Big changes to your councils on the way

ANNUAL elections to councils will end in 2008 when all local authorities will be given the option to have powerful local mayors or leaders directly elected by the voters.

By Graham Dines

ANNUAL elections to councils will end in 2008 when all local authorities will be given the option to have powerful local mayors or leaders directly elected by the voters.

The change will significantly alter the way Ipswich, Colchester, Waveney, Brentwood and hundreds of other councils in England are elected. It's likely that all county councils, unitary, metropolitan and shire districts will be elected on the same day for a four year term.

The proposals are part of the Government's White Paper overhauling local government issued yesterday by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly.

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In areas which have county and shire district councils, voters will choose both sets of councillors on the same day instead of the current practice of alternating every two years.

For the big cities and towns, the shake-up means the effective end of constant changes of political control. All councillors will serve a fixed four year-term and there will be an end of members “retiring” in rota.

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Local authorities will be able to choose from one of three options, all of which involve elections being held every four years. These are:

a) A directly elected mayor, who will have sweeping powers

b) A directly elected executive or cabinet

c) A council leader appointed by councillors.

Launching the White Paper in the Commons yesterday, Ms Kelly said the proposals recognised there was no “one size fits all” blueprint.

“Our reforms will give citizens and communities a clearer voice, create stronger and more visible leadership, and establish a new settlement with local government and its partners, communities and citizens,” she said.

The White Paper's main aim is to encourage authorities to have directly elected mayors using the model adopted for London. Unlike now, there will be no need to have a referendum to decide whether to go down the mayoral route - if councils decide to have them, they will set the election process in place.

The legislation proposes that all the executive powers of local authorities will be held by the leader, with the rest of the council responsible for scrutinising their actions and approving budgets and other major plans.

Ms Kelly said: “We will give local authorities a strong role in leading their communities and bringing services together to address local needs and problems.

“Central government will play its part in guaranteeing minimum standards and setting overall national goals, but we will step back and allow more freedom and flexibility at the local level.”

Ms Kelly told MPs yesterday that overview and scrutiny committees on councils would be given more power to review the performance of key public bodies.

“Councillors should be champions for their local community, able to speak out on all issues affecting their local area, including planning and licensing. They should be able to sort out issues on the ground or demand a formal response through scrutiny procedures.”

The White Paper sets out that councils will be able to determine local by-laws without agreement from central government, and enforce them through fixed penalty notice.

It also outlines proposals to reduce red tape for council house tenants who want to take day-to-day control of housing services in their neighbourhood.

Commenting on the proposals, Caroline Spelman, the Tories' Shadow Secretary for communities, said: “Until unelected regional assemblies are abolished and powers returned to elected local councils, these localist pledges are not worth the paper they are written on.

“This paper is a wasted opportunity from a government that has squandered its third term. A few pius platitudes and a bonfire of past Labour mistakes are no substitute for policy.”

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