- Meeting of Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee, Tuesday, 11th June 2019 6.00 p.m. (Item 4.)
The Director of Governance and Assurance reported that the Annual Meeting of the Council required the Committee to look at the Council’s governance arrangements. The purpose was to include options to change the Council’s form of governance, with an express intention to consider adopting a committee system as well as different executive arrangements. The Committee was to report back on 11 September 2019 to allow for detailed work to follow for adoption of any new form of governance from the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Council.
The report was very informative and set out the various options and arguments for the Committee, in brief, and recommended establishing a Workshop and Working Group of the Committee to examine the issues further.
The Director had sketched out what the different forms of governance looked like in his report. He informed that there was a distinct difference between the form of governance that the Council adopted and the arrangements that sat underneath each form. There were two forms of governance that the Council could choose to adopt. Principally, there was a choice between an Executive form of governance and that meant either a Leader and Cabinet or a directly elected Mayor and Cabinet or a Committee form of governance which was variations of Committees and what was permitted under the Local Government Act 1972. This was the traditional structure that Councils did operate under until 2000 but still formed the legislative basis for those functions that were retained by the Council and not mandated to the Executive.
The Director reported that of those two forms of Executive there was a directly elected Mayor which was the form of governance that Liverpool City Council had adopted. The significant differences between that and a Leader and Cabinet was that a directly elected Mayor could not be removed they were in power for four years and had a greater say over the Executive governance arrangements that sat underneath them and also had a greater say over the budget. Beyond that, there was actually very little difference between the directly elected Mayor model and the Leader model.
The Committee noted that what this Council currently had was a form of governance originally called the Strong Leader model because at the beginning, variations had been permitted within the Leader model and then after 2009, the Government of the day had decided that it had to be a Strong Leader model. This had been changed dramatically by the 2011 Localism Act which allowed the Council to make several choices of the kind of Leader and Cabinet that it wanted to adopt.
Under the current arrangements, the Leader had the say over who made a decision but under Executive arrangements, the Council was able to say how the decision was made. The procedures and arrangements that sat around the decision-making were governed, within the Council’s Constitution, by what was known as the Executive Procedure Rules.
The Director also reported that this Council was almost unique in having no Executive Procedure Rules. They had been removed from the Constitution so if the Council decided to continue with this model, after September 2019, there would be a great deal of choice over how open or closed the system of decision-making could be. Equally, if the Council changed to a Committee system and that was voted on by the Council, then it would be for a five year period, it would not be able to change the arrangements for five years.
Members noted that under the Committee system there were wide variations. Those Councils who had moved to a Committee system since 2011 did not follow the same form as that which this Council had adopted in the 1980s and 1990s. On the whole Committee systems were a lot slicker and a lot more focussed now. There were no longer the myriad of Committees with each one making a recommendation to each other and on to the Council.
Members then asked questions and made comments to which the Director responded accordingly. Issues raised included the following:
· There was dissatisfaction with the current form of governance.
· Whatever form of governance was adopted in future there would need to be a lot more accountability, credibility and transparency.
· 18 months would be an ideal run up to agreeing a form of governance but this review would be carried out a lot faster. Additional support would need to be bought in to rewrite the Constitution as there was insufficient capacity available in-house. This was considered the most cost efficient way to do this. The Deputy Monitoring Officer would be discussing the Council’s requirements with colleagues in the North West Consortium.
· The Council would have to run with any new form of governance that was adopted for five years but the governance arrangements that sat underneath that could be changed during that period.
· If the Committee gave the Director clear instructions he was confident he would be able to provide a Constitution that would include good working practices, by this time next year, and then further amendments could be made as and when they were required.
· The Bill Local Leadership, Local Choice presented to Parliament by the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in March 1999 claimed that
Ø the public had not been well served by the traditional ways Councils had worked;
Ø the system had been inefficient, opaque and weakened local accountability; and
Ø major decisions, in reality, were often taken outside of the Committee meetings.
· This was how things occasionally worked under the present form of governance. People lost confidence in their Council’s decisions. Individual Councillors became disillusioned with their ability to influence local decisions and people were discouraged from standing for election. There needed to be trust between those elected to represent and lead communities and those who elected them and whom they served. If communities were to have the leadership they needed people had to identify with the way they were governed.
· When there had been a Committee system Members had felt that they were able to have their say. Sometimes meetings were rushed and sometimes Political Groups used their majorities to try to close down debate but at least Members could make their points, challenge and take part in a debate.
· Members needed to feel that their votes meant something and their constituents needed to see what they were doing.
· A form of governance needed to be drawn up and agreed by the Council that dealt with the longstanding criticisms of the old system and dealt with the similar criticisms of the system it had operated in recent times.
· There were 66 Members on the Council. The current form of governance allowed 10 to make decisions and 56 to just make comment, except when agreeing the budget at the Council meeting etc. 56 Members were denied the opportunity to take part in 97% of the Council’s decision-making.
· The Local Government Association was unable to assist with the drafting of a new Constitution. This was something that some law firms specialised in.
· Re-writing the Constitution would mean starting again with a blank sheet of paper. Some of it would be ‘off the shelf’ but there were 82 things that must be included) available from the Model Constitution and from other places so there may not be the exact fine tuning to be done, that might have been done, if the work had been carried out at a slower pace. The new Constitution might not be perfect but it would be lawful.
· In recent times the general public had not felt engaged with the activities of the Council and its decision-making had become remote.
· It was time to change the culture because the public wanted the Council to do this and with national politics too. Things had changed there were now five Political Groups and they were all involved in this and over time they would all come to understand that no Group had a monopoly on good ideas. The five Groups differed fundamentally on some issues but they all wanted to produce ideas that benefitted the people they served.
· The Wirral has a diverse set of communities with different needs and expectations.
· In recent times, all Members of the Cabinet had been from the same Political Group and the lack of challenge had dumbed down the quality of the debate at Cabinet meetings.
· The consistent complaints from Members of all Political groups had been that the Council meetings were frustrating for most Members because it did not debate many issues.
· If there was a change in the form of governance it took place at the following Annual Council meeting.
(1) a cross-party Workshop be established to explore available forms of governance and governance arrangements in greater detail; and
(2) an all-party working group be established to consider the outcome of the Workshop and make a recommendation to the Committee’s meeting on 11 September 2019 to refer to the Council on 14 October 2019.