Local Authorities' Constitutions

The constitution of each council is specific to that particular council and should reflect the local demands and specific issues that might be related to their geography or location. There are many examples, but one that illustrates this point are local authorities that cover areas such as National Parks or areas of outstanding beauty that require specific approaches to defend their sustainability. Such regulations affect decisions that can be made on planning the built environment, transportation and industrial and commercial use of land.  The council's written constitution must therefore reflect the exact limitations of the powers that they have to make decisions.

The constitutional arrangements that each council has will determine the structure and approach to decision making. Traditionally councils across the UK have an approach to governance (as enshrined within the constitution) that is described as the ‘committee system’; for each specific function or service area a committee is formed of the councils elected members (councillors) from the controlling party. Each committee has a chairperson who is notionally an experienced member with some interest or connectivity with that service.

However, this is not universally applied and there are mechanisms that allow for a more ‘Cabinet’ approach to governance where leading members form a cabinet with certain powers to determine policy and approach to the way that services are delivered. The remaining members, including those in political opposition are relegated to challenging the decisions through other mechanisms, either when the full council meets (usually on a monthly basis) to argue either for or against the decisions that the cabinet makes.

The 2000 Local Government Act required all local councils to have a constitution that covers all the standing orders, delegated processes and the codes of conduct for councillors. Prior to this a council had a variety of constitutional documents covering the above and occasionally had certain conflicting statements that made day to day running of the council a complex and occasionally fraught affair. The introduction of the ‘model constitution’ rectifies this.

Article 13.02 of the model constitution for authorities with executive arrangements sets out principles of decision making. The model suggests that these should include: “(a) proportionality (i.e. the action must be proportionate to the desired outcome); (b) due consultation and the taking of professional advice from officers; (c) respect for human rights; (d) a presumption in favour of openness; and (e) clarity of aims and desired outcomes”.

Public Interest

A critical issue for the public’s understanding and trust of local government is the widely applied legal notion of the ‘public interest test’.  All local councils... [to be completed]


Ian Briggs

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