Councils are political organisations, and their arrangements for decision-making are known as their ‘governance’.
Councils can adopt (or be directed to adopt) one of the following four models:
- a leader and cabinet
- a committee system
- executive arrangements with a directly elected mayor
- arrangements prescribed by the Secretary of State.
Most councils operate a leader and cabinet model. The full council elects a leader who, in turn, appoints and chairs the cabinet. Each cabinet member has a specific area of responsibility – for example children and young people, housing or finance. The cabinet meets regularly (weekly or fortnightly) so decisions are made quickly. The cabinet may also be called the executive.
In some areas, an executive mayor is elected for a four-year term. The mayor has greater powers than a council leader and may or may not be a member of the majority party on the council. He/she proposes the budget and policy framework and appoints and chairs the cabinet, which can be single or cross-party.
Some councils opt for a committee system. The council establishes a number of committees, each with a specific area of responsibility. The political groups appoint elected members to those committees. More councillors are actively involved in decision-making, but it can take longer to reach decisions.
Increasingly, areas are creating joint decision-making arrangements such as combined authorities or joint leaders’ boards to deal with issues that cross local authority boundaries, such as economic growth and transport.
Whichever system an authority opts for, it must have a full council on which all councillors sit. This is responsible for setting the policy framework, agreeing the budget and spending plans, electing the leader and making constitutional decisions. It is also a forum for debate on major issues affecting the council and its local area. In councils with a directly elected mayor, the budget and framework are proposed by the mayor and can only be amended or overturned by the council with a two-thirds majority.
Councils that do not opt for the committee system must establish overview and scrutiny arrangements through which non-cabinet councillors can scrutinise decisions.
There are some regulatory and quasi-judicial functions over which the cabinet does not have responsibility – such as determining planning applications and making decisions on licensing. These are delegated to separate planning and regulatory committees.
- The constitution
As a new councillor you will receive a copy of your council’s constitution, which sets out how the council conducts its business, including:
- who is responsible for making decisions and how decisions are made
- procedural matters (set out in the ‘standing orders’)
- the role of officers
- standards and ethical governance.
It is important to familiarise yourself with these parts of the constitution, in particular the standing orders. These specify the terms of reference of the council’s various member structures, the rules on declarations of interest, the timings and order of business at council meetings and the rules of debate.
- Agendas and minutes
By law the council’s formal meetings must be held in public, although the public and press can be excluded for discussions on some confidential items (known as ‘Part 2’). Councils must give at least five days’ notice of a meeting and must make the agenda available at least five days before the meeting. The minutes should be published on the council’s website and available on request. The council must also publish its forward plan, showing the key decisions to be made in the next four months.
- Defamation and privilege
Councillors can be sued for defamation if they say or write anything that will ‘lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking people’. However, in council meetings they have a qualified privilege to allow freedom of speech. This can protect you against being sued for something you say as part of your duty as a councillor or to defend or support the interests of the council – but it only applies if you can show that you honestly believed what you said and were not motivated by malice.