Local elections in 2021 have picked up where 2019 left off – with more councils under no overall control, more becoming regularly contestable, and for some cementing their position through gaining additional seats. For all, they will be returning to a decision-making environment that is uncertain and unpredictable.
What can this tell us about how councils go about their business once the dust from these elections has settled, and as the pandemic hopefully continues to recede? We would advise taking the opportunity to review your governance culture – see it as a fitness test before the hamster wheel starts turning fast again. For some however there are fundamentals to sort out regarding who will actually be leading the council.
Perhaps it is worth starting by reminding ourselves that ‘no overall control’ means different things in different councils. NOC does not mean political instability. Plenty of councils have been under no overall control for some time, with a political balance which is fairly static. Equally, there are those highly contestable councils which may oscillate between the outright control of different groups when an election happens – in some cases annually. We shouldn’t therefore make the mistake of assuming that NOC means a headache for those of us who like councils to have stable long-term visions.
For councillors and officers new to the NOC game, however, there’s uncertainty in play. Someone who was able to command the confidence of the council without relying on other parties until a few days ago may suddenly find themselves having to reach across to others, to build unexpected coalitions. Relationship building at the local level is often more about personality than it is about party – witness Norfolk’s ‘rainbow coalition’ of Labour, Lib Dem, Green and UKIP, which defied the odds by taking control of the county away from the largest group, the Conservatives, for three years between 2013 and 2016. Sometimes, the maths may allow competing possibilities to be talked about. In the meantime, key individuals may have lost their seats, further upsetting the dynamics.
In this context – in the small window that exists between the election and council AGM – arrangements for decision-making in councils under NOC may seem cobbled together. A small number of officers may be involved in facilitating and supporting negotiation and agreement but to others – to some councillors, in fact – the process may be frustrating and opaque.
If not acknowledged, this can set the tone for an approach to decision-making which looks and feels informal, loose and secretive. In the worst case, group leaders (either in formal coalition or some other kind of mutual support arrangement) may retreat to the proverbial ‘smoke filled rooms’– the places not open to others where the ‘real’ decisions get made. The politically febrile atmosphere of councils unused to being under NOC may exacerbate this risk.
The responsibility sits with group leaders and senior officers to have conversations in a transparent and consistent way. NOC does after all mean more plurality in decision-making, and the more that people understand the ground rules of the new arrangements (and have a stake in those ground rules) the less the chance that NOC will really lead to instability.
Practically, this is likely to mean early agreement of whether parties will be in a formal coalition or whether the majority party will seek to garner support more informally – vote to vote (where agreement has to be reached between parties for all major decisions separately) or through a confidence and supply arrangement. Both have their appeals depending on the political balance, and the personality of some of the individuals involved.
Then, it becomes a matter of a matter of what issues common ground can be found on – and how policies and decisions will be developed. Cross-party cabinets are a natural feature, but beyond this decision-making more generally needs a deliberative, collective flavour – a leader inclined to lay down the law to a coalition partner will be in for a tough time. There’s no one template, and you can look at ten different councils under NOC without being any the wiser about what techniques and approaches work best.
NOC can suit some councils, and some councillors. Everyone, usually, wants to be in outright control, and the compromise and horse-trading inherent in building and maintaining relationships can seem unedifying. But this compromise is a feature of councils under majority control too – often concealed within group meetings or in other spaces. The more this debate can happen in the public space, the better. NOC makes this possible, but only for those with the drive and maturity to turn possibility into reality.
Ed Hammond is deputy chief executive of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny
Check out the CfGS Governance Toolkit to ‘health check’ your governance culture – www.cfgs.org.uk