Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, a key theme of 2020 has been diversity and inclusivity. This two-part update addresses this theme in detail
So, the votes have been counted, but the fallout continues.
Even by early morning on Friday, it was clear that there had been a huge change in the composition of many councils across the country; some changing to a different group altogether, and many moving to a position of No Overall Control; or a different composition of NOC. Some authorities who have been with one party for decades, find themselves under different leadership. The 2018 Map of Local Authority Political Control has been ripped up and is in the bin.
What does this mean in practical terms; especially bearing in mind that there may well be some new councillors who find themselves in positions of power that they never dreamt they could be in. There are a number of sensitivities here for monitoring officers and senior lawyers to consider; we have picked out just a few to highlight below. There are others!
First, if your council is now NOC, who will form the administration; and who will be leader? Will you have a coalition; and are independents truly independent, i.e. not grouped or members of an Independent Group?
It is not unknown for this to take some time to sort out; allegiances and alliances may very well change, and new ones need to form. In that time, it may leave councils without a leader for a while, although don’t forget the provision (s9IA and B) introduced into the LGA 2000 by the Localism Act about the leader remaining as a member of the council during their term of office; so, check what that is. However, assuming that the council is leaderless, it still needs to operate; and, hopefully, the HOPS will have sufficient power delegated to them in the Constitution to be able to take the necessary operational decisions in the interim for services to continue. The political/policy decisions may take a little longer, and be of a different magnitude altogether - see below.
Second, what do the changes mean for the makeup of the various council committees? The proportionality rules in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (ss15-17) and the Political Groups Regulations can take some working out; and lead, especially if there are ungrouped members, into some unexpected results for small groups at least. But they are the rules and, therefore, need to be observed; otherwise, decisions can be challenged, and the council can end up in some embarrassing difficulties; so, leave time to make sure that calculations are correct and understood. One situation we are often asked to advise on is how those rules work, and the reality often is that the answer is that it’s the Group leader's nominations that rule the day.
Third, do new members understand their role and the possibilities, limitations and restrictions on how the council has to operate? Code of conduct is only one aspect of this. Training members is, of course, crucial at the best of times, but particularly so in our experience when those new members do not come from one of the more established parties. Local government law and the operation of it is usually not intuitive and can take some time to understand, so you may have to be patient!
Four, what does the change mean for senior officers; particularly those who may be thought by incoming member, however unfairly, to have close links with the previous administration? The month of May is often, in our experience, a time of change in senior roles for those reasons, it's just politics. If you are asked to advise on the situation by the politicians, consider taking specialist employment advice that links closely with an understanding of the governance and the practical issues involved and where the politics are understood, certainly in terms of what is possible, and has an awareness of the restrictions and other considerations involved.
And finally, policies. They can, and probably will, be changed. Thinking about this in the cold light of four days after the election, it is not surprising that the focus of many who are now elected will want to be on how they can use the next four years to their advantage and see themselves re-elected. That is likely to mean a focus on local issues, enabling them to show what they have done for their local communities. This may mean that they want to have a higher profile locally and be more 'hands-on'. It may very well result in a change of terms of what the priorities of the council are, and how they achieve these priorities; and so, in the way in which the councils' restricted funding is used, both in the delivery of statutory and non-statutory services.
So, policies are likely to change and councillors demand that this happens at pace. However, things cannot be done overnight, and there may very well be a process to follow – statutory and otherwise. Cutting corners there, no matter how tempting it may seem to keen new councillors, is very often the wrong thing to do. Don’t forget, for example, that time may need to be allowed for consultation, and consideration of the responses; and that decisions must be reasonable. There is also the knock-on impact of the effects of changing the use of resources on other service areas, and the relatively narrow lines of manoeuvre around statutory services. All are necessary considerations, but putting these over in a positive way will be critical to building good relationships with new members.
And in the end, good luck!
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