Finely balanced and living together happily

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The Independent Online
AFTER the local elections in May, no fewer than 28 of the 47 county councils in England and Wales were left with no political party in overall control. Many people anticipated that these councils would have a problem implementing any policies at all. Our experience in Havering, which has been run by a minority Labour administration since May 1990, shows that 'cohabitation' in local government is possible, and may even have benefits.

In Havering the Labour administration holds only 26 seats out of a total of 63 members. Even so, Labour relies on no kind of pact with any other groups of members on the council; it operates exclusively on a 'go-it-alone' basis.

The 1990 election result was 25 Labour, 19 Tories, 13 Residents (formerly Ratepayers) and 6 Liberal Democrats. One Liberal Democrat has recently crossed the floor and joined the Labour ranks.

It might be supposed that in a situation of such delicate balance, the council would be officer-run, or passing through a painful period of indecision and vacillation. Far from it.

In the past three and a half years some of the most radical decisions ever taken in Havering have been pushed through. Management structure has been 'delayered', the number of directorates has been reduced, and spending has been adjusted by pounds 30m to bring the authority in line with the government limits - the Standard Spending Assessment - and to avoid capping.

A record house-building programme (through housing associations) has been achieved. Social services have expanded substantially and the borough is in a leading position in the implementation of community care and of the Children Act - this despite an inheritance of Sixties-type institutional provision. Two major development schemes are being launched: one in Romford town centre and the other at Havering Riverside (Rainham), in the east Thames corridor.

The council has been far from unanimous, with the administration suffering regular defeats in council and in committee over the years. Votes on parts of the budget have even been lost, and one year the budget went through only on the mayor's casting vote. (That was the only year we have had a Labour mayor.)

Despite this, Havering Council has a greater sense of direction and purpose than at any time in its history, and the pace of change since 1990 has astounded many officers and staff. The question is: how has this all been possible for an administration that has only 25 - recently 26 - out of 63 seats?

The first reason is that we have created a corporate management team led by a chief executive who belongs to the old civil service tradition of serving the 'ministers of the day'. Clearly he cannot act without the assent of a majority of the council any more than we can, but it helps us to get things done.

Second, we run a very 'hands-on' administration - against the trend in some places. I, our committee chairs, and other members of the administration add the additional drive needed and monitor council performance and the implementation of policy.

Third, we have established some unique machinery which allows the council to function with an administration in charge that does not have a majority and is also in a minority on all committees.

WE HAVE introduced a system in which any group that loses a vote in committee can refer the decision to a specially constituted board. The board is made up in such a way that Labour is in slightly more of a minority than our numbers justify, but also so that with the support of any three other members it is possible for us to uphold or cancel a decision that has been referred to the board. Additionally, when a decision is made by the chair of one committee, other groups are notified and they can refer it to the board for decision by a simple majority.

The council diary provides for a board meeting every week, to precede other committees scheduled for that evening. In practice, the board has met only every few weeks and its meetings are usually over in a fairly short time. Sometimes the Labour administration has lost, sometimes we have negotiated an alternative course of action, sometimes we have side-stepped an issue; but most of the time we have won.

Liberal Democrats and Residents have at times divided among themselves; often we have had support from the Residents against the Tories; and occasionally from the Tories against the Residents. But most of the time we have won, and the other groups have often withdrawn referrals when they knew they could not get backing from others.

This is not to say that things can't get pretty bloody for me as leader at times, but I have taken some knocks in my time and a few more don't hurt that much. The essential ingredient is the unity and loyalty of the members of our own group. Only once in the last three and a half years have I lost their support on a major issue, and that was the most painful period of all for me in the life of this minority administration.

Our success is not about holding office or carrying out Tory policies. It is about deciding priorities and getting through as much Labour policy as we can. For instance, for two years we won the vote to establish additional nursery classes. We lost the last one. But we have two years' progress in nursery education that would not otherwise have been achieved. There are many other instances of a similar kind: environmental initiatives, improved information services, facilities for the disabled, and an equal opportunities policy.

Most of the work that we have been forced to put out to competitive tender we have succeeded in keeping in-house. We have also pioneered a voluntary competitive tendering system - a cost-comparison exercise that helps us to achieve value for money and, at the same time, prepares us for the harsh world outside, which we know lies ahead.

Despite the success of our administration, we shall be going all out for a working majority next May. We want four years of nursery classes, not two. We fought in 1990 on the platform that we would aim for public satisfaction: we believe we have achieved much of that, despite the difficulties. And we believe that in 1994 we shall deserve to win.

The author, a former Labour MP and Tribune Group chairman, is leader of the London Borough of Havering.