A report due out next month will suggest that local authorities set up pilot schemes which, if successful, will revolutionise the way that they are run. Some councils could operate in a way similar to the parliamentary system.
The proposal follows lengthy consultations between central and local government in an attempt to attract higher-calibre people into running councils, and strengthen their internal management.
John Redwood, the local government minister, is anxious not to lay down a single model for local decision-making, and prefers a diverse system suited to local needs. Although Mr Redwood has expressed no formal view on Cabinet-style local government, his officials have helped frame the document that will give the green light to the experiments.
Under the new system, a small group of councillors would make the authority's decisions. At present, they are made by committees comprising politicians from all parties before approval by the full council. This system is often criticised as slow and cumbersome.
Under the new system, the 'Cabinet' councillors - probably fewer than 10 - would be accountable to the council as a whole. Councillors not in the 'Cabinet' could scrutinise and vote on its decisions.
The 'Cabinet councillors' would be selected by the leaders of the largest party. On some councils, parties might share control after making a deal that divided portfolios.
However, the Department of the Environment is not planning any legislation and will remind councils that they need to observe existing law during pilot schemes. They may have, for example, to keep a social services committee even if others are scrapped.
Ministers see the moves as a natural development of the change in the functions of local councillors, whose responsibilities have steadily been reduced. Increasingly local authorities' duties have been concentrated on awarding contracts and monitoring services.
Under existing arrangements councillors can be paid about pounds 11,000 a year in attendance allowances, depending on the number of council meetings in which they take part. These payments make up only a small proportion of councils' budgets and local authority bodies are keen to explore the possibility of making increases in the remuneration of senior councillors to produce, in effect, full-time professional local politicians.
The cost of the new payments could be met by reducing the number of officials. One senior local government source said: 'If there is an extra local government cost it will be worth paying for to achieve improved decision- making.'
The Department of the Environment, however, believes that part of the problem derives from the frequency of council committee meetings, many of which are held during the day. That deters those aged between 20 and 65 from standing for local elections because it involves unpaid leave from work.
Last year the DoE abandoned plans, orginally proposed by Michael Heseltine when he headed it, to allow the election of mayors of the larger cities. The proposal met fierce opposition from MPs and the leaders of local authorities who feared that the new mayors would set themselves up as rivals.
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