Proposed reforms to local government promise accountability not conspiracy

Nick Cohen's article "Behind closed doors" (12 June) on the reform of local councils' management structures contained unjustified paranoia, weak analysis and little evidence.

Cohen seems to accept that the current system is flawed and that "the ruling elites of boroughs often take decisions in secret". However, he expresses no views about how to reform what is by general agreement a failing system, but instead argues that the proposed reforms will only make things worse. More the line of reasoning of a conservative than a self-styled radical.

If you formally identify and make visible the leadership group in any political institution, you can hold it to account. The current committee system in local councils is a recipe for the informal exercise of power that can turn into corruption.

The proposed new systems do not simply concentrate power in the executive's hands. Draft constitutions will create a range of checks and balances, leaving the budget and major policy matters in the hands of the whole body of elected councillors. Regulations will ensure that there is access to agendas, policy papers and information at a level which will surpass that obtained under the current system.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) in particular has argued that it would be better if more councils were prepared to give the elected mayor-council system a go. The idea of being able to directly elect the leadership of your council is popular with the public, but less so with councillors already in the system. Fortunately, the local government minister, Hilary Armstrong, has, in her legislation, allowed local people to call a referendum on the issue. Now there is a radical idea, letting the people choose their own system of governance. Reactionaries such as Cohen appear to be fearful of such ideas on the grounds that the people might choose a leader they don't like or they can't control through party discipline.

The tone of the article was ridiculously conspiratorial. Cohen demonstrated his investigative journalistic prowess by boldly announcing that our mailing list of "opinion-formers is in front of me as I write". To have obtained such "secret" information, Cohen need have looked no further than NLGN's very secretive website, www.nlgn.org.uk, which lists our 1,500 individual members.

John Williams
Executive director, New Local Government Network, London SE1

In Lewisham, we've already moved to a cabinet and assembly system, with cabinet meetings held in public, in different parts of the borough, and broadcast on the web - hardly behind closed doors. We've also boosted the scrutiny side of our governance - to allow proper accountability of the executive. In a year, we've seen better decision-making, more efficient use of time and resources and more public accountability.

The old committee system that Nick Cohen seems to be defending was a nightmare of bureaucracy, mediocrity and secrecy, with decisions being made in majority political groups in secret. Local government in Britain will be better off when that system is finally consigned to history.

Cllr Dave Sullivan
Mayor for Lewisham, London SE6

Nick Cohen is determined not to let facts get in the way of a good piece of Labour-bashing. He states that Brighton has abandoned its system of cabinet government. In fact, Brighton Council has not existed for three years. If he means Brighton & Hove Council, well, sorry Nick, we still have a cabinet and scrutiny system.

Cllr Simon Battle
Valance Ward, Hove, East Sussex

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs