Decision Making and Contracts

October 9th, 2013

R (Buck) v Doncaster MBC (2013) EWCA Civ 1190 raises important issues as to the division of powers between a directly elected executive and the full council of a local authority.  At first instance Hickinbottom J made the general observation that, if, by an appropriately worded budget amendment, the full Council could override executive decisions of the Mayor, and replace those decisions with their own, the ultimate executive decision-making power would not lie with the Mayor, but with the full Council, contrary to the intention of the Local Government Act 2000 governance scheme.  The Court of Appeal agreed.  The Master of the Rolls said (at para 17) that, in view of the objective of the relevant provisions of the 2000 Act, it would be extraordinary (and frustrate the evident intention of Parliament) if the full Council could direct the Mayor whether and, if so, how to spend the money which had been authorised by the budget.  It would mean that the full Council could take over responsibility for almost any executive matter, simply by writing some sufficiently specific provision about it in the annual budget.  If the budget-setting powers of the full Council extend to prescribing exactly what expenditure is to be incurred in what specific respects, then it can use those powers to determine exactly what the executive authority will do.  Nor is there any limit to the degree of detail into which such prescription could descend.  This kind of micro-management by the full Council was plainly not intended by the 2000 Act. 

Full Council has no power to interfere with the executive function of the Mayor, except where the Mayor proposes to exercise the function in a way that is (i) contrary to, or not wholly in accordance with, the authority’s budget, or (ii) is contrary to a plan or strategy adopted or approved by the authority.  So what does determining a matter in a manner “contrary to or not wholly in accordance with the authority’s budget” mean?  At para 20, the Master of the Rolls, with whom McCombe LJ and Gloster LJ agreed, said: “In my view, it means determining a matter which will result in incurring expenditure in excess of that for which budget approval has been given by the full council.  That does not only mean that the executive may not incur expenditure in excess of the aggregate of the entire budget, although it certainly includes such a restriction  on the executive’s spending power.  …  it also means that the executive may not incur expenditure in excess of heads of expenditure specified in the budget.” 

To summarise, the full Council may allocate more or less funds than are requested by the Mayor in his proposed budget.  It is the final arbiter of what goes into the budget.  The budgetary process is geared to avoiding any budget deficit by ensuring that the revenue expenditure will not be exceeded.  But it does not allow the full Council to micro-manage the authority’s functions and interfere with the executive functions of the Mayor.  The full Council cannot require the Mayor to expend money in a particular way, or, unless he proposes to act in a way contrary to the plans and strategies reserved to the full Council, to expend money on a particular function. 

As regards “contrary to a plan or strategy”, the Master of the Rolls said:

“24.       … The language of “plan or strategy”,  read in the context of the Functions Regulations, denotes something that operates at a general level.  It cannot embrace any and every decision that may be taken on an individual issue.  If it did, it would undermine the basic distinction between executive and non-executive functions which lies at the heart of the relevant part of the 2000 Act.  The basic idea is that the full council may in certain respects set the policy framework for the authority, but its detailed implementation is a matter for the executive (provided that what it does is not contrary to and is wholly in accordance with the budget).” 

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