Political leadership: Plymouth City Council

Plymouth City Council's officers have experience of preparing for changes that may arise in the political administration of the council.

Plymouth City Council (PCC) have an election cycle by thirds, which means that elections take place in three years out of every four and party majorities are finely balanced. 

As a result, officers have experience of preparing for changes that may arise in the political administration of the council.
PCC have a specific set of documents that are revised every year which identify information that should be checked or briefed on in advance and then shared with members at the appropriate time.  Some information will apply across the council area, some will be ward specific. Set out below are some of the key areas for consideration. 

Key areas for consideration

One of the first things to consider is to be clear about the scenarios that could happen: 

  • Is a change of control likely?
  • There could be changes even if the same administration returns; there may be a change of leader which could mean a different way of working.
  • Working in a no overall control council can result in various ways of working, where will the balance of power lie?
  • If there is a coalition or a confidence and supply agreement, who will have cabinet posts and where is the commitment to key policies?  

Whilst it is not for officers to get involved in those discussions, it will be for officers to make it work, so preparation will be key. 
Prior to the election, it is useful to look at political manifestos, know what the parties have promised and how that could impact on the council’s priorities.
The Leader’s Scheme of Delegation is one of the key documents for PCC as it sets out the structure of the cabinet and the shape of portfolios.  Be prepared for that first conversation after the election.

  • Will the cabinet positions stay the same if there is no change of leadership
  • Will a new leader have a different focus and want to amend the lead roles
  • Do you have opposition shadow arrangements?  If so, they could be a guide in case of a change of control.
  • Committee proportionality will change and new members on regulatory committees will quickly need the appropriate training.
  • Appointments to outside bodies such as the Fire and Rescue Authority will change, and early consideration of the list will be helpful.
  • Members’ allowances can be contentious – does the incoming administration have a different view on the level of allowances?
  • Do you have Group rooms?  If so, the majority party might want the larger facilities and there may be office moves as a result.
  • Do you have a seating plan in your council chamber?  If so, this will need to change, and if you have a semi-automated web captions system this will need to be reprogrammed.

Another key document to share with members is the Member and Officer Relations Protocol. This sets out how members and officers work together and should help to allay any concerns of an incoming administration who may think officers only serve the previous administration.

  • Member induction programmes will need to be carefully thought out, the number of members standing down will give a guide to how many new members you are likely to have.  
  • Share with members information about governance and how the council works, the different committees and their terms of reference.  
  • Include information about council-owned companies and their governance arrangements.
  • Does the council work in partnership with other agencies? Are there shared services arrangements, a joint local plan? Include details about how they work and how they are governed.

Whilst some councils have good cross party working and opposition members are up to date, a new administration may not have had the benefit of regular briefings so position papers will help by setting out the council’s position on a range of areas such as:

  • Capital Programme
  • Economic Development
  • Major Transport Schemes
  • Parking
  • Education
  • Homelessness
  • Welfare Reform and Universal Credit
  • Equalities
  • Climate Change
  • Digital Strategy

There will be a raft of financial information that will need to be shared such as the Medium Term Financial Plan.  Early meetings with the s151 officer will help with understanding.

A communications protocol will be important to let the new administration know what rights they have that they might not have had in opposition.

Many council documents include a foreword from the previous administration – is there a protocol that states the foreword is changed when the document is reviewed? Otherwise a new administration may want to review and change them all which may not be practical.

A new administration is likely to want a new corporate plan as a way of translating their manifesto into council policy; this will need to be published quite early on if they are to have time for the plan to make a difference.  How will the new administration conduct performance management, and does the new administration understand the role of cabinet members in being accountable to scrutiny supported by officers?
Finally, PCC have developed a virtual Operating Manual available on their intranet.  It lists the documents that the council needs to run effectively as an organisation, for example policies and plans that are in place, when they need to be reviewed, supporting policies and plans that are interrelated, the timetable for the budget setting process, a calendar of reporting such as quarterly health and safety reports.  
The manual comprehensively sets out the information that will help members navigate and understand the workings of the council. This manual, alongside the documents, conversations and preparation undertaken, give officers at PCC the confidence to know that they are ready to work with any new administration.