear idea about what they want chief executives to achieve and they should be able to rely on objective and independent support for the negotiation of these objectives and subsequent review of the chief executive’s performance.

To summarise: I have little doubt that the move to abolish the role of chief executive will turn out to be the most ephemeral of the fads and that those authorities trying to survive without one will return to the fold. However, it does not mean that the role does not need shoring up and insulating from the sum of the political and, often self-induced, managerial opportunism to which is has been subject. Roger Taylor’s list of dos and don’ts is a good start.

Graham Chapman is the Deputy Leader of Nottingham City Council, and the Portfolio Holder for Economic Development, Resources and Regeneration.  He is a Councillor for Aspley Ward.

Why the No-Vote was Right for Birmingham

Dr. Andrew Coulson

What a relief to wake up on Friday morning, 4 May 2012, and know that Birmingham will not have a directly elected mayor.  It was a most ill-informed referendum. The media, the business community (both Birmingham-based and national) and the government campaigned in favour. But the case against was hardly made at all until very close to the referendum, so there was little real discussion of what the new post would actually involve, or its advantages and disadvantages.

If it had gone ahead, it would have been the most divisive administrative change ever to hit the West Midlands. For London advocates of an elected mayor, it was presented as a new leader, able to speak for the whole West Midlands. That is not how it would have been seen in Dudley or Wolverhampton. The new mayor would also, probably sooner rather than later, have fallen out with the councillors elected to represent Birmingham wards, whose democratic mandate would be at least as strong as his or hers. If the council was controlled by a political party different from that of the mayor, that would have been a given from the start. But even within one party, sooner or later there would have been disagreements.

The job was impossible – to take over everything that Birmingham City Council and to influence every other organisation or group in the city. So every parent who could not get a child into a school of choice would have come to the mayor. So would the relatives of every patient that could not be discharged from hospital because suitable care arrangements were not in place.  Or every young family with a housing problem. There is no way one person could respond to that level of pressure. It is hard enough to understand the different cultures of the city – North and South, inner city and suburban, the highly complex racial geography.  There is nothing to be gained from trying to run everything that happens in Birmingham through one person, since however much he or she tries to delegate the buck will stop there and people will know it and soon get disappointed and frustrated.

Some of those arguing in favour of a mayor have no faith in councillors, and conclude that the biggest challenges would face chief officers. They should look carefully at what they wrote: do they really believe in a democratic process in which all the politics runs through one person?  or is their agenda to try and take politics and choice out of local government altogether?

A mayor of Birmingham was presented as the same as or similar to the Mayor of London. But Boris Johnson has virtually no powers, and only one major service to run. That is why mayors of London get so involved in public transport, and have time to promote economic development, regeneration and the Olympics. The services that affect people day by day are mainly the responsibility of the London boroughs.  The proposal for a mayor of Birmingham should have been presented as comparable to the Mayor of Newham – and there could then have been a realistic discussion as to whether having one would make a difference and how a mayor of Birmingham would relate to the Black Country or neighbouring counties.

There were no safety valves. At least a Leader can be voted down by a vote of no confidence in the Council meeting, or at the AGM. The city could have been stuck with a disastrous mayor for four years – becoming the laughing stock of the whole country, and an object of pity, and with no way out.

So now the newly empowered Labour administration in Birmingham will have to demonstrate that it is more effective than a mayor can be. Not an easy task given the general lack of discussion of the difficulties a mayor would have faced, and when the previous administration has partly lived off balances, and run the head office capacity of its departments down to the bare minimum or less. There are bound to be crises and failures, and some very difficult decisions to be made. The good property is that Labour’s showing in Birmingham was so strong that the party is almost guaranteed office for four years.

The sad reflection is that a case can be made for a directly elected mayor, not of Birmingham, but of the West Midlands, either as the city-region defined by the seven metropolitan districts, or as the whole standard region including the four adjacent county areas. That would have made the West Midlands like Boris’ London, and the resulting mayor might have had sufficient clout in London to bring jobs and training opportunities to the region, deliver the investment needed in public transport and deliver the coordination between the regional arms and agencies of central government and local agencies and trusts.

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.

A ‘no’ vote for city mayors does not have to shut down discussion on how local political leadership can be strengthened

Dr. Karin Bottom

Last week, ten English cities voted on whether  to alter the dynamics of leadership in their authorities and replace the current leader and cabinet formula with that of elected mayor, deputy and cabinet.  The rejection was almost unanimous, only Bristol registered a yes vote – but with a majority of less than seven per cent – and more than 60% of voters in Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Wakefield   prioritised the status quo above change.   To some this outcome was a surprise, yet  polls prior to the referenda were inconclusive at best and taken in conjunction with the uncertainty surrounding elected mayors, it is hardly surprising that the majority of the electorate chose to stay at home or vote no, average turnout being recorded at a particularly  low 32 per cent.

With a focus on what the office of mayor could do to regenerate cities  and enhance local democracy,  ‘yes’ campaigns were beset with problems from the  start, not least for the reason that pre election, the role of the elected mayor was to be broadly similar to that of council leader: specifics were to be negotiated after taking office and worryingly for some, a substantial amount of the role’s leverage would be the product of personality and an ability to maximise what are often termed as ‘soft’  powers.  Compounding these factors, the office’s confinement to cities – as opposed to regions – suggested that capacity for real change was somewhat more limited than proponents suggested.

Analysis in the aftermath of the referenda suggests that a number of factors contributed to the ‘no’ votes but it  is clear that the overriding sentiments within the electorate were uncertainty and confusion.  Voters were unsure about what they were being asked to endorse or reject and some argue that this explains why the   ‘no’ campaigns were particularly successful at tapping into and harnessing public sentiment.  Taken in the context of austerity, ongoing public service cuts and a generalised dissatisfaction with the political class, it is easy to speculate and suggest that the electorate was unenthusiastic about electing more politicians, especially when the nature of the role was unclear and guidelines for removing poorly performing mayors were minimal to say the very least: to many the office seemed nothing other than a risky and unnecessary expense.

Yet, the results on May 3rd should not shut down discussion on local political leadership. The mayoral model may have been rejected but the issue has not gone away; arguments for stronger more visible city leadership persist and the government has made it clear that it now sees the move towards elected mayors as incremental, cumulative and progressive: in this sense the debate continues.  Yet, now it might be useful to shift the focus somewhat and think about how leadership can be nurtured and maximised in the 339 non mayoral authorities in England because there is nothing to suggest that the qualities which comprise strong leadership sit only within the purview of  an elected mayor.  While  Joe Anderson and Ian Stewart take up their new mayoral posts  in Liverpool and Salford, they do so alongside 124 other English authorities which also underwent some form of political reconfiguration last week: it will be interesting to see  whether  the issues which catalysed the mayoral referenda will impact on future leadership dynamics in those local  authorities.

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.