Governance Structures: Who Exercises Power?

In this page:

  • This page describes the different structures for decision-making in local government.
  • Decision-making can involve ordinary citizens, elected politicians, and representatives of business, trade unions, and other groups.
  • Structures within decisions can be made include traditional local councils, combined authorities (with and without mayors), regional assemblies, and direct democracy.
  • These have varying implications for the power that different groups have in determining what happens.

This page sets out some of the options for the basic structures for decision-making and for holding decision-makers to account within local areas.

Who makes decisions?

There are basically three types of people who might be involved in decision-making and in holding decision-makers to account:

  • ordinary voters from the local area
  • politicians who have been voted in by the public
  • businesspeople, trade union representatives, and leading figures from other local organisations

There are also many civil servants and others involved in administration and service delivery. But they are responsible for implementing the key decisions rather than making them.

Basic structures

There are five basic kinds of structures that are being discussed at the moment:

  • Traditional local councils: These are made up of councillors elected by local voters. They can be organised in several different ways, as discussed below.
  • Combined authorities: These are groups of councils. Decisions of the combined authority are made by the leaders of the councils meeting together, generally also with local business representatives.
  • Combined authorities with mayors: Concerns have been expressed that combined authorities are not directly accountable to voters. The government now proposes that each combined authority should have a mayor, who is directly elected by local voters and works with the ‘cabinet’ of local council leaders.
  • Regional assemblies: A regional assembly is rather like a local council, but on a larger scale (or like Parliament, but on a smaller scale). Voters elect the assembly members directly. A leader and cabinet are then formed within the assembly.
  • Mechanisms for direct democracy: In all of the arrangements mentioned so far, voters are involved only in electing the politicians who make the decisions. But it is also possible for ordinary local people to be involved in decision-making more directly. This can be through referendums or through citizens’ assemblies – such as the one you are part of now!

In what follows, we flesh out each of these structures a little bit more.

Traditional local council structures

Local councils consist of councillors who are elected by local voters. Councils vary in how exactly these councillors are involved in decision-making. There are three basic structures:

  • In some councils, committees of councillors run the main council services and make all the major decisions on budgeting and priorities.
  • Other councils have a ‘cabinet’ system, where councillors choose a leader for a four-year term and this person then appoints a series of ‘portfolio holders’ – equivalent to government ministers. The rest of the councillors organise themselves into committees, monitoring the performance of the portfolio holders.
  • In sixteen councils in England, instead of a council leader, a directly elected mayor appoints a cabinet.

Combined Authorities

Since 2011, ‘combined authorities’ have made decisions on certain matters. Combined authorities consist of several local councils, and generally also include local businesspeople and organisations such as health boards.

Where a combined authority exists, most decisions are still taken by the local councils in the traditional way. But combined decisions on issues that cross council areas are taken by a committee of the leaders of the local councils, business representatives, and others.

This arrangement has the advantage that it allows the coordination of strategic decision-making across local council areas without requiring the creation of a whole extra group of politicians or a whole new layer of bureaucracy.

On the other hand, it is criticised for lacking accountability to local people. The negotiations leading to the creation of a combined authority have tended to take place behind closed doors. Even after a combined authority has been established, its leaders operate outside direct public scrutiny. The public do not get to vote on who the members of combined authorities will be.

Combined authorities with mayors

In part because of these concerns over the accountability of combined authorities, the government is currently promoting a model where each combined authority has a mayor who is directly elected by local voters. The devolution deals that have been agreed with councils in Greater Manchester and in the Sheffield City Region both involve the election of a mayor who will cover these areas.

The mayor will lead a ‘cabinet’ of decision-makers for the combined authority, consisting of the leaders of the local councils as well as some business and other representatives. In addition, other councillors will be selected from the local councils who will scrutinise the work of the mayor and cabinet.

The mayoral model is intended to enhance accountability without creating a whole new layer of politicians. In addition, the government hopes that the mayor will give a sense of strategic direction for each combined authority that a collection of council leaders cannot provide.

On the other hand, some people worry that it will be difficult to hold such mayors to account. The London mayor, for example, is held accountable by the elected London Assembly. But no such assembly is currently proposed by the government for other areas.

Regional assemblies

A regional assembly would be a body of directly elected politicians responsible for decision-making across a region. This could be in areas such as South Yorkshire, the Sheffield City Region, or the Solent region. Or it could involve larger areas such as Yorkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, or even the whole of the South East.

Such an assembly could take two forms:

  • It could be combined with a directly elected mayor. On this model, the mayor would set the strategic direction, while the assembly would hold her or him to account. This is the model of the London mayor and London Assembly.
  • It could exist without a directly elected mayor. Instead, the assembly would choose a leader, who would tend to be the leader of the largest party in the assembly. This leader – who might be called the region’s mayor or First Minister – would then form a cabinet from the assembly, while other assembly members would hold the mayor and cabinet to account. This is closer to the model of the UK Parliament and government, as well as the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

The assembly structure provides stronger forms of accountability than in combined authorities without such assemblies. On the other hand, there may be concerns about creating a new layer of politicians. And an assembly might over time lead to the development of new layers of bureaucracy as well.

Mechanisms for direct democracy

The debates taking place at the moment about new structures for local government mostly focus on the roles of politicians and the ways in which other powerful local figures – particularly leading businesspeople – can be brought in. There is less attention on whether ordinary local people could also play a greater part.

But many people are dissatisfied with how politics works today and would like to have more influence themselves. There are various ways in which ordinary citizens could have a stronger direct say over decision-making:

  • Referendums: Referendums could be used to decide important local matters. A referendum is now required if a local council wishes to raise council tax by more than 2% in a year, and various other public votes have also been held. This could be used on a range of other local issues.
  • Neighbourhood decision-making: Decision-making over some matters could be devolved to very local neighbourhoods, where one option would be to invite people to neighbourhood meetings where decisions are made collectively. Or the powers of existing parish and town councils could be increased.
  • Citizens’ assemblies: Assemblies like the one you are taking part in now could become regular features of local decision-making. Local citizens would be selected at random to take part and would be provided with detailed briefings. They would consult widely and deliberate carefully before reaching conclusions.

While many people might welcome such arrangements, they also raise important concerns. Many people might vote in referendums without really understanding the issues. Others might not be willing to take part in any of these processes. For many people, we elect politicians so that they can do the complex and time-consuming job of deciding public issues on our behalf.

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