The Committee and Cabinet Systems

I have been pondering how to start this blog on the different administrative structures a Local Authority can have. It is not easy, and I have tried to start this blog several times. So bear with me, as I will not try to bore you to death in what I have to say. I will start with the basics and the current arrangement at Cornwall Council.

Since Cornwall Council’s formation in 2009, the council adopted the ‘Strong Leader’ model under the Executive System (Cabinet). Under this model, the Leader of the Council is appointed by the full council in one of its first acts post an election. Then, the Leader appoints a Cabinet of between two and ten Councillors (no less, no more). The Cabinet will make just about all the major financial decision apart from the council’s budget, and Councillor’s allowances. So in essence, ten will make most of the decisions affecting the whole of Cornwall. There are also various other types of Cabinet system, but the principle is the same.

To keep the executive ‘in-check’ a series of Scrutiny Committees is set up with various powers of call-in. The main job of the Scrutiny Committee is to scrutinise the Cabinet’s policies. It can also make policies for Cabinet to approve. The power of call-in is an interesting one; as a Scrutiny Committee can make further recommendations for the Cabinet to adopted, but these are not legally binding on the Cabinet, and it could and has, ignore those additional recommendations. Still with me?

The Committee System of old was disposed of in 2000. Apart from small Local Authorities with a population of fewer than 84,000 who could carry on using the Committee System under something call the ‘Fourth Option’? In Cornwall, only one Local Authority ran this system, and that was Restormel Borough Council. Now, under the Localism Act,  a Local Authority could reintroduce a Committee System as one of the models of local government.

So what is a Committee System? Well, it is a style of governance involving councillors sitting on committees which make decisions, receive briefing and commission reviews to develop policy. This means more than ten Councillors can make a decision, or be part of that decision. I should also point out, that if you are not on that committee; you will still not have a vote. Thinking all Councillors will suddenly have a voting say in all decisions is rather naive.

If a Committee structure is introduced at Cornwall Council, I believe the Committees has to be supreme (makes the final decision). I say this because if every decision had to go to full council for a final decision, then nothing would ever get done, and the whole system would grind to a halt. This poor and slow decision-making process was one of the reasons the committees were disposed of in 2000.

Believe it all not; Cornwall Council has panels that report directly to the full council. I have seen it far too often months of work have been thrown out, leaving nothing. Or decisions have been made with no relevant information being present.

All the different administrative systems have their faults. I personally would like to have a system that does take into account the majority of the council’s view in big decisions. The recent Cabinet decision on Shared Services left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Such a large decision, which did not undertake a view from the whole council is not good for democracy.

There are two other options a Local Authority could adopt. These are a Mayor system; much like the executive system’s  strong leader model. The Mayor really is all-powerful, so if you don’t like the Strong Leader model, you are not going to like the Mayoral system. The other system is a hybrid. In theory, you could cherry pick all the best (or worst) bits of the Cabinet and Committee systems and make a new type of administration. This is an interesting concept, but one fraught with danger. Also, any new system has to be approved by Mr Pickles MP.

Any clearer? Want to have your say on which system should be used at Cornwall Council? Here is the LINK  for further information on the review, including the form for your views.


  • Gill Martin

    Are cabinet members ‘advised’ by the leader of the council on how to vote on a major decision.
    Is there proper consultation with the full council before the cabinet vote, in order to ascertain a wider viewpoint.

  • It’s not necessarily true that someone who disklikes the ‘strong leader’ model of the Leader and Cabinet system would oppose the Mayor and Cabinet option on the same grounds. The Mayor would be elected by residents, rather than by the councillors representing the majority party so that may be seen as commensurate with their powers – particularly in local authorities that are, effectively one-party states,

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