Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Labour 6:10 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to speak as a former local authority chief executive in the face of so many distinguished council leaders for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection. Nevertheless, I want to speak clearly on this issue.

I shall advance the argument that the Bill is necessary because local government is fundamentally in crisis. The evidence for that statement comes from the public themselves, which must be the central focus for the legislation. There are voluminous data from MORI opinion polls and elsewhere showing that the public hold local councils in low esteem. At the last election only 29 per cent bothered to vote in local elections in England; that is the lowest figure we have ever seen. In a recently published British attitude survey, 60 per cent of the public said that they had no interest whatever in local politics. It is said that 95 per cent of the public cannot name their council leader. For many, particularly the young, local government is seen as being largely irrelevant to their concerns and interests. Local government committees are seen as talking shops. I say that with sorrow because I am a passionate supporter of local government and had a satisfactory personal career in it for between 25 and 30 years. The arguments that we do not need change have no foundation in the face of that evidence.

The debate should involve how we change and reconnect with the public. We are not talking about a static society. We are talking about a society where we expect substantial continuing economic growth. If the rate of growth is at a level of below 2 per cent, within a decade GDP will have risen by 20 per cent. That level of increase and the consequent effects on local communities will be profound. At the same time we are aware that technology and society changes are under way and are looking therefore at how a governmental system, whether at national or local level, is capable of addressing the needs of a fast-changing society and economy rather than hankering to get back to the world that we have lost. That is why we must be concerned as to how we can reform and modernise local government on a cross-party basis. If we are not capable of doing that and the public continue to see local government as being largely irrelevant to their needs, the only option left will be for central government to run things through their bodies and agencies.

We have seen over the past decade or so that there has been virtually no opposition from the public to the loss of local government functions. That matters. Locality still ought to matter to us. The argument is sometimes made that the issue of locality has gone; that people move around more frequently; they live in different places and work in different places from where they live. Yet if one takes a practical look at the situation, to most of us where we live and where our children go to school matters; locality still has impact. The debate therefore is how, in a more mobile society, we can reconnect people back to a governmental system at a local level.

One of the components of that debate has to be the issue of leadership. No one would argue that leadership is the simple or sole issue necessary for change in the local government agenda; but it matters in terms of organisations being better able to address the needs of the communities they serve. So, unashamedly, I should like to speak for a few minutes about why the structures and systems of local government matter as well as its powers and functions, while welcoming the long-overdue recognition of the power of well-being that the Bill brings forward.

It is known to all in the Chamber that every year a leader must secure a vote in his or her majority group to continue as a leader in that council. I do not want to make too much of that, but in essence leaders are forced to have an internal as well as an external focus. They are forced to ensure that, by and large, back-benchers are comfortable with what they are doing and that there is an opportunity for back-benchers to play a part in the process, however minor.

It might be said that there is nothing wrong with that. But surely the central focus of leaders should be to have a strong connection with the interests and needs of their community. That is why we should look with an open mind at one of the options that the Bill offers to indicate that a direct relationship between a leader and the community is important. It is nothing new. Members on the Benches opposite have, in the past, argued for such reform strategies, and done so well and persuasively.

The Bill offers basically three options. What is not an option is the status quo. I hope I have indicated some of the reasons why that should be so and how much I commend the work of the Joint Committee in its deliberations in the summer. Those who went to the LGA briefing before this debate were heartened to hear the chief executive of that organisation say that the Local Government Association did not support the status quo. I commend it for that; it is a progressive move.

We should look also at where local government is in relation to this debate and the option of a directly-elected mayor. The committee system has been spoken of fondly. Members of the House are well aware that the committee system has virtually disappeared in local government in the rest of the world. No doubt it has a role in some places, but does not appear to have adherence in the rest of the world. It was clearly appropriate for the 19th century, but that is in the past.

The debate therefore is how councils will choose the options. They will not be imposed by government; it will be an issue of choice for a local authority and its community. There is cause for concern in that regard on two fronts. If we ask the public the straightforward question--it has been asked in numerous polls over the past year or two--"Are you interested in having a directly-elected mayor for your area?", between 60 and 70 per cent will say "Yes". That is a remarkably high figure for a reform option. If we ask local councils how many are interested in having a directly-elected mayor for their area, only 2 per cent will respond with a "Yes". The difficulty is that if there is to be a genuine debate about new structures that will better serve the interests of the public, it must be a debate involving the public rather than one held in the smoke-filled rooms of the ruling party of the council. So far we have not been overwhelmed with enthusiasm by local authorities wanting to have that debate with their communities. There have been impressive exceptions. Lewisham, Liverpool and one or two others have sought a genuine discussion with their local communities about a system that would best suit the needs of the public rather than those of the current local political elite. One hopes that the Bill and its subsidiary legislation will make such full and open debates an essential part of the process. Again I pay tribute to the Local Government Association. When asked, "Should a local authority put all options before its public and debate them?", the unequivocal answer was that of course it should do so.

We are all saying that scrutiny is vital. I may not have been paying attention in all my 25 years in local government, but I did not see a great deal of evidence of scrutiny. That is best exampled by the deputy leader of a council, for which I was chief executive, when we were forming a performance review committee. He said, "You can look at anything you like whatsoever, as long as it doesn't cause us any embarrassment in public."

Past practice on scrutiny in local government is not very impressive, which is why we should keep an open mind on the need for change. The current system whereby all decisions on policy, practice and scrutiny are in theory made by one body--the committee--has failed to deliver clarity on policy making, clear strategic leadership at times or much evidence of vigorous challenge to what a council has done in the past.

I warmly commend the Bill and support many of its measures. I hope that we can have serious debate on how the Bill can best serve the interests of the public, rather than on the world that is behind us now.