Public Services Management: High profile for local executives - National politicians may soon face strong rivals from town halls, professor says

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TOWN HALL leaders are on the brink of a transformation that could thrust them on to the national - perhaps even the international - political stage, according to a book by Janice Morphet, a former academic professor who is now director of technical services at Woking council in Surrey. She predicts the rise of the council supremo who is also a politician.

'I envisage the role of chief executive merging with that of the politicians, as in Europe and the US. There will be someone who is either a directly elected manager or a political appointee - in other words, someone who merges the political and administrative roles.'

Her vision of the Chief Executive 2000 is controversial because it defies the conventional wisdom that council administration must not be partisan. Council chiefs are even more accountable than civil servants, it is argued, because they have to keep lines open to all political parties, not just a ruling one.

Predictions in Professor Morphet's book, The Role of Chief Executives in Local Government, are timely, given that local government is being reorganised. The first unitary (single tier) councils are planned from April 1996 in England, Scotland and Wales. Debate about how the new structure can be better managed, with the top official playing a crucial role, is coming to the boil.

The concept of the elected mayor is not new, nor it is one that has won a warm reception in Britain. Some members of Parliament have recoiled in horror at the thought of rivals for the limelight in their constituencies, backed up by the millions in resources that town halls can muster.

The fruits of Michael Heseltine's internal management review, Community Leadership and Representation: Unlocking the Potential, released in July, found 'very little support' for elected mayors among more than 600 responses. The few who did favour it, however, said it would 'revive local government as a democratic force'.

A contributor to the report, George Jones, professor of government at the London School of Economics, although not a fan of elected mayors, believes such elections would generate more publicity, for example, than next year's council polls.

So why is Professor Morphet convinced that political chiefs are the model for the future? She argues that it is because of a power shift away from Whitehall to Brussels, away from individual states to a United States of Europe, dominated by regions that negotiate directly for funds - as some already do. The influence of Europe, where officials in countries like Germany and France declare their political allegiance, will be paramount, she writes.

She points to the formation, under the Maastricht treaty, of the Committee of the Regions to discuss all matters affecting local and regional government in Europe. It is due to meet for the first time in January, with a delegation from Britain consisting of 24 councillors. Professor Morphet, who from next month will be secretary of Serplan, the London and South East Regional Planning Conference, contends that, after a review in 1996, the Committee of Regions is likely to form a main channel for funds to the regions - and says that Britain will find itself in need of politicians who can do deals over money, rather than neutral top officials.

The current council system, the book says, is 'a leaky and imperfect one'. Chief executives can do very little on their own and depend on coalitions to exercise power, it argues. Officially, it points out, council chiefs are in a weak position: they can be cut out of the power game by political leaders (who have no legal standing but can intervene in the minutiae of management) or by powerful service chiefs (who are hired and fired by councillors, not by chief executives).

Roger Jefferies, former chief executive of Croydon, Surrey, and Hounslow, Middlesex, agreed. 'The chief executive role is very difficult and lacks a great deal of clarity. In fact we have the worst of all worlds. Members can get rid of their chief executives, who don't have adequate authority to deliver.'

He favours either the American city mayor system or the New Zealand reformed one, where the entire administration is accountable to the chief, who has powers to hire and fire. Members can remove a chief executive, however, through short-term contracts.

At the heart of power in councils is the relationship between chiefs and leaders. But Mr Jefferies says that whether or not that chemistry works is a matter of luck, adding: 'There are some very good chief executives who, if they are going to do a good job, have to be allowed to get on with it, and that means freeing up the whole system.'

Robert Hughes, chief executive of Kirklees council, West Yorkshire, said: 'In the longer term we are undoubtedly going to have a merger of the roles and crossing of the boundaries between the politicians and the aparachniks.

'You could in future see a bureaucratic chief executive standing as a politician - or a very articulate politician transferring over to a quasi-political chief executive role.'

Mr Hughes - the main author of a report for Solace, the society of local chief executives, which says the vast majority of authorities will be appointing chief executives in the next five years as a result of the government review - believes there will always be a place for bureaucratic eminences grises as well as purely political leaders.

Charles Gray of the Committee of the Regions, who was leader of Strathclyde Region, the UK's biggest and one that has extracted pounds 1bn from European structural funds, said: 'The new wave of chief executives will have to relate to Europe much more than they do now. I think there is an inevitability about the gradual recognition of the political worth of an individual when it comes to negotiations and dealing with European legislation.'

He said Britain was almost alone among developed democracies in having neutral top officials, but noted that government re-organisation, by weakening local authorities, may accelerate the politicisation of the senior bureaucracy.

(Photograph omitted)

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