Why we should bring back the Committee System!

With all this talk about George’s first year as Bristol Mayor and whether having a mayor has made a difference, it’s made me quite nostalgic and got me thinking about how good the old committee system actually was!

I’m not normally an advocate of looking back, as there is little we can change about past decisions or actions, but on this occasion it struck me that where we are now has been so governed by what people perceived as the problem in the past, that just maybe we can learn some valuable lessons by looking back.

The old committee system came in for significant criticism in an Audit Commission Report published in Sept 1990 – its title “we can’t go on meeting like this” gives you a clue of where its starting point was. Much of what the report said was interesting and useful and is a good reminder for current day discussions.

The report kicked off the debate about whether or not councillors could really deliver on all main aspects of their job well when they were expected to spend so much time on council committees dealing with operational and day to day issues. The committee system was seen as too clumsy and constrained by political voting systems, there was no real debate, councillors spent too long on unnecessary and irrelevant discussion, making few decisions and got too involved in the day to day running of the council – basically they spent too much time in meetings that didn’t really achieve anything.

In Bristol this debate took hold and the council was criticised for being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, too much politics, no clarity over who took decisions etc. It seemed like the momentum was really building for local government change into a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, more scrutiny etc.

As the debate continued amongst local government analysts, academics, politicians, local and national government, more of these issues were discussed and more criticisms levelled at this old fashioned, out of date system. The outcome of all of this debate and criticism of the committee system, that had existed for some time in local authorities, was the Local Government Act 2000 which basically got rid of the old and brought in a new set of models for local government. Councils were asked to chose one of the following:

  • Leader and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and council manager executive
  • Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number now choosing to go back to a committee system. But did this new approach work?

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. To be honest, it didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already, made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members anyway. However, what this new approach did do was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised, disillusioned and un-needed. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better. And, in Bristol, with yet more change and an elected Mayor, these feelings must be further reinforced and compounded.

What the old committee system did encourage was discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision – a good example of democracy at work. However, there were equally too many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote!

So looking back and then forwards, what can we learn about what improvements we could make now. Well, with a directly elected independent Mayor in Bristol things are totally different – in George we have a council leader and someone who will use that leadership role to take decisions without consultation, who won’t pander to the other elected members on the council or their party politics, and who can do pretty much what he wants for the next couple of years before the voters of Bristol will be able to do anything about it. And that is exactly what people voted for when they voted to have a mayor and then voted for an independent – so be careful what you wish for Bristol.

Yet, what we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

By getting rid of committees we have left a lot of councillors wondering what their role is and by bringing in an elected mayor we have once more reduced the role of most councillors to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy.

That isn’t why I became a Bristol councillor back in 1994 and if I were one now I would quit! I would want to be involved in developing a vision and strategy for Bristol, priorities for the way forward and addressing the inequalities of our city and that’s why we need further change that reflects what our cities need and borrows the best bits from different systems. Rather than a constant leap into what works in America must work here, or throwing out everything because it doesn’t work, without actually thinking about the bits that do.

Yes we need change, but let’s develop local solutions that work locally not generic systems borrowed from elsewhere, that if you look hard enough, don’t even work there!

I would love to know how current councillors in Bristol feel about all this and whether or not they think their role has declined and reduced?