Councils are political organisations, and their arrangements for decision-making are known as their ‘governance’.
Councils can adopt (or be directed to adopt) one of the following four models:
- a leader and cabinet
- a committee system
- executive arrangements with a directly elected mayor
- arrangements prescribed by the Secretary of State.
Most councils operate a leader and cabinet model. The full council elects a leader who, in turn, appoints and chairs the cabinet. Each cabinet member has a specific area of responsibility – for example children and young people, housing or finance. The cabinet meets regularly (weekly or fortnightly) so decisions are made quickly. The cabinet may also be called the executive.
In some areas, an executive mayor is elected for a four-year term. The mayor has greater powers than a council leader and may or may not be a member of the majority party on the council. He/she proposes the budget and policy framework and appoints and chairs the cabinet, which can be single or cross-party.
Some councils opt for a committee system. The council establishes a number of committees, each with a specific area of responsibility. The political groups appoint elected members to those committees. More councillors are actively involved in decision-making, but it can take longer to reach decisions.
Increasingly, areas are creating joint decision-making arrangements such as combined authorities or joint leaders’ boards to deal with issues that cross local authority boundaries, such as economic growth and transport.
Whichever system an authority opts for, it must have a full council on which all councillors sit. This is responsible for setting the policy framework, agreeing the budget and spending plans, electing the leader and making constitutional and other important decisions which in turn must be lawful and taken with reference to appropriate advice. It is also a forum for debate on major issues affecting the council and its local area. In councils with a directly elected mayor, the budget and framework are proposed by the mayor and can only be amended or overturned by the council with a two-thirds majority.
Councils that do not opt for the committee system must establish overview and scrutiny arrangements through which non-cabinet councillors can scrutinise decisions.
There are some regulatory and quasi-judicial functions over which the cabinet does not have responsibility – such as determining planning applications and making decisions on licensing. These are delegated to separate planning and regulatory committees.