Labour's new-look local government means mayors and, perhaps, a more responsive education service. Jon Slater analyses the proposals
For more than a decade, local education authorities have faced an uncertain future. Councillors and officials must have hoped a Labour government would put an end to the doubt over their prospects, but they have been disappointed. If anything the pressure has increased.
The creation of education action zones and increased delegation to schools suggest authorities have to deliver - or else. And it is not just education departments who are feeling the heat. Ministers want to see improvements in the quality, responsiveness and value for money of all council services.
But regardless of what the more lurid headlines would have you believe, ministers have not yet given up on local government. Many Labour ministers - including David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary - cut their political teeth in local government. It means they have anemotional attachment to local authorities - as well as first-hand knowledge of their weaknesses.
This experience has led to a radical rethink of the way councils work. The Local leadership, local choice and Modernising government White Papers set out two elements of a new blueprint for councils. The proposals are designed to improve leadership, accountability and responsiveness in all the services they provide - including education.
Reform will signal the end of the old committee system of local government - which is seen as bureaucratic and opaque. Instead councils will be run by a mayor, a cabinet or both. Their decisions will be scrutinised by committees but unlike the present system, these groups will not make policy (although the full council will have to approve major decisions such as education development plans).
Ministers believe that the new-look councils will provide more dynamic leadership. A tighter executive structure could shield services from the type of political in-fighting which was responsible for many of the problems in Hackney's schools. They also hope that reducing bureaucracy and raising the profile (and pay) of council leaders will encourage more high-quality people to become involved in local government.
In June last year, the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham became the first council to replace committee-based decision making with a mayor and cabinet. The transition is not yet complete as members still have to work within existing legislation. And the system will be modified again this year - including an increase in the number of scrutiny committees.
However, according to Christine Whatford, chief education officer, the change has clear advantages. "There are fewer pointless meetings and working together - particularly by members - has increased. It has helped with joined-up thinking."
Graham Lane, Local Government Association chair of education also believes that the reforms will be good for schools. He said, "Too often in the past education has been semi-detached. The changes will make it more central to council policy."
He believes that the new system will raise standards by making members more accountable to the public. "I think people will know who is responsible for decisions. They will know who to write to and services will improve."
But reorganisation will throw up problems as well as opportunities. Councillors not on the executive could feel excluded. Mr Lane suggests that cabinet members should appoint other councillors to help formulate policy. But others may prefer to see a reduction in the number of elected members.
And there is likely to be a blurring between the role of officers and members. In the short-term at least this is set to create friction between new executives and their bureaucracy.
Co-opted members, such as parent governors and church representatives will also have to find their place in the new structure. They will lose their seats on the old committees, but cannot easily be fitted into the executive. Instead they will be given places on the scrutiny committees and some may be involved in policy development. Other stakeholders such as those from business and further education could also be involved.
While these changes will revolutionise the way councils are run, ministers believe that they do not go far enough. They also want local people to be consulted more about decisions that affect them.
Lewisham in south London has already begun this process. Last year it set up a select committee of councillors to make recommendations on how standards in the borough's schools could be improved.
Councillors took more than 20 hours of evidence in committee sessions - two of which were held in schools. In one session, 30 young people were given the chance to give their views and experience of school.
Focus groups were commissioned to find out the opinions of, among others, local business people, ethnic minorities and teachers. And a survey gathered the views of others involved in education. The council's 1,000-member citizens panel was also used to get views from the parents and public.
Rob Whiteman, assistant director of finance, who led the project said, "The process worked very well. Councillors said they found out more about education than they had in years on the old committee."
But councils who have not yet started to change are under pressure to catch up. For some it could be their last chance to show they can be trusted with education.
In a speech last month Jack Cunningham, Tony Blair's "Cabinet enforcer", warned: "We must look hard at what services government can best provide itself, what should be contracted to the private or voluntary sectors and what should be done in partnership. We intend to review all council services over the next five years to identify the best suppliers ."
Action zones could be a model for a partnership approach to education in which local authorities take a back seat. And the experience of Hackney and now Islington shows Labour is not afraid of calling in the private sector.
In the end the quality of councillor that the new system attracts may be the key to council's success. The concentration of power in fewer hands will only work if those people have the ability to use it effectively. This will take time. The big question is are ministers prepared to wait that long?
FAREWELL TRADITION FROM SELECTED TO ELECTED MAYORS COUNCIL
* Decides new constitution
* Agrees policy framework
* Agrees budget
* Appoints chief executive and chief officers
COUNCILLORS OUTSIDE CABINET
* Propose budget changes to Mayor and Cabinet
* Propose new or changed policies to Mayor and Cabinet
* Represent electorate
* Scrutinise the decisions taken by Mayor and Cabinet
DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYOR
* Provides political leadership
* Proposes policy framework
* Proposes budget
* Takes executive decisions within policy framework
* Appointed by the Mayor from the council
* Implements policies under the political guidance of the Mayor
* Takes delegated executive decisions as group or as individuals
CHIEF EXECUTIVE AND CHIEF OFFICERS
* Provide required support, including dedicated staff, to councillors outside the Cabinet
* Implement policy and oversee delivery of council services
* Account for executive actions to councillors outside the Cabinet
Source: Local Leadership, local choice - detr, 1999