An editorial in the Daily Telegraph of Thursday 5 February called for the scrapping of local council cabinets following news that the entire cabinet of Rotherham Council has resigned after publication of Louise Casey’s report into child abuse in Rotherham.
I am afraid I have come to expect hostility in the Conservative party to local government despite the fact that local councillors are often the only shock troops available to MPs at election time. I have also come to accept wholesale ignorance on the part of the media about the workings of local government but the degree of misunderstanding and ignorance exhibited by the author of this Daily Telegraph editorial is quite breath-taking.
The editorial blasts off “For too long, town hall leaders have been shielded from proper public scrutiny by the structures of governance created under Labour, in which council chiefs grandly preside over “cabinets” that are heavily reliant on powerful and highly paid full-time officers“.
I ought to declare my interest before commenting on the absurdity of this editorial. I was first elected as an Oxfordshire County Councillor in May 1989. I joined a council that operated under the committee system that this journalist lauds and I found the council to be horribly hung with three parties with 33, 23 and 13 seats plus an independent. There was no leader of the council; there was no leadership and there was no coherence. In fact the three party groups were all effectively in opposition. Policy proposals were shunted up a committee structure from sub-committee to main committee to a strategic committee and on to council. It was like snakes and ladders. At any time, an alliance could send a proposal back down a snake to start again in the next quarterly cycle. Officers worked to weave together alliances as best they could to move matters forward but there was a lack of leadership and a lack of coherence in what was happening.
In the 2001 council elections, the council remained hung but the Labour government’s imposition of a cabinet & leader system forced us to think again about our governance arrangements and, after many months of tricky negotiations, I put together a coalition of my Conservative Group with the Liberal Group. I became Leader of the Council after 12 years without one and the Liberals provided a Deputy Leader of the Council. There were seven other members in our Cabinet, making 5 Conservatives and 4 Liberals. It lasted the full four-year term and we made huge progress in reforming the council within the constraints of our coalition agreement. In 2005, we secured a Conservative majority of 10 and, in 2009 enlarged it to 30. I stood down in 2013, feeling it was time for others to carry what is a heavy and full-time role. Thus I have seen the committee and the cabinet systems in play in a hung council and a controlled one. I would have quit immediately if we had been forced back to the committee system.
To return to the Daily Telegraph editorial, I don’t know what experience the author has had of local government but it sounds like very little. Firstly, all councillors are dependent on the advice of full-time officers. Whether they are “powerful” or “highly paid”, I will leave to others to decide. However, just as in central government, elected politicians are, in many respects, amateurs who must reply on the advice of their paid officers (the equivalent of Westminster’s civil servants). The axiom is “officers advise but members decide” and how strongly this is applied will depend on the degree of political leadership exhibited by a council. Many have strong political leadership and, while officers will give advice and set out the policy alternatives within the parameters of the law and their financial and service outcomes, members will base their decisions on their political judgment. Of course, in a controlled council, those decisions will be taken by the ruling group and delivered through the cabinet of full council as the constitution requires. It has always been like this and it was no different under a committee system where there would have been a leadership group of senior politicians from the controlling group needing to take with them all of the members of their particular group to deliver policy through the council. In a hung council, there was the need to secure support from a coalition partner.
This is no different to the way in which Westminster operates except that council cabinets meet in public and their deliberations are seen and heard by all who choose to attend. the same is not true of the government’s cabinet!
There is a second and more important fallacy in the Daily Telegraph editorial. As a result of the Louise Tracey report, the whole Rotherham cabinet resigned. They were the political leadership of the council and they finally accepted responsibility for their collective failings. If a committee system had been in operation, who would have resigned? Every committee would have been politically balanced according to the proportionality of the council, including members of the controlling group and opposition members. There might well have been numerous committees and sub-committees with some responsibility for child welfare. Accountability was never a strong point of the old committee system. I think it would have been much harder to point the finger under the old committee system.
The editorial attacks “decisions taken behind closed doors by a small group of favoured burghers”. They always have been and they always will be just the same as in Westminster. Council political groups meet regularly to agree policy. They do so in private; nothing else would work. Within those groups will be a small number of senior politicians who have the knowledge, experience, skills and, above all, time to manage a brief. There will always be a division between this small leadership group who effectively work a full-time job with the remaining councillors for whom it is very much a part-time role alongside work, families and other interests. This division into full-time and part-time politicians does not always make for easy relationships and the leadership will always have to work hard to maintain a coherent group but there is no other logical way it can work.
Returning to a committee system will not change the political nature of councils nor the division between a leadership group with the time and talent to work full-time and the majority who will have to rely on this leadership.
There is another type of council. Often, it is the smaller ones where elected members come in for evening meetings and the officers run the council during the day. In some, political input may be relatively minor and the astute chief executive and senior officers will be able to ensure “sensible” policies are delivered through the political process by “helping” elected politicians through their deliberations. Again, whether such councils operated a cabinet or committee system would make little difference to where the power really lies and it will not be immediately obvious until someone with more experience than the author of the Daily Telegraph editorial scratches the surface to discover what lies beneath.