Spot the difference

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There seems to be a spat between Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles and his predecessor Labour’s John Denham.

At the heart of it is a proposal by Pickles to somehow allow the combination of the currently separate local authority (political) leader and (managerial) chief executive roles.  He wants it.  Denham doesn’t.

A Communities and Local Government spokeswoman is quoted in last week’s Municipal Journal as saying

Having chief executives and elected leaders often, in practice, responsible for the same thing is both expensive and unnecessary

Hmmm. I’m not sure if that’s a naïve or willful misreading of what might be termed the constitutional position of the two roles.

Regardless of whether change of the sort apparently proposed is beneficial, the best statement for me of the principle of the current position comes from nearly 80 years ago when Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson) wrote to London County Council officials after the Labour party first won control of the LCC in the 1930s

The Council and its committees decide policy, and it is for you loyally to carry it out, but I don’t wish you to feel that you are merely the servile instruments of one political party. You are the servants of the Council and of the people of London.  This is your traditional role.  I don’t know your politics, and I don’t want to know.  At all times in your reports say what you believe to be the truth; don’t play up to either political party.  Give the facts and if you make recommendations let them come out of the facts.  There is a standing order whereby chairmen may delay your reports for a short period.  I want chairmen to listen to you, and I want you to listen to them, but at the end of it all present the reports you believe to be right.  Discussion, yes, but I do not wish to coerce you, nor will chairmen of committees.  So report the facts and conclusions as you see them, and we’ll do what we like.  Your views will be taken into account, but always on the basis that it is for the Council and its committees to decide – Herbert Morrison: an autobiography, Odhams (1960)

Of course the modern day relationship between an appointed chief executive and elected councillors, in particular a council leader, is both more subtle and comprehensive than the writing of reports that councillors accept or not.

But the ethos implied by The Council and its committees decide policy, and it is for you loyally to carry it out and say what you believe to be the truth is spot on.  Could these fundamental principles be maintained with the “Pickles proposals”?

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