Letter: Illegal actions of prima donna council leaders

Sir: Media coverage, including your own, has not surprisingly concentrated on the 'what' and 'who' of the grave allegations made by the auditor to Westminster City Council. However, his finding that the underlying policy and its implementation was 'unauthorised' is at least as important, since little or none of the alleged illegal action (nor the earlier cemetery sales fiasco) would have been possible if proper, legally defined, local government procedures had been followed.

Unfortunately, for many years in a small but significant minority of authorities, council leaders and committee chairs of all political parties have purported to take policy and executive decisions on behalf of their councils and committees, in some cases on an almost daily basis. Clearly such individuals feel they can behave like this because that is the way central government conducts its business, but this is in no way a valid parallel. A prime minister and other ministers derive their executive authority from a combination of their appointment under the royal prerogative and the many thousands of provisions in acts of Parliament giving specific decision-making powers to designated ministers.

Despite the airs and graces adopted by some prima donna councillors, the leader of a council or chair of a committee has no greater power than any other member of the council. It has been well established in the courts that any purported delegation to, or the exercise of council powers by, an individual councillor or a political caucus is quite illegal.

Decision-making involving councillors can be made only by a properly constituted meeting of the council, or of a committee or sub-committee (the membership of which must be proportional to political party strengths on the council). With very few exceptions, for cases of special urgency, such meetings and their agendas must be notified to the press and public, and be held in public. Further, all the 'background papers' - including related files and records of formal or informal preparatory meetings, representations received, etc - relating to each agenda item have to be identified and scheduled, and are open to inspection by the press and public before the meeting and for five years afterwards.

In the light of the Westminster auditor's allegation of unauthorised decision-making outside the clearly defined statutory procedures, all local authorities, and each political party organisation at both national and local levels, need to act immediately to bring under control the small proportion of council leaders and committee chairs who seem to regard themselves as absolute monarchs of their own private fiefdoms.

Yours sincerely,




14 January