The Conduct of Local Authority Business

AuthorMartin Loughlin
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2230.1987.tb02560.x
Publication Date01 Jan 1987
REPORTS
OF
COMMInEES
THE
CONDUCT
OF
LOCAL AUTHORITY BUSINESS
VIEWED
within the context
of
the rather turbulent world
of
central-
local government relations
in
the
1980s,
the establishment
of
the
Widdicombe Inquiry’ was a shabby affair. The issue
of
central-local
relations indeed demands concern and investigation. This Inquiry,
however, was set up
to
examine “practices and procedures
governing the conduct
of
local authority business in Great Britain”
and
to
pay particular attention
to
the roles
of
elected members and
their relationships with officers, the need
“to
clarify the limits and
conditions governing discretionary spending by local authorities,’’
and to make recommendations for strengthening the democratic
process (para.
1.1).
Basically the Inquiry was formed to investigate
politicisation in local government. Given the recent history
of
central-local relations it therefore seemed an attempt
to
justify the
imposition
of
further restrictions on local government.
The Conservative Government has been seeking to reconstitute
local authorities
as
rule-bound bodies with responsibility for certain
specific tasks. The roots
of
this policy are essentially ideological.
During the twentieth century local government has increasingly
assumed a role as a provider
of
services which are collectively
organised and redistributive in nature. It
is
this role which the
Government seeks
to
transform, by eliminating the redistributive
dimension,
by
breaking down the collective organisation, and by
incorporating market rationality into local government structures.’
In pursuit
of
this goal the Government has used to the full the
legal powers
of
the central State, unconstrained by the habits,
conventions and understandings that have traditionally governed
the manner in which those powers should be exercised. We have
seen an unprecedented volume
of
new legislation affecting local
government, much
of
which restricts the autonomy
of
local
authorities while vesting broad interventionist powers in the
Secretary
of
State. Hyperactivity has been its principal procedural
characteristic; the guillotine has been applied
to
virtually all major
pieces
of
legislation and retrospective legislation introduced
if
the
statutes do not grant the breadth
of
power the Minister desires.
This has been the key factor in the disintegration
of
conventional
arrangements governing central-local relations, and has contributed
both
to
the destabilisation
of
traditional practices within local
authorities and the politicisation
of
the world
of
local government.
Complex economic, political and cultural factors underlie these
Report
of
rlrc
Corriniirtce
of
Itrqiriry
biro
rhe
Cotidircr
of
Local
Airrhority
Birsitiess
*
Scc
M.
Loughlin,
Local
Govertirnerir
in
the
Modern
Sfate
(1986).
csp.
pp.
13-18, 167-
(Chairman: Mr. David Widdicornbc
Q.C.)
Cmnd.
9797
(1986)
73,
19%201.
64
JAN.
19871
REPORTS
OF
COMMITTEES
65
developments, including the dynamics
of
retrenchment consequent
upon economic recession, the widespread lack
of
confidence in
policy formulation and implementation in the wake
of
previous
policy failures, and the peculiar susceptibility of British constitutional
arrangements to erosion in the face
of
social change. But the
establishment
of
the Widdicombe Inquiry is best viewed as one
further mechanism through which the Government has pursued its
local government strategy.
The reason is quite simple. Having gone
so
far as it has been
able to refashion the legal frameworks through which local
authorities provide services, the Government has turned its attention
to the general decision-making processes of local authorities. The
basic objective in refashioning functional procedures has been that
of
depoliticisation. This has taken a variety
of
forms including the
restriction
of
local authority discretion through the imposition
of
duties or precise procedural rules and the establishment
of
external
checks. The formalisation or legalisation
of
decision-making
.
has
therefore been an important element in this strategy. But
if
the
Government is to be successful in its endeavours to transform local
authorities into limited, rule-bound bodies it must also seek to
depoliticise these general decision-making processes
of
authorities.
Otherwise, local authorities which resist the Conservative
Government’s vision of their future role will be able to fight a
rearguard action through the flexibility they have traditionally been
given to manage their own affairs. Since it would be impracticable
for the Government to attempt to alter all these powers to provide
services, not merely because the scale
of
such a task would swamp
the most single-minded
of
governments but also because local
authorities in fact perform many functions which are not capable
of
precise prospective formulation, reform of the discretionary powers
in the general constitution
of
local government appears to be a
more effective manner
of
proceeding.
But why appoint a committee
of
inquiry? Why not simply bring
forward legislation to outlaw the perceived abuses? First, the
Committee may have been established simply to inform. This
explanation tends to be rejected in the standard accounts of the
role
of
such committees in general, since Ministers can employ the
vast resources
of
their departments to obtain all the information
they req~ire.~ In the context
of
local government, however, where
practices vary, a committee
of
inquiry might be the best mechanism
for acquiring the necessary information. Secondly, the Committee
could be viewed as a device
of
camouflage. The Government
knows what it wants to do and sets up a committee to secure
approbation for its policy. The difficulty with this explanation
is
that committees for form’s sake have not been a hallmark
of
this
Government; compare, for example, the lack
of
any official
See
K.
C.
Wheare,
Government
by
Committee
(1955),
pp.8b93.

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