How the English Devolution Deals were done – policy making ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage

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Successfully managing the transition between ‘back stage’ negotiations and ‘front stage’ decision making is essential for the future success of English devolution. That is the conclusion of the Political Studies Association’s Research Commission I was involved in to examine the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities. It is also the focus of an article I co-authored on ‘front and back stage decision making’ just published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.

The case of English Devolution in recent years provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage policy-making. Front stage, public officials are observable and accountable as office holders in elected bodies and are constrained by established bureaucratic rules, codes of conduct and public scrutiny. Back stage describes the world of complex decision making where public officials are hidden from public scrutiny and can engage in negotiations less constrained by formal rules

Research findings reveal that the devolution deal process is purposefully low on guidance and has involved a small number of key actors from central and local government negotiating the deals largely behind closed doors. This process has been criticised by some as being secretive and lacking transparency and legitimacy. From this perspective, high levels of informal working can be viewed as the latest chapter in the power-hoarding instincts of the British political tradition. By using informal means to shape local aspirations behind closed doors, the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ is operationalised in more subtle ways.

Nonetheless, the findings in our article are more nuanced than this account describes. Evidence also indicated a genuine desire on the part of critical actors involved in the process to drive forward devolution. One local government respondents said ‘it created momentum and progress in a policy area that had limped along for years’. Informality had created an innovative space to explore policy options and to generate trust between central and local actors. Back stage negotiations were seen as a route to achieving the transfer of power to the local level. While there were differences of opinion on the details of the negotiations, the majority of respondents from central and local government viewed the process positively. On the whole it was seen as far less adversarial than in the past.

But, momentum and progress was made at the cost of inclusivity and buy in from a broader stakeholders and the public. Deals were offered to areas on a take it or leave it basis and some areas chose to leave it as deals have collapsed in parts of England. Our research shows that the trust generated back stage between core insiders did not always percolate to the formal front stage. The challenge for policy makers moving forward is to strike the right balance between the flexibility afforded by back stage informality and demands for greater front stage democratic accountability.

For example, a lack of public awareness and opportunities for consultation have undermined an effective transition between back and front stage decision making. Public information and consultation at critical stages in the process might alleviate this risk. Second, the move towards more transactional and negotiated deal making clearly advantaged some areas over others. Those with a history of partnership working and established high trust relationships with central government were best able to champion local interests. Third, while some areas of the negotiation might best remain back stage, the blanket ‘shut down’ in local dialogue undermined the potential for sharing best practice and policy innovation. Allowing some elements of the bids to be discussed more openly would permit a ‘softer’ transition between back and front stage.

In the context of Brexit and a public mood of mistrust and apathy towards politics and politicians it is even more important than ever before to get the balance right. A policy agenda that is supposed to be about empowering local areas needs to be seen to be conducted in a democratic way.

This blog post was written with Sarah Ayres (University of Bristol) and Mark Sandford (House of Commons Library) from our recently published article. A version of this blog post has also appeared on the PSA Blog.

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Mayors, Elections and Voters!

The issue of how to improve local leadership and reinvigorate local democracy has been on the political agenda for some time. Both Conservative and Labour politicians have promoted the idea of directly elected mayors as part of the solution to the perceived problems of the more traditional committee system of local government. The mayoral model is premised on the assumption that local councils need a figurehead, to provide clear, accountable local leadership. The debate about mayors can be firmly located within the debate about the modernisation of local government and the role of local politicians in reconnecting local government to local communities. The rationale for elected mayors is about clarity of decision making, visibility and profile.

In May 2002 the first elections for mayors were held in seven urban areas including Doncaster, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. Subsequent efforts have been made over the last 10 years by different governments to introduce more directly elected mayors in cities and urban areas. In reality, however, the introduction of directly elected mayors seems to have had little impact on political attitudes or voter turnout and overall the general public seem less than interested in the whole notion of elected mayors. The mayoral referendums themselves and the actual mayoral elections have averaged a voter turnout figure of just 29%, not exactly a ringing endorsement for their success in revitalising local democracy.

In terms of the 50 mayoral referendums that have been held, between 2001 and 2012, only 15 resulted in a ‘yes’ vote. A further round of referendums were held in the 10 core cities in England in 2012, with only one city (Bristol) voting to have an elected mayor, and then only by a small margin and with a turnout of only 24%.

Source: Fenwick & Elcock (2014)

However, there are signs that where sitting mayors come to the end of their first term of office, voter turnout in subsequent elections increases significantly. Which given one of the primary objectives of the mayoral model, as promoted by government, is to increase voter participation, there could be seen to be a positive impact if this trend continues. 

In the early elections for mayors in 2002/03, the majority of those elected were independent candidates, with only 4 out of 12 representing the same party as that in control of the council. However, the trend is changing, with 8 of the 15 directly elected mayors (excluding London) representing the Labour Party and only 4 independents. Evidence from existing mayoral elections also suggests that the incumbent mayors are re-elected with a higher vote than originally achieved. An illustration perhaps of the existing visibility and profile of mayors giving them an edge over competitors?

So what’s next? There will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford next year (2016), which should provide an interesting insight into whether or not the mayoral model is beginning to take hold and make a difference in England. It will also help to inform us about whether or not people are more engaged with politics and democracy in these areas. Will voter turnout be higher in areas where there are mayoral elections as well as local council elections? It remains to be seen, but the general trend is going in that direction.

In Bristol it will be interesting to see if the current independent mayor, George Ferguson, holds onto the role, or if Labour can stage a comeback after losing out last time. There may also be a continuation of the increased support seen in this years local elections for the Green Party. So we could see a 3-way fight to become the next mayor of Bristol. At the very least, with all 70 councillors as well as the mayor up for election, we should see a high profile election campaign. But will we see an increase in public engagement and more people voting? Let’s hope so!

Who really governs our cities?

DSCN1063A few weeks ago we had a really interesting class discussion about “who governs cities”, all kinds of issues cropped up and were debated, with examples from Bristol, Hong Kong and Ankara. It was a fascinating class conversation that got me thinking about how decisions are really made in our cities and who is in control, and how this plays out in Bristol.

It’s interesting because it may not be as simple and obvious as you first think! Anyway, it’s also the subject of one of this terms essays which I decided against doing, so I thought I’d write a blog about it instead – that way I don’t have to couch everything in academic evidence and argument but can just explore the issues in a simplistic and opinionated manner (as with most of my blogs).

So, have you ever thought about who runs Bristol and how decisions are really made in our city? You might well give a different answer now compared to a few years ago – with a directly elected mayor isn’t it kind of obvious who is in charge and who makes the key decisions that affect what happens locally, who it is that controls policy and exercises political control over the city? Maybe, to a point, and it is certainly clearer now than under previous systems. Our city mayor is a high profile individual, who many in the city have now heard of (compared to previous council leaders) and who does seem to get the blame for most things that people don’t like in the city! However, it is never quite that simple is it? There are of course 70 councillors democratically elected to the city council to represent residents – what’s their role in decision making under this new mayoral system? It’s certainly very different to the old days of committees. To me this seems like an interesting area for research, how has democratic decision making in cities changed as a result of cabinet and scrutiny systems and how is it different under an elected mayor? I covered some of these points in a previous post about the role of local councillors and how it has changed over time.

Of course one also shouldn’t forget the role council officers play in decision making locally, they are after all the paid civil servants advising our mayor and councillors. One only has to look at the recent fiasco over by-laws in parks to see just how powerful and influential officers can be in relation to what gets on the agenda – they nearly got away with that one! Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue the way in which this happened illustrates how things can and do work in local government.

But back to the issue of central/local control. One of the clear messages to come from the council budget process this year is just how much control central government has over our city. It is national government that is largely imposing the scale and extent of the cuts needed to produce a local balanced budget, the city council and mayor are merely responding to national policy and rules. The room for manoeuvre or flexibility is limited, although I accept there were some options to do things slightly differently. But the main point remains the same, national government has a high degree of control over what happens in Bristol, not just through budgetary control but also national policy, rules, regulations and legislation. As we are frequently reminded, we have one of the most centralised systems in the Western world, with high levels of power residing at national government level rather than devolved and delegated to local democratic structures.

So there are high levels of central control over our city. One of the ways this has manifested itself in the past is through the creation by government of local quangos. Mrs Thatcher was particularly keen on this kind of approach as a means by which she could bypass local government, largely in Labour control, and impose central Tory policy locally without worrying about irritating things like local democracy. The most obvious example of this was the Bristol Urban Development Corporation. This was set up in 1989 to take control of the development process of land around St Philips Marsh and Temple Meads. Much of the current Temple Quay development is still premised on old permissions granted under the UDC, that’s one of the reasons there is such a high level of car parking with each office block and why there is, in my view, no coherence, quality or sense of place to much of what has been developed. The key land use planning and design decisions were taken out of the hands of the local council and given instead to an unelected, appointed body who were more focused on delivery at any cost.

Perhaps the UDCs most significant intervention, and the one that caused the most controversy locally, was the “Spine Road” now called the St Philips Causeway, there was much local opposition to this but with little impact, the road was built, despite the fact that council, local people and environmental groups were opposed to it. The legacy of central control over cities like Bristol is clear to see and it’s not necessarily a positive one, sadly our government don’t seem to be very good at learning the lessons from past mistakes. There is undoubtedly a role for quangos and partnerships in helping to deliver on the aspirations of the city but not at the expense of local input, accountability and engagement, and certainly not where they are merely the ‘puppets’ of central government. We no longer have a UDC in Bristol but we do have a Local Enterprise Partnership – another creation of central government, imposed locally to take decisions out of the control of the Mayor and our local councils. Yes I accept these are ‘partnerships’ and local councils are of course involved, but where does the balance of power really rest and more importantly is it stopping things happening that otherwise our directly elected City Mayor would be delivering on? I’m not suggesting I know the answer to this, merely raising it as an interesting question!

So, we have an elected mayor whose hands are tied by central control over our city even now, but who else might also be influential in what goes on and how decisions are made? The next obvious group to mention is the business community. We have a strong and influential business community in Bristol, which is to be welcomed in many respects, with organisations like the Society of Merchant Venturers and the Chamber of Commerce & Initiative representing many of the big business interests. You only have to look at who chairs the key public bodies in the city, who is on the LEP board and who chairs it, who chairs our Hospital Trusts and who is on the board of our Universities to see that the Merchant Venturers still hold many positions of influence and power in this city – they really are everywhere. I leave it to you to decide and consider whether or not this is a good thing and whether the intentions and interests of these Merchants are likely to reflect the broader interests of Bristol, it’s an interesting point and one that generates many different responses. Whatever your views though, the business community in this city undoubtedly has an influence over how the city is run, decisions taken and possibly more importantly, over decisions that are not taken! Have you ever wondered just why some things don’t get onto the agenda in Bristol or are stopped before they get anywhere?

Our class conversation also skirted around the issue of civic society and the role communities and voluntary organisations have to play in decisions. In Bristol much of this sector has been brought together over the years through VOSCUR, an effective coordinating body for many voluntary and community organisations in the city. Indeed, Bristol has quite a tradition of community “activism”, both spatially and topic based, playing a key role in helping to create the diverse and vibrant city we live in. Again, the extent to which these groups, organisations and communities really help to shape decision making in our city is debatable and people will undoubtedly have different views. But they exist in large numbers and engage in city decision making, so to some extent have an influence.

So the answer to “who governs Bristol” is complex, there are many different actors involved in decision making both formally and informally with different constraints and opportunities and with different degrees of transparency and openness. So how do we really know who is most influential? Can we tell by simply looking at outcomes and identifying who benefits from them most, who gets what they want from decisions in Bristol? Again, not a simple question to answer, and it will undoubtedly depend on what decisions you are referring to and how easy it is to identify who does actually benefit.

Perhaps the biggest and most significant question to ask is – does it matter? Do we need to know? If we did, then at least we would know who to blame or who we should seek to influence. Or do we need to know so we can understand why things are the way they are? To my mind, we need to understand as best we can so we can seek to change things for the better. However, this understanding is clouded by lack of transparency, lack of clarity, secrecy about how things are done, undemocratic structures, central control and lack of equity in engagement. A complex area with clear and obvious implications for how our cities work and how decisions are taken – I’m sure each of us can think of many examples where a decision has been made, that impacts on us, but where we can’t quite see how the decision makers ever got to that decision or why! Or we can think of examples of things that just haven’t happened or haven’t been discussed openly, but can’t quite work out why not.

That’s the power of influence wherever it comes from and that’s why we need to understand it!

The changing role of local councillors – what next?

The debate about local democracy and local governance has led us in some quite interesting directions in recent years and has generated significant change in local council political structures – or has it? On the surface, with the initial change from the committee system of local government to cabinet and scrutiny and now the introduction of directly elected Mayors in some areas, things have definitely changed. We have a very different model of local governance now than we did in the 1990s and there’s a very different way of doing things, but how have local councillors adapted to this? In a blog post in November I talked with nostalgia about the old committee system and to a point lamented its loss. I also raised the point about the changing role of councillors over the last 15 years or so which I will elaborate on further here.

There is an excellent opportunity available to us a the moment, through the Local Government Boundary Commission Review, but sadly in Bristol (and probably elsewhere) there is little or no initial public discussion on this issue. It is held for now within the political confines of the party groups and officers of the council to decide what they want to do – which in this instance may well mean very little as it could be a bit like turkeys voting for christmas. I’ll explain that one in a minute.

But first, what is the Review about? Bristol has been included in the programme of review for 2014/15 which will seek to look at the size and boundaries of electoral wards and make changes in time for the whole council elections to be held in 2016. This enables the council to consider the number of councillors it needs and the number and size of wards across the city. Whist this doesn’t address the issue of how things work it does enable some structural change to reflect new governance arrangements.

Currently there is an obvious problem of disparity in terms of the size of wards in Bristol, with some ward councillors representing 3-4,000 more people than others. The biggest disparities are seen in central areas such as Cabot, Ashley and Lawrence Hill with 20-30% more electors than the average, and in areas such as Kingsweston, Henleaze, Henbury and Whitchurch Park with 10-15% fewer electors than the average. So the first job of any response to the Boundary Review is to try and redraw ward boundaries to even this out by creating similar sized wards in terms of electorate. That’s probably the easy bit actually and one that many councillors will agree on, but it’s only part of the issue. The questions then begin to arise about whether or not we need 35 wards with 2 councillors in each ward. Given the changes mentioned above, do we really need 70 backbench councillors to keep an eye on George and to represent local communities?

So the bigger question is given the changing role of councillors, from strategic, policy development, representation, decision making to more of a local representation and scrutiny role, do we really need to hang on to 2 per ward and 70 in total? Perhaps equally important is the question about whether or not this issue is even being considered seriously. Now you can see why that might be difficult, because the very people who need to consider the idea of reducing the number of councillors are the very people who would be out of a job if they decided that was the right thing to do. Hence my turkey’s voting for christmas comment above. However, to be fair, there has actually been some debate on this with some suggestion that perhaps you could lose a few councillors but I’ve yet to see any real discussion or evidence or a serious review and debate.

If you were to take a logical approach to this and accept two main premises which I believe to be true – first that the role of councillors has now changed quite significantly and second that local people want clarity about who represents them, after all that’s one of the reasons we have an elected mayor isn’t it, people wanted a clear leadership figure that was identifiable? Shouldn’t we translate that same principle to the very local level? How does having 2 councillors per ward, sometimes from different parties, help local people? Doesn’t it just add to the confusion? So how do we address this?

Well, my proposal for debate is to go for single member wards and establish “mini-mayors” for each ward that local people can relate to and identify as their representative and their first point of contact with the council. One councillor representing a smaller area, taking on that local leadership mantle seems far more sensible to me under this new system than sticking with a structure that was developed decades ago under a very different system. The debate about quite how many wards to go for will clearly create some tension and generate some debate, but 50 is a nice round number so why not start with that as an idea! We could have 50 local ward mayors in Bristol, with a clear remit as the representative for that area, involved in local partnerships and groups, on top of local issues and the key point of contact with the City Mayor. These changes can be achieved through the Boundary Review and I hope the Elections and Democracy Commission of the council will have some interesting discussion on these issues in 2014 – their last meeting in October sets out the process in detail – worth a look if you want to know more.

But seriously this is only a small part of the debate, it’s easy to focus on this because we can tinker with maps and boundaries, argue over the number of wards, councillors and where the lines can be drawn. However, whilst this is important it ignores the bigger issue of how the role of scrutiny can be developed to be a useful function which challenges the mayor and his decisions but also has a proactive role to play in the development of policy and direction. This was one of the critical challenges when I was a councillor at the time when the change to cabinet/scrutiny was first introduced. Politicians and officers alike struggled with what it meant, neither were particularly well equipped to respond to the change in a positive way, and in the couple of years I was involved it was a real struggle to define the boundaries of scrutiny in a way that worked. Part of the problem was it pitched scrutiny chairs in a role that could potentially be in conflict and disagreement with the cabinet member, and in my day we were in the same party, so you were pitched against your own colleagues in dialogue, challenge and debate. This led to real tensions which played out in different ways depending on the personalities involved. I also found that officers didn’t quite know how to deal with this new system either – how could they work with a cabinet member and a scrutiny commission chair? Their response was to divide the officer core, the cabinet member got to work with the Director, whilst as a scrutiny chair I was left to work with the next level down! Equally, some officers did a pretty good job of playing us off against one another, so when they didn’t get the answer they wanted from the Cabinet Member, they came to me as scrutiny chair to see if I would pick the issue up. Lots of room for conflict and confusion there then.

Now I’m not sure how much things have changed, as I was only involved for the first couple of years of the new system and haven’t had much if any involvement since. But from what I can see sitting on the outside, scrutiny is still less well developed than it should be and cabinet members/Mayors are still defensive about challenge. My belief – there is a real opportunity there to develop a system that engages all councillors in critical challenge, policy development and scrutiny in a way that is collaborative and effective but we need the right officers to support that and training and development of councillors to understand these new roles and ways of working.

As an aside, if you add into the equation the introduction of things like Local Enterprise Partnerships and their impact on the role and function of local councillors and local democracy then there are a whole host of other debates that need to be had to understand how the role of a local councilor has changed.

There’s so much more to say on this issue that I may have to blog again as I have merely touched the surface of what I wanted to say here!