Return to return to the committee system

Posted on June 27, 2019 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

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It’s time to come back to a topic beloved of local authority governance enthusiasts – the committee system.

A quick primer for those who were not working in the sector – or who, indeed, may not have been born – when the Local Government Act 2000 came into force, bringing into existence the governance systems under which most local authorities still operate. Before 2000, council decision-making happened through a number of service committees, politically balanced, which met frequently to set policy, make decisions and monitor performance. The 2000 Act concentrated decision-making in the hands of council Cabinets, and abolished the committee system for all but the smallest authorities.

In 2011 the situation changed, when the Localism Act made the committee system once more available to all English councils. That year and the couple of years that followed, we at CfPS did a fair bit of work with councils seeking to explore their options for governance change – we published two pieces of research, “Musical chairs” and (with the LGA), “Rethinking governance”, aimed at supporting councils in this activity.

After an initial flurry of councils between 2012 and about 2015, things became quieter. Things had, we assumed, reached something of a high water mark. Those councils with an interest in changing had done so – in the rest of the sector there was little appetite, certainly as financial challenges intensified and the dry issue of council governance was perhaps less important.

There was even cause to think that the tide would turn and that more councils would move from the committee system “back” to leader/cabinet. One council, South Gloucestershire, did so; we expected that with local government reorganisation and other forms of council merger and collaboration, more small shire districts would move to the cabinet systems shared by their neighbours.

But recently, things have changed. Over the last year in general but particularly since the May local elections there has been a rise in interest in this issue within, and beyond, councils. Active local campaigns exist in a number of areas agitating for change. Councils feeling their way through the realities of “no overall control” are in some cases alighting on the committee system as a model to assist them in making decision-making more consensual. Councils are embarking on wide-ranging governance and democracy reviews, often involving local people, where the option of moving to the committee system is being discussed.

This is fascinating – in hindsight, it is to have been expected. Far from consigning governance to a dusty shelf, the challenges of managing and delivering local services in exceptionally straitened circumstances have thrown into sharp relief the need to responsible, responsive local democracy.

Many will naturally be wary. We agree that there are risks associated with looking to a change in structures to bring about more fundamental changes to how councils are run, and how they engage with local people. We have long said that the most important issue in making councils accountable, transparent and involving of local people is culture – the mindset, attitudes and values of those in decision-making positions. A mere change of governance system will not deliver this – on its own.

CfPS is (and has been for many years) resolutely impartial when it comes to the vexed “cabinet vs committees” question. In truth any system (within reason) can, with the right attitude, be managed to be democratic, to be accountable, to work in the interests of local people. With this in mind we don’t think that there are definitive “pros and cons” to any one system (a point of view that I know disappoints some).

So there is value in having this conversation – as long as it doesn’t happen in isolation from what the council wants to achieve and as long as it draws in those wider cultural issues. Democratic institutions should be relevant, should benefit from the support of local people and should reflect changing needs. If after due consideration this means that councils will want to change their governance options we’re all for it – with the caveat that in our experience, once councils go through the issues and options they tend to find that the changes they and local people want can with creativity be delivered within the existing governance framework (whether cabinet or committee).

We’ve developed some tools and options to help, and if your council is considering its options in this areas we’d be keen to talk to you. We can’t promise to give you all the answers but we do know that sometimes debates on these issues can be helped by the presence of a neutral, independent broker. If you think that this is something you might need or if you want to know more about what we might offer, please get in touch with Ed Hammond on 020 3866 5109 or ed.hammond@cfps.org.uk

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.