Public Services Management: Counties come to terms with hung councils: Officers and members are learning new ways of doing things, reports Paul Gosling

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The Independent Online
LAST MONTH'S county elections resulted in 27 out of 47 councils now having no overall control. Officials who have been used to consulting just one political group are coming to terms with new ways of managing their authority. Although some feel frustrated at the delays involved in reaching decisions, others are already seeing advantages.

Surrey County Council had been Conservative-controlled for the last 100 years - until last month. Now it involves four political parties, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as the largest groups, and Labour and Independent Ratepayers as smaller groups. Michael Jennings, assistant chief executive, says that the most important thing was to immediately establish a convention on how the council could operate, which was agreed between the four party leaders. 'The group leaders are adamant they want to make the thing work,' says Mr Jennings.

A new culture is required in a hung council. Mr Jennings explains: 'For years officers knew what was expected of them. Some officers may still operate in the old style, and there have been a couple of near misunderstandings. But we need to keep all parties happy, not just the majority. The political direction of the council cannot be taken for granted now. We do more briefing to keep the four groups equally informed. Pressure is on all the members to turn up for everything. Before, the Conservatives had such a large majority they could take it for granted.'

New political realities may result in the need for different structures. Much of Surrey's work has been done through frequent working parties, with fewer committee and full council meetings. Although the working parties are expected to remain in place, it is now likely that there will be more committee and full council meetings in order to provide adequate direction of officials.

Chief officers normally have considerable delegated authority, but they need to be politically sensitive when this is used in a hung council. This is just as true for both those with elected committee chairs, such as in Surrey, and those where committees' chairs are elected on a meeting by meeting basis, such as Gloucestershire. Chris Clouting, head of secretariat at Gloucestershire, hung since 1985, said: 'We operate extensive delegated arrangements to officers, and operational matters are left to chief officers, who consult where it is sensitive.' Where Gloucestershire council gains, contrary to common practice, is in being able to brief all parties simultaneously.

Both Mr Clouting and Gloucestershire's county surveyor Richard Wigginton believe that strategic decisions have been made more difficult. 'We've been concentrating for the last couple of years on one year at a time,' says Mr Wigginton, 'but that has more to do with capping, and we're just in the process of making it longer term.' He believes that the absence of significant policy differences has assisted the situation. 'If you look at the manifestos of the three groups, there's not that much difference, so it is easy to reach a consensus. All the parties were against capping. We don't have a clear strategic role (determined by) one group, and that would make life easier.'

This view was echoed by Cheshire council, which has been without single party control since 1981. Tom Stevenson, head of public affairs at Cheshire, said: 'If a council is newly hung there is an issue about forward planning. Now we have a four-year plan, but we have been working on just one-year plans.' The absence of longer-term planning, warns Mr Stevenson, could be poor budget control, government capping and compulsory redundancies. He believes that the guiding principle must be equality of treatment of the groups. 'All officers work for the whole council, but in a council controlled by a majority group there is guidance between committees. We have to get informal direction from at least two groups, preferably from three. The theory of working for the whole council is now much more of a reality.'

It has not been necessary for Cheshire to move to more frequent committee meetings, with just five committee cycles per year. 'And there is an argument that is too many,' says Mr Stevenson. According to officials in many hung councils, consensus is achievable in other authorities.

David Prince is chief executive of Leicestershire which has been without overall control for 12 years. 'About 85 per cent of decisions are to an agreed agenda. Where it is acrimonious is about the expression of views. There is more likely to be disagreements about whether or not a particular organisation should hire a hall.'

Decisions take longer, but are better as a result of careful scrutiny and a willingness to compromise, according to Mr Prince. 'Hung councils get things done, day by day, with effective audit reports, and are no less efficient. We do have open government, open discussions, plenty of questioning of assumptions behind the decisions. Everything gets probed. Officers have to put forward clear, professional opinions.

'We can avoid the types of hasty mistakes that are often made by central government. Individual (party) spokespersons have to master their briefs in order to get things passed through their groups. Then they must get them agreed with the other groups. It is a better way of making decisions.'

One criticism of hung councils often made by councillors is that the officials gain too much power. This suggestion is rejected by the officials themselves. 'There is no more power than you get with a strong chair and a strong chief officer working together - which is where many of the bad decisions in inner cities, for example, were made,' says Mr Prince.

The Liberal Democrats, usually the key players in a hung council, see the separation of members from officials as one of the great advantages. Tim Swift of the Association of Liberal Councillors, long experienced in hung council politics in Calderdale and before that in Leicestershire, says: 'It tends to end the cosy relationships, the close friendships between committee chairs and leading officers. Those sort of relationships are almost always bad news, even without any impropriety.'

Party tactics are more important than ever in the hung authority. Councillors may do better to ignore the positions of office, Mr Swift believes. 'We say be clear about what is to be achieved in policy, and do not get too hung up on who chairs committee meetings. We want to see a move away from the situation where the chair is seen as the most important person on a committee.

'The main advantage with a balanced council is openness and more consideration of decisions, having to think through your case before arguing it. This is evident in the higher quality of debate. There is more questioning of reports from officers. Councils with a clear majority tend to be officer-led, and, contrary to popular opinion, that doesn't happen with balanced councils.'

(Photograph omitted)

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