The Localism Bill proposes increased powers for councils and communities, illustrated in planned reform of the rules governing conduct and voting procedures for councillors.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles says these will enable councillors to champion the causes that matter most to their constituents, free from the current system's shackles.
The plans revolve around the abolition of council watchdog Standards for England and the national councillors' code of conduct, along with statutory rules to guard against councillors' minds being closed through "predetermination". The standards regime will be replaced by a general duty for councils to promote and maintain high standards of members' conduct. They will have discretion on the form of their own codes of conduct and on how to investigate and act on alleged breaches.
Some critics contend that the present rules restrict councillors from taking a stand on local issues for fear of accusations of bias when matters reach decision stage. Councillors are elected on the basis of what they campaign on, so it seems obtuse that they should be barred from voting due to a previously declared position.
Broadly speaking, section 13 of the bill provides that councillors cannot be said, or be seen, to have a closed mind when deciding on an issue simply because they may have previously indicated the view they might take on it. However, the section does not prevent evident bias being used to overturn a decision. Councillors acting in a predetermined way will still, quite rightly, have no defence.
Arguably, however, the Government's attempts to clarify the situation on predetermination are unnecessary. The conclusions drawn in case law, in particular National Assembly for Wales v Condron (2006), show that existing conduct rules are perhaps not as restrictive as ministers imply, or indeed as restrictive as members are often advised they are.
Even under the new regime, a tension will arise between a clear disposition on the part of councillors and the need to vote fairly. A "closed" mind could still be disguised by being seen to participate in the debate. Councillors will still need to be careful when expressing views prior to key decisions, as the statutory provisions in the bill may be triggered by allegations of predetermination, however spurious.
The removal of Standards for England and the accompanying regime will be welcomed in some quarters. However, could concerns about it have been remedied by addressing the standards board regime rather than abolishing it completely? Equally, the new power to define local standards is probably an illusion. Councils are likely to use the existing model as a base. Consensus will emerge and we are likely to see similar provisions adopted around the country. Despite this uniformity, costs will arise for anyone dealing with councils in reviewing local codes to check whether there are any unusual variants.