Thursday, 17 May 2007

Council Elections: A Different Perspective

In the past fortnight since the local council elections, the blogsphere has been full of comment and analysis ranging from the Tory triumphalists to the soul-searching of some Liberal Democrat bloggers. "How do you solve a problem like Ming ?" has exercised bloggers and Times leader writers alike but I'll talk about that another time...

Local elections are or should be local and this year's results seem to reflect that. Councils seeking to introduce fortnightly refuse collection were punished irrespective of political control. The Liberal Democrats lost 155 seats on ten councils which seems a damning indictment of their governance but the Conservatives lost ground in some areas too while the Labour performance was also more mixed than a loss of 500 seats might imply.

I've worked in and around the local authority sector for nearly twenty years and the fact is that the flavour of political control of an authority doesn't really matter that much. The key elements are the quality of the Councillors of the majority group (if there is one), the quality of the senior and middle-ranking officers within the authority and the relationship between Members and officers. The best performing authorities are those where the Members work harmoniously with a strong team of senior officers toward a clearly defined series of objectives and goals. I've seen that in Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and even in authorities with No Overall Control.

So, how can it go wrong ? Very often, when one party has been in charge for a long period of time, a change of administration can be unsettling. For officers it should be seamless but inevitably relationships develop and the new system of "Executive" control has accentuated this such that only six or seven leading Members deal regularly with officers. When an officer deals with the same Member for a number of years, a change can be unsettling. For a group which takes power even after a period of opposition, the officers can be "tainted" by association with the previous administration. The same occurred in the years after 1997 when some senior civil servants came to realise they could not work with a non-Conservative administration.

In local Government, the concept of senior officers coming through the ranks is long over. Now, it is the pattern for senior officers to be recruited on short-term contracts from the private sector. This has changed the whole culture of how many Councils operate. Many now seek to operate in a quasi-commerical way. The argument for fortnightly refuse collections is very strong when viewed from a commercial mindset. Costs are reduced and in authorities where keeping the Council Tax low is considered a priority, this can be compelling.

Thus, there are Authorities where, to be honest, Members have abdicated control to senior officers who set policy direction based on what they perceive to be the political direction preferred by Members. In other Authorities, I have seen the reverse. A small cabal of senior members roam the corridors setting policy and acting more like managers than political leaders. This is equally unhealthy in my view. Very often such a direction leads to splits in the ruling group as backbenchers are often excluded from decision-making and resent the control of the Leader or Chairman.

The worst Councils, in my experience, are where the Member-Officer relationship has broken down. In one instance, I attended a meeting and became aware that not only were the Leader and Chief Executive not speaking to each other, they were not looking at each other either. That kind of situation rapidly becomes untenable. Nowadays, the Chief Executive can have his or her Contract terminated but it can cost serious money and can be politically very difficult.

We saw in the mid-90s many Councils which had known long periods of Conservative majority control change and other administrations emerge. Some have proved successful - many have not and these authorities have steadily returned to the Tory fold. The lesson for Liberal Democrat and Labour Councillors was that many were wholly unprepared not only for election but also for administration. The reality of control is far different to the indulgence of Opposition.

However, the lessons of administration are also beneficial or should be. As and when Conservative fortunes subside again (as they will), it may well be that incoming Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations will be far more prepared for power and its realities than they were. Perhaps more significantly, if we are to believe David Cameron, should the Tories take power in 2009, the next time these seats are fought (in 2011) the Councillors elected will have REAL power, responsibility and authority. We'll see..

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