Super Boroughs

The Inspector has beaten me to the punch on writing about Ken’s reiteration of his desire to do away with the current structures of London local government and create 5 super boroughs in their place.

I’m less certain than he seems about the benefits.

I think that Ken, by instinct, is a centraliser although it may be that this is hightened by the end of the telescope he has when looking at London. But, if you look at the interview I can’t see that he’s all that concerned about his accountability – except through the ballot box. For example, he talks quite dismissively about only needing to get his budget through, which we all know means throwing a few tid-bits to Darren J and his Green friends (something that I suspect Ken’s happy to do as that fits his politics anyway). And he hasn’t got much time for councillors.

Maybe Ken sees the super-boroughs as adding a useful balance to the Mayoral power, but I’m not sure that’s his priority.

Anyway this debate shouldn’t just be seen through the Ken prism. How about what it feels like from the other end?

Personally, I quite like the idea of parishing, but not at the expense of representative democracy. I think there are good reasons why we need multi-layered accountability rather than the wisdom of crowds.

And I worry that by removing politics to the sub-regional we’ll remove what little connection there is between individual politician and geographical location and accountability. I know that most of us don’t know who our local councillor is, but I’ll bet its more than know who represents us at the GLA. I also worry about politics becoming (being) the preserve of professional politicians. I rather like the mix of people who put themselves forward for election to councils and removing working people from that mix would be a big mistake.

This isn’t to say that the current system is ideal, as The Inspector points out we’ve got a long way to go to create a dialogue even at the local level which he nails as being about:

having respect for the people who you’re meant to serve and having the imagination to do things in new ways that involve them, instead of dictating from the top to a diverse set of communities who probably aren’t listening.

But, I can’t see super-boroughs being more accountable, more listening. That will take a different type of political imagination.

About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
This entry was posted in Civic Society, Lewisham, South East London. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Super Boroughs

  1. Max says:

    I quite agree. I can’t see the logic of Ken Livingston’s argument.

    There is already the GLA for wider issues and to put into place super-boroughs would not add any strategical dimension that is not already there or could not be achieved through sharpening of the asset of the GLA or strategic collaboration between neighbouring Boroughs as it already happens on many subjects.

    Replacing the current Boroughs with a handful of super-borough could result in a damage to accountability and access to elected decision-makers.

    There is anyway something in the wards deciding on some local expenditures but that’s hardly a new idea. We have locality funds and that could be improved. Area Forum could also become something bigger. I used the last Area Forum quite creatively, I think that there is a lot of potential there to interest more local residents in the running of things in a non-party-political way and again I don’t see this as any argument for giving up on Boroughs.

  2. Depends where you look at it from, I suppose – it’s just dawned on me, wasn’t Tower Hamlets’ “neighbourhoods” a similar system?

    Of course, I’m looking at this from Greenwich, which has a pretty dysfunctional and dictatorial council (as outlined in my post), while clearly things are livelier elsewhere.

    But I do think many of the current boroughs have eroded local identities (what is “Newham” when it’s at home?) and it seems daft to me to have so many essential services differing wildly in such small areas.

    Whereas, say, if you had a smaller number of boroughs (five does seem extreme, admittedly) who’d deal with the big things, and a larger number of neighbourhood councils (perhaps feeding into the bigger boroughs?) who had a budget to buy in extra services, and/or have a say in planning/policing, then you’ve more chance of getting people involved at a local level, and get things done more efficiently at a higher level.

    Of course, I say this with no experience of local government other than being a customer/ resident/ taxpayer, but it does seem to me that the system as it is now isn’t particularly good.

  3. Lone Ranger says:

    Andrew are you nicking my lines…..”I can’t see that he’s all that concerned about his accountability – except through the ballot box….. And he hasn’t got much time for councillors.”

    I’m sure I used similar words but in relation to Lewisham’s mayor, who like Ken is directly elected.

    Insp Sands could much of what you write about Greenwich systems be due to the Chief Executive rather than the politicians?

    Re Neighbourhood’s disccussing local issues such as schooling or housing, who with? Most secondary schools are now funded directly by central government, many no longer come under the Local Education Authority. Over half the social housing in Lewisham will transfer to Housing Associations or come under PFI schemes. The remainder will be in an organisation that will be at arms length from the council. Planning, The London Mayor has or wants the power to impose his plans on areas, how does that fit in with his local neigbourhood forums deciding their own future?

    Under the ‘modern forward looking’ system in Lewisham, councillors didn’t sit on their hands they put them over their mouths and only voted when permitted too by the Mayor, on party lines.

    Because of such funding as PFI’s far more council items seem to be discussed in private.

    At a recent Area Forum local people placed an item on the Mayor’s agenda. For some reason the council has currently decided it is in the best interest of the borough not to put in writing the matter before the Mayor and for the advice to the Mayor be given orally.

  4. Lone Ranger says:

    And is if by coincidence… week there is a motion before Lewisham Council requesting a referendum on the council set up.

    Originally it was said after 5 years the public could be consulted through a referendum if they wished to continue with the new system.

    But according to the Head of Law, before the 5 years was up the government decided a referendum cannot be held before 10 years has elapsed. This is supposed to be a government giving power back to local people.

    Click to access 6ec5ca3bb17e481a8525d25571bb8c3bAgenda18April2007.PDF

    Also, you’ll see a new type of local governance is to be imposed that takes no account of Lyons Inquiry that has just been published.

    Rightly or wrongly the stakeholders does not seem to include the public.

    Click to access 6ec5ca3bb17e481a8525d25571bb8c3bAgenda18April2007.PDF

  5. Like I said, Lone Ranger, I know little about what goes on under the bonnet of local councils, but in Greenwich’s case, plenty of things happen without many people knowing – partly due to a lack of consultation, partly due to a lack of local media. I suspect it’s a political thing, more than the actual workings of the council.

    Of course, this could happen on any body, big or small, but in the case of boroughs, if you cut the number of them, then hopefully fewer of them will be run badly, and they’ll be big enough to attract attention when they are.

    As for neighbourhoods – let’s say this. Give every ward £50,000 for some improvement, which people have to come up with and vote on. Extra street cleaning? Doing up some shopfronts? A contribution towards CCTV? Nice hanging baskets? Get people involved that way. As a start.

  6. Lone Ranger says:

    Like yourself I know little of how a council operates/thinks. Having attended various meetings across the Lewisham quite often the phrases “we didn’t know, no one told us” or “we weren’t told at the time…” crops up.

    There seems to be a difference between what the public see as the purpose of consultation and the council’s. The public probably see consultation as a means to influence decisions where as the council see it as a barometer of opinion.

    A recent consultation was presented as seeking the views of the public regarding the design of a new leisure centre. It’s official primary purpose (not mentioned in the consultation) was to provide evidence for compulsorary purchase orders.

    Currently consultation is taking place regarding changes to Special Needs provision. Prior to consultation the council had already put systems in place that indicate it has already decided the path Special Needs provision will take.*

    If the number of boroughs is cut won’t a badly run large borough have a more damaging effect across a wider area on a larger number of people?

    In Lewisham wards are given a £10,000 locality fund to spend as you indicate, but why isn’t a council already cleaning the streets providing hanging baskets, any way I would up the money to £100,000.

    Unfortunately I don’t think the money will be in addition to existing funds.

    You may have seen the debate with the editor of Lewisham Life, the council is too focused on the Mayor who has borough wide responsibilities. If ward councillors are being pushed to one side by the council where is the local input?

    *I cut the following from the above to avoid boring the reader, but it’s I do feel it may have some relevence to either the debate about consultations or Special Needs provision.

    Currently consultation is taking place regarding changes to Special Needs provision, where children with Moderate Learning Difficulties will automatically attend mainstream schools.

    Without consultation the council has already put systems in place that mean a school that specialized in children with MLD wasn’t publicised. The nature of the pupils referred to the school has been changed meaning the pupils with MLD are now in the minority.

    Another school was said to be ‘slow’ in moving in the direction the council desires, this was before the consultation had been announced.

    The assessment of children has changed, leading to fewer statements, which place legal obligations on a council to provide for those children.

    Why make it more difficult to obtain a statement before the changes have been made. If the desired changes make the improvements indicated the parents need for a statement will decline anyway.

  7. Andrew says:

    I’m as in favour of super boroughs now as I was seven years ago when Lewisham mayor Dave Sullivan was the sole voice (alongside Ken) pushing the idea (though in those days it was my job to be in favour). The 32 London Boroughs and the City are the oldest local authorities in England now and represent lines on a map thought up by civil servants under the Macmillan government. How anyone can attach any sense of identity and allegiance to them is beyond me.

    The recipe is simple — devolve street scene to the neighbourhood level, identifiable entities like Deptford, Eltham, Crouch End and Barnes — and place education and social services in strategic units (doesn’t have to be five, the 14 GLA constituencies have also been floated but you could equally have 10 or 12).

    The other issue is representation. As the government are fond of stating (also the Inspector and Greenwich Watch), councils are unrepresentative in their composition and the calibre of councillors in some places is abysmal. Yet many simply wouldn’t consider standing in London Borough elections while they would for smaller units that make a visible difference to that level of community, rather than having to endure the tedium of intra-group warfare and officers’ machinations (though I don’t believe either would be entirely eradicated, just lessened).

    It’s not a debate town halls like having but out there in the real world there is a sense of disenchantment with the current set up that only yet more reform can address.

    OK, now we’ve discussed that, how are we going to elect these new councils — PR or First Past The Post? 😉

  8. Lone Ranger says:

    Since Macmillan? Are you forgetting half of Deptford became part of Lewisham in the1960’s? And hasn’t the boundary at Penge recently been changed?

    When you refer to ‘neigbourhood’ would I be right in thinking you don’t mean at ward level but at ‘town’ level? If I’m correct most areas have roads controlled by TFL so don’t see how the main streetscape would be decided locally.

    What about the areas that aren’t identifiable for example the area between Catford & Lewisham?

    What you seem to be saying is take certain decisions further away from those affected? I can see how it’s attractive to the London Mayor, who would only have to deal with 6-10 regions.

    Would those regions be allowed to go their own way or have to comply with the London Mayor’s decrees?

    What powers would the regions take from the London Mayor?

    If we have neigbourhood decisions would a local mayor be required?

    More important than representation is where would the money come from? Last time I bothered to check all the money raised in Lewisham by Council Tax was spent on interest and reducing debt.

    When I sat in on a meeting at the council one of the things that struck me was the lack of trust councillors had in council officers, that suprised me.

  9. Andrew says:

    Yes, Macmillan, who began reviewing the boundaries in 1958 and legislated for the merger of Deptford and Lewisham boroughs with the 1963 London Government Act. The Parliamentary boundary of Penge will change at the next election, yes (unless you’re referring to Penge being part of the Parish of Battersea and therefore Surrey until 1900).

    In terms of Lewisham neighbourhoods, the wards laid down by the Boundary Committee don’t exactly correspond to anything beyond the need to get the number of electors right, so I reckon Deptford/New Cross, Blackheath (they’d love that up there!), Catford and Lewisham Centre, Forest Hill/Honor Oak and Downham/Bellingham would form a natural pattern. If London goes for parishes once the local government bill is passed then these neighbourhoods will arise from below, rather than through the actions of town halls or people nattering on blogs.

  10. Lone Ranger says:

    So would borough councils be scrapped, to be replaced by regional ones?

    What would be source of money for a neighbourhood administration, will it come from on high or locally.

    Just been reading the communities and local government website, where it talks of changes to be introduced creating Mayors who will be decision makers providing strong leadership.

    For that to happen probably needs someone with determination and forcefulness, who knows what they want. Possibly someone who will not want people such as councillors getting in the way of their plans.

    I can’t see such Mayors or Executive letting a parish councillor overule their wisdom.

    Blackheath is probably better suited to Greenwich than Lewisham?

  11. Of course, half of Deptford was lumped in with Greenwich in the 19th century, and a great deal of it remains there to this day. As for Blackheath… the heath’s a natural division between the boroughs, isn’t it? (Even if part of the village is, rather oddly, in Greenwich.)

    How does the £10,000 locality fund work? Can’t see that happening here in a million years.

  12. andrewkbrown says:

    The fund is in the gift of councillors to use to ‘improve things’ in their ward. There are some limitations on what they’re allowed to use it for and officers oversee that process. We, for example, tried to show our commitment to overseas aid by proposing to buy one of those Oxfam presents – goats, toilets, school meals – but were told firmly that this wouldn’t be allowed.

    What hasn’t been very well developed – as yet – are the consultation methods to ensure that people can either bid for or make suggestions about how the money could be used. I know that councillors have made efforts to do their own consultations, but I suspect they don’t get beyond the usual suspects.

    I know that when I was doing it two years ago we didn’t get a lot of feedback, despite me blogging it and us trying to put the word out amongst the community groups we knew. If memory serves we ended up splitting the money between minor improvements to the environment (hanging baskets, trees and new signs for the Heath) and books for the local primary schools.

    Looking back I think we could have been more innovative and had we not been pressed up against the election (when these sorts of decisions aren’t allowed) we might well have been. For example, I think its incumbent on councillors to think about how they could use that money to lever in other funding, we got a bit of extra dosh from the Blackheath Society, but should have been looking at the Traders as well. I also think that there needs to be some attention paid to making sure that those who are less likely to have a voice in these sorts of decisions are brought into the process.

    I think the locality funds have the potential to help councillors get to bits of their community that are traditionally under represented, and to issues that aren’t part of the mainstream agenda. But that takes energy, commitment and support.

  13. Nice idea. Again, I suppose it takes a bit of imagination (and hindsight’s a wonderful thing) to really make a go of it, but after a few years you’d surely reach beyond the usual suspects.

  14. andrewkbrown says:

    Yes, that’s what I’d have thought but we’ll have to wait and see.

    Also, I know that Mayor Steve – who holds the purse strings – was keen to see how councillors would use the opportunity and if he could be persuaded (and he wanted to be) to increase the amounts available.

    I’m a bit out of the loop now but I think the Mayor’s Commission on Empowering Communities and Neighbourhoods was supposed to be a way of moving things along. And that seems to be where things are headed.

  15. Max says:

    As you know recently I’ve been quite into the empowering community subject and I have a few crazy ideas flying around my head that I hope to be able to give some substance in the near future.
    I am slightly skeptical of the Mayor wanting to empower communities.
    For 5 years running the Council failed to promote the right of Area Forums to place items in the Executive Agenda. It seems that the only power promoted so far has been that of the Mayor.
    This of the Area Forums is a crucial power, people can propose all sort of things, am I wrong in thinking that it’s a revolutionary opportunity that need to be made to work?
    Single residents and groups of residents can work out small and big policies and campaign for the area forum to support them and place them on the agenda.
    If the proposals fit with the desirable objectives of the Council and don’t aggravate the budget then the Mayor would have to approve.

  16. andrewkbrown says:

    Max I know that you won’t be alone in thinking that the Mayor and Council are synonymous, but that’s not how it looked to me when I was a councillor.

    The Mayor has been pretty explicit that Area Forum’s are a matter for councillors to organise and run as they (and with advice from officers) see fit. That we/they chose not to explore or promote the constitutional rights this gave their attendees is a failing of councillors.

    I’m not in a position to comment on how your use of that power has been dealt with by Steve and the Council. But, in general, I would be surprised if Steve was trying to avoid the debate or the issue, that doesn’t fit with what I know of the man.

    Personally I’m with you in thinking that where people can persuade their fellow residents of the efficacy of their case they should have the power to make that case to the Mayor. Whether the Mayor would have to approve the proposals that met your hurdle is less clear to me, but I’m up for the debate.

  17. Max says:

    Maybe I should spare you from imposing on you a debate on how they dealt with my test-case, I rather look at the principle.
    Just for the record, the item yesterday was not on the Agenda after the Head of Law advised in that direction.

    She advised to remove it because she had received a letter threatening legal challenge on those matters detailed in the item submitted by the Area Forum. She didn’t explain what law entitles her to remove the item following the receipt of this letter.

    On the plus side she also specified that the item was placed on the Agenda in accordance to the Constitution and that it should have been discussed at yesterday’s meeting.

    As I said the detail of my test-case is just for the record, I’m much more interested in the potential of the practice and yesterday it was confirmed that what I did was lawful and can be repeated.

    As you say the step from being a proposal to getting Mayoral approval is a big one and that’s what will really be interesting to see if people will take the opportunity to make serious proposals. It will be a mix of voters’ consent, officers’ incline to endorse, all sorts of things.
    I find fascinating the fact that it widens enormously the pool of people that can make proposals, from a very restricted group of officers and a few political people to just about everyone.
    A lot of unheard of ideas could reach the Mayor’s table and enter the debate. That’s fantastic.
    Until now the vast majority of proposals follow a top down path starting from government and down on to the Councils implementing them, this could become just one of the possible sources of proposals in competition with others coming up from the grass-roots.

  18. andrewkbrown says:

    As you may have guessed from other things I’ve written I retain my belief in representative democracy, but that doesn’t stop me also finding this sort of opportunity for participative democracy quite exciting.

    Those of us who argue for representative democracy can often come across as believing in a top-down model, but that’s not the case with me. I too want to see the pool of people who can use the channels provided by the constitution widened, and for those of us with positive ideas about how to improve things have to test them against our fellow citizens and evidence.

    There are caveats – aren’t there always – which I think the present system – as it should work – covers. Sheer weight of numbers, though important shouldn’t be the determining factor on whether these mini-polls get the nod by the Mayor. I think once they’ve got through the Forum they need to be tested against council policy, resource implications, and political feasibility.

    All of which would make me want to do my homework before I put an idea before the Forum.

  19. Max says:

    That’s the spirit!

  20. Lone Ranger says:

    Out of interest when you were a councillor would the Mayor sit in on Labour group meetings of councillors at the Town Hall or would he exclude himself? For example if they were about to decide how vote on one of his decisions.

  21. andrewkbrown says:

    Yes, Steve is a member of Labour Group and as such is entitled to take part in debates. There are decisions that he and members of the cabinet exclude themselves from, mostly to do with votes on who Group will support for scrutiny side positions.

    As I’m sure you know none of the decisions of scrutiny committees are whipped and its through the Business Panel that Mayoral, Cabinet and delegated decision making is undertaken.

    Labour Group therefore tends to take positions on issues and decisions that are coming up rather than debating decisions that have already been made. That’s not to say that group policy isn’t examined in the light of events, but while I was a member we tried to be very careful not to put scrutiny members in a position where they felt whipped when scrutinising decisions.

  22. Lone Ranger says:

    Here’s how the locality fund was spent by one ward…

    and another…..

    One the problems this year was the very short period of time between being granted the money and having to decide what to spend it on.


    Re Dave Sullivan, what happened there. I spoke to him recently and he didn’t want to talk about anything to do with politics in Lewisham. I was suprised as I don’t recall him having a bad time as a councillor.

  23. andrewkbrown says:

    Well, yes and no. It shouldn’t have been a big surprise that the money was coming, but if it was confirmed at the same time as two years ago then that doesn’t leave too much time to consult and come up with ideas.

  24. Pingback: Re-Elect Ken « Someday I Will Treat You Good

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