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Citizenship and Sustainable Communities (3) - Tuesday 7th April 2009 at The Blue Mugge Pub, Leek

derek tatton
3 April 2009

Open Circle or ODD Group
Tuesday 7th April 2009 at The Blue Mugge Pub, Leek
Citizenship (3)

Intro: This topic is becoming a ‘termly regular’ for the group - understandable given the fast-developing issues which it contains. This session was to examine the impact of the Sustainable Communities Act.

However, the Committee on Standards in Public Life launched a new inquiry (their 12th)  last December: “Local Leadership and Public Trust: Openness and Accountability in Local and London Government” which poses some new and very relevant questions about the consequences of ‘citizenship’.

SusCom 07: On 14/10/08 Hazel Blears invited councils to make bids for assistance under this Act which could be to “reverse the decline in local services ... deal with fuel poverty ... protect the environment” and even promote greater “participation in civic and political activity” under the rubric of. ‘social well-being’. By 18/12/08 no less than 37 local authorities had applied (about 10% of the total of  389). These included Newcastle-under-Lyme but not Stoke-on-Trent. [Update at the meeting.]

Can Government really be serious if it leaves such issues to voluntary participation by councils ?

The late (and lamented) Sir Bernard Crick’s 1998 report “Educaton for Citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools” drew only sporadic Government enthusiasm but resulted in the establishment of the subject on to the national curriculum in September 2002.

Sir Keith Ajegbo’s 2007 Curriculum Review “Diversity and Citizenship” made several recommendations which built on the original three concepts of moral and social responsibility, community involvement, and political literacy and it does seem that the Sus Com Act opened several doors for these.

What mechanisms exist, or can be initiated, to take advantage of opportunities under SusCom 07 ?

In previous ‘citizenship’ sessions reference has been made to the Rowntree ‘Power (to the people) Report’ but this seems to have been largely ignored by Government - despite its impeccable research credentials.

Is there a method to ‘get this on the publicagenda’ or must there be a completely new approach ?

Local Leadership and Public Trust: “Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People” was the 1998 White Paper which influenced all subsequent legislation (2000 and 2007 Loc Gov Acts particularly) and said: “the emphasis ought to be on bringing the views of their community to bear on the council’s decisions and on scrutinising their performance”. This led to a dichotomy with Government preference for elected mayors (as ‘strong and recognised leaders’) on the one hand and the results of 37 referendums in England which have rejected this concept in 25 of them. These are some questions asked by the CSPL:

  • what are the strengths and weaknesses of the new models of executive decision-making ?
  • why are there so few elected mayors ?;
  • have the new systems increased public trust in local governance ? if so how ?
  • how do the different models, inside and outside UK, compare in terms of openness and accountability ?

In para 2.24 of the report (www.public-service.org.uk ) the requirement to appoint a ‘lead member’ for childrens services is highlighted - does this conflict with other aspects of decision-making by other parts of the authority - especially the mayor or leader, and accountability as a whole.

Openness and transparency (and thus implied accountability) are supported by the requiremnt to produce forward plans of key decisions and the right of citizens to information (FoI) and request explanation.

CSPL invites comments regarding how well the openness and accountability work.

Questions:

  • what are the key elements of accountability in loc gov’t and how well do they work in practice ?
  • how can ‘scrutiny’ be judged and do current provisions lead to this being effective ?
  • how well have councils embedded a culture of scrutiny in their decision’making process ?
  • which systems provide for stronger accountability ? Why is this ?
  • what is the role of standards committees in ensuring accountability ? do they do this well ?
  • how do external bodies (eg media, regulatory bodies) hold councils to account ? do citizens trust this ?
  • is there a tension between ‘getting things done’ and openness ? if so, how can this be reconciled ?

Further sections deal with the role and accountabiliity of senior officers, how they may be held to account and the conflict between their support for the executive and their support for scrutiny. The traditional relationship (“officer proposes; member disposes”) between members and officers has been changed by new legislative requirements. This may also have been affected by the new partnerships which have been thrust on to local authorities through PFI - which may conflict with local authorities’ traditional values.
redmik.

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