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White Paper proposes stronger mayors
and more power to English communities
By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

30 October 2006: The UK government has published its long-awaited white paper on local government reform for England, Strong and prosperous communities, outlining its proposals for enhanced local leadership, decentralisation to communities and more accountable local services. The reforms are seen as one of the final acts of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration before his scheduled departure from office next summer. Yet already some critics have already labelled them untimely and a botched compromise demanded by Chancellor and putative Prime Minister Gordon Brown before the Lyons Review on local finance he established reports this December.

Update November 2007:
In October 2007 the UK government’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act was finally approved by Parliament and overhauled the system of governance in most English councils, seven years after the landmark Local Government Act, which introduced the elected mayor model for the first time. The new Act requires council leaders to be installed for four years, thus almost creating a Swedish-style indirectly elected mayor. More

A week before the white paper launch, Tony Blair himself held a summit of England’s 12 elected mayors, also attended by London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, in town to study London’s preparations for the 2012 Olympics in advance of his own city’s 2016 bid. Blair’s mayoral enthusiasm remains strong, even if other Labour figures remain sceptical of their merits. Blair, a noted Yankophile, also visited Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa several months ago, who repaid the favour by speaking at Labour’s annual party conference in Manchester last month. The contrast between America’s dynamic city leaders and those thrown up by the English party system will not have been lost on him.

The watchword of the document is decentralisation. The UK, or in this case England, is one of the most centralised states in Europe. While the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher could barely conceal its contempt for local democracy, it was the previous Labour administration during the 1970s in the form of Environment Secretary Tony Crosland who told stunned councillors that “the party’s over”, ushering in the strict spending controls demanded by the IMF that have constrained local councils ever since. Labour’s centralist mindset, best demonstrated by post-war cabinet minister Douglas Jay’s mantra ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’, has proven hard to dispense with.

The government however claims it is letting go and will let local councils get on with the job they’ve been elected to do. The document contains a raft of proposals to loosen central government bureaucracy and lift the inspection burden, offering instead a looser performance framework and reserve powers to intervene only in the worst cases of local incompetence. Aside from some of the technocratic measures involving Local Strategic Partnerships and Multi-Area Agreements, the headline-grabbing component of the paper are the plans to devolve more power to neighbourhoods though a revitalised community tier of parish and local councils, with new powers to issue on-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour.

Most interestingly, the paper proposes a substantial overhaul in the leadership arrangements of English local authorities, moving from the straight choice between a council leader elected annually by other councillors, which operates in the vast majority of councils, or a directly elected mayor, which operates in only twelve. Instead, councils will now have to decide whether or not to have a directly elected mayor, which they can proceed to without a referendum, or instead elect the council leader for a fixed four-year term rather than annually. The leader would also be vested with all executive authority within the council, which they could then delegate to cabinet members. This would see English councils operate along the same lines as those in many other European countries, where the strong mayor is appointed by the council for the duration of its term of office. It also proposes a new model of the directly elected council executive, where an entire cabinet would submit itself for election en bloc. England’s only mayor and council manager system, in Stoke on Trent, will be phased out and moved to a conventional elected mayor model.

In terms of local democracy, the paper proposes that each council be free to choose its election cycle (either part each year or all-out every four) and whether or not to have single-member wards to increase accountability. Central government’s power to approve every by-law passed by each council and to decide on the creation of new community councils will be ended, with local councils deciding on this in future. Furthermore, community councils, which may only be called parish or town councils at present, will be free to style themselves ‘community’, ‘village’ or ‘neighbourhood’ councils.

Those looking to the white paper for an end to England’s confusing hybrid system of single-tier and two-tier areas may be disappointed. Instead of the massive reorganisation once promised, a more cautious approach has been taken. Instead, councils willing to submit themselves to reorganisation along unitary lines will have three months to submit their plans to central government, which will then apply value for money criteria when deciding whether or not to green-light the plans. Similarly, for all the rhetoric about city regions emanating from central government in recent months, the paper is more reticent than many will have hoped, not least because of local resistance to the idea and the on-going turf war between the Treasury and the Prime Minister’s office over them. Aside from a vague commitment to beef up the Passenger Transport Authorities in the cities and explore new ways of promoting economic development in them, Strong and prosperous communities is not the comprehensive blueprint for 21st century city governance that might have been. For that we have to thank the disastrous May local election results for Labour that precipitated the government reshuffle that saw the reforming David Miliband lose the local government brief in cabinet and Tony Blair’s own waning authority as Prime Minister while his brooding successor Gordon Brown remains as tight-lipped as ever about his own plans for local government.

The proposals apply only to England. Wales’ devolved legislature will now be given full powers over Welsh local government under the proposals, including questions of structure. Scotland has pursued its own path of modernisation since the creation of the devolved Scottish Executive in 1999, with proportional representation for local elections from May 2007. English councils have unfortunately been spared such radical reform on this occasion, with ministers making their views known by preventing Wales from deciding on a similar course of action under its new powers. Once again, the centre is simply refusing to let go.

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