Since the Localism Act 2011, and particularly since the May 2019 elections, many councils have begun exploring different avenues of governance. There are three main models to choose from.
About council systems
A number of councils are making informal changes to their governance arrangements including tightening up existing processes, making sure that avenues exist for all members to get involved in the policy development process (for example, through overview and scrutiny) and putting in place consultation arrangements for particularly contentious decisions. Some councils have decided to go a step further, and revisit their formal governance arrangements, looking at the different decision-making models available to them and taking steps to make a legal change to a different governance system.
Today, there are three main decision-making systems that councils can adopt, or hybrid versions of the below.
Leader and Cabinet
This system, introduced by the Local Government Act 2000, is the most common form of governance. In some councils, individual members of the cabinet have decision-making powers; in others, decisions have to be made by the whole cabinet.
Cabinet is led by a leader, who is elected by full council for a term determined by the council itself or on a four yearly basis (and will usually be the leader of the largest party on the council). Councils which conduct business under this model are required to have at least one overview and scrutiny committee.
Opposition and backbench councillors can sometimes feel excluded from the decision-making process under this system. It favours a majority party, and where the majority is slim or there is political diversity, councils often look to consider an alternative system of governance.
Under this system councils are divided into politically balanced committees that make the decisions. As such, these councils are not required to have an overview and scrutiny committee, though some do have one or more.
A committee system does, inherently, give a louder voice to minority parties and Independents, since each committee is made up of members from all groups. Some stand-alone independent councillors have found themselves excluded from committees through proportionality arrangements during committee appointments, however councils have been able to offer them a seat on one or two committees. For this reason, the LGA Independent Group does advise its members to be part of formal groupings within councils, even if proportionality on committees is the only thing the group works together on.
A mayoral system functions under a mayor directly elected by the people who live in the local authority area, with a wide range of decision making abilities similar to those of the executive committee in a Leader and Cabinet model local authority.
The Mayor appoints their cabinet of councillors, who may also have their own decision-making powers. This system also must have at least one overview and scrutiny committee.
In some areas, councillors have complained about the perceived excessive power of directly elected mayors. The powers of the mayor are commensurate with the kind of local authority for which they are the executive. London borough councils, metropolitan district
councils and unitary authority councils have broadly similar functions, but for non-metropolitan district councils it is a subset, for example not having power over education, libraries and waste management.
Things to consider
One system is not intrinsically better than another. Any system can be managed to be democratic, to be accountable, and to work in the interests of local people.
Within a governance system, there are many things to consider before making any change, whether formal or informal, to the previously established system. When considering the pros and cons to each situation, there are a few things you must keep in mind about how the council should operate.
- Planning: What is the purpose of the work? What is the scope of the work? How will your review encapsulate the views of all interested parties? How can you meet democratic expectations of local residents?
- Assessment: How do we involve all members in policy development and integrate the public voice? What decisions are delegated to officers? How can we improve forward planning?
- Design: Based on the strengths and weaknesses that you identify in the assessment, develop some principles for what an improved system might look like – eg member/officer relationships, how information is shared and used, role for councillors in performance/financial management.
- Consider how you will get there: What changes to the way you work might be necessary in terms of both culture and structure? What structural options are available?
- Weigh up a formal change: Is there a clear rationale for a formal governance change?
There is a step by step outline of the process for changing system in the LGA Centre for Public Scrutiny publication, Rethinking Governance.