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Agreeing with Harry Phibbs on accountability in local governemnt

Joe Quimby, Mayor of Springfield, from the Simpsons by Matt GroeningFar be it for me to agree with Harry Phibbs (and possibly even Eric Pickles), but it seems that, on this one issue at least, I do. Harry Phibbs was the man who got the Federation of Conservative Students shut down for being too right-wing but is now the local government editor of ConservativeHome and a right-wing Tory councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham. His column today reports the decision by Eric Pickles to consult on whether the Cabinet system on Rotherham Council should be completely abolished, and the council return to the Committee system.

The current structure of local government today is a legacy of Tony Blair similar to the legacy he left of a remodelled New Labour party – authoritarian and devoid of accountability. You might describe the relationship that evolved in his reign between Parliament and the Executive in the same way. Harry Phibbs sums up the issues in local government perfectly well:

There are advantages to a Cabinet system. It means that decisions can be taken more quickly. Conviction politics can triumph over the mushy consensus of a committee – and the compromises of placating fractious Party colleagues. A Cabinet Member signed a sheet of paper handed to him by a bureaucrat and the matter is resolved.

The disadvantages with the arrangement are also easy to spot. There is a lack of accountability. True there are “Scrutiny Committees” of councillors, able to ask questions, but these are mere talking shops with no power.

With the Committee System all these decisions have to be voted through the committee. Instead of a Cabinet Member for Housing, or Children’s Services, or the Environment, or Adult Social Care, or whatever it is, there is a Chairman for a committee for each of these matters.

Usually the Council leadership will still be able to get its policies through. The Committee chairman can still have frank discussions in private with the council leader and council officers about the merits of a proposal. The Committee chairman can still talk privately with those committee members who are members of the same party and try to resolve any difficulties in securing their support. Once the matter comes to a committee meeting the whip applies.

Yet the committee is being asked to take real decisions – not just to note a report. That does mean more accountability and more transparency. It means more power for councillors and less for bureaucrats.

Even more extreme than the cabinet system of course is the directly elected mayor, empowered to impose his policies on major issues and his budget unless there is a two-thirds majority of councillors opposed and willing to vote them down – a situation usually resolved by the powers of patronage available to the mayor. And dyet this model still appears to be favoured by Labour’s front bench.

It is time to take it apart. We need local accountability for local government as we need greater accountability of national government to Parliament. Why have we failed to learn the lesson of the Poulson affair? Why do we encourage the development of Tammany Hall political structures? The alternative is likely to be a continuing series of disastrous failures by local councils, and many of them will be Labour councils.

Image credit: The Simpsons


  1. we now have piecemeal change across the UK. It is time for a full analysis of the options for government and the constitution, particularly as the latest machinations of the Westminster bubble would not only create a mega power bloc in Manchester with an elected dictator sorry Mayor but would hand over the NHS to it. From one non accountable system to another.

    Miliband once said there should be a People’s Convention then dropped the idea. Time to revive it

    trevor fisher.

  2. James Martin says:

    I’m still shocked that the committee system was ever allowed to happen at all, let alone that it has lasted so long. It undermines democracy and accountability at every turn, and what is left is that even on large city and county-wide councils only a handful of individuals have any real power or influence, and they are also then often full time well paid politicians as a result. Decisions take place behind close doors, as do debates. Things become even more secretive and murky, while the sense of local people having no power or influence increases. No wonder Blair thought it was all so wonderful.

    All that said, I suspect the really interesting question here is how many Labour councillors would want to get rid of it, given so many seem entirely comfortable having little or no contact with those they represent these days (and given how many times their hands seem to go up for cuts and redundancies this is hardly surprising – a lot of that shower probably feel that they need to hide).

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