​Is Now the Right Time to Review Your Council's Constitution?

Publish date: 19/10/2020

Ed Hammond, Director of Campaigns and Research at the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny examines whether now is the right time to review your constitution in light of the pandemic.

On the face of it, the question sounds absurd. Reflection and improvement are good things – but we are in the middle of a pandemic, with the sector facing huge operational challenges. Reorganisation is on the horizon – some of our councils may not even exist in two years' time. And the sector overall is on the brink of an existential financial crisis which has been brewing for the best part of a decade.

In this context, choosing this time to review and update your standing orders and scheme of delegation seems like a particularly bold decision.

But the need to do this may be more urgent than you think – and acting now may provide solutions to some of your more pressing challenges.

Monitoring officers and other senior governance professionals are at the sharp end of the challenges councils now face. They will have had to develop creative solutions to big problems recently. Some of these have been associated with the pandemic – the move to remote decision-making, urgency arrangements and so on. Others will relate to more general trends in the sector – for example the establishment of joint ventures and alternative delivery vehicles, and governance systems relating to commercial ventures.

The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (previously the Centre for Public Scrutiny) works with councils across England – particularly around these issues of large scale organisational and cultural change. The pace of this change looks like it will be accelerating. It looks unlikely that we are going to see a smooth return to "business as usual" in the coming months. At the very least, in the short term, councils are going to have to re-evaluate, review and re-imagine their aspirations for the areas they serve – and accompanying that will come a huge shift in corporate priorities and strategies.

In the medium term, local people will be looking for a different relationship between them and their local authority. The explosion in mutual aid arrangements at the start of lockdown points to a very different model for community activism. This is a model which seems likely to persist beyond the next year, with novel forms of decision-making like co-production and co-design being seen as a baseline for community involvement rather than a standard to vaguely aspire to.

All of this will come with it challenges around a diffusion of accountability and responsibility at a local level, and challenges around how these shifts in approach will be managed, which is why robust governance is so important.

We are keen to speak to governance professionals in councils where these emergent challenges and opportunities are becoming apparent, and particularly to those who recognise these issues but who think their council may struggle to respond to them proactively. There is a range of advice and support that we can provide; you can find more detail at www.cfgs.org.uk/local-government