< Open and accountable local government

This Part explains how the public can access meetings of a council’s executive, its committees and sub-committees, and records of executive decisions taken by individual members or officers. A council’s executive (i.e. the council’s cabinet) is its main decision making body consisting of an elected mayor or leader and a number of councillors. This Part applies to councils with either a leader and cabinet or elected mayor and cabinet. It does not apply to councils operating the committee system or other local government bodies listed in annex A.

The national rules

What are the national rules for access to meetings and documents of a council’s executive?

The national rules are principally provided by the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 which introduced significantly greater transparency and openness into the meetings of a council’s executive, its committees and sub-committees. The rules also strengthen the rights of councillors to access information about items to be discussed at a public or private meeting of their council’s executive.

Who can make an executive decision in my council?

The decision maker can be the executive, its committees and sub-committees, joint committees, joint sub-committees, individual councillors, and officers who have delegated responsibility from the executive to make executive decisions. Your council may have local rules x that will explain who may make a decision.


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Attending the meetings of your council’s executive

How will I know about a forthcoming public meeting of my council’s executive?

Your council must give a notice of the meeting at least 5 clear days before it takes place. The details of the meeting must be published at your council’s offices and on its website where practicable. The agenda must be published with any background papers. No item can be considered if the item is not available for inspection by the public with 5 clear days’ notice.

Where an item is added to the agenda within 5 days before the meeting is scheduled to take place, a revised agenda, public report and background papers must be published as soon as the item is added to the agenda. In some circumstances, the whole or part of a report may not be available for public inspection because it contains either confidential or exempt information. In this case, the report should bear the phrase ‘not for publication’ and state that it contains confidential information or set out the description of the exempt information.

Can I obtain a copy of the agenda and other relevant papers for a public meeting of my council’s executive?

Yes, your council must provide you with a copy of the agenda, and other relevant papers once you have made payment of postage and/or copying charge. There are also additional legal rights to access information, outlined in Part 5 of this Guide.

Can a council’s executive choose to meet in private?

All meetings of an executive including meetings of its committees or sub-committees must be open to the public, except in limited defined circumstances where the national rules require or allow the meeting to be closed to the public.

The rules require a meeting of an executive to be closed to the public in two specific circumstances:

  • If the presence of the public is likely to result in the council breaching a legal obligation to third parties about the keeping of confidential information; or
  • a lawful power is used to exclude the public in order to maintain orderly conduct or prevent misbehaviour at a meeting.

In addition, a meeting can also be closed to the public where the executive so decides (by passing a resolution of its members) because exempt information would otherwise be likely to be disclosed. It is open to the executive if it chooses to consider in public matters involving exempt information. There is no over-riding legal requirement forcing councils to discuss exempt information in private.

What is confidential information?

Confidential information means:

  • information provided to the council by a Government department on terms which forbid the disclosure of the information to the public; and
  • information which is prohibited from being disclosed by any enactment or by a court order.
What is exempt information?

The descriptions of exempt information are set out in Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972. The descriptions are listed in annex B of this Guide.

Can I be asked to leave a public meeting?

Yes. As a member of the public you can be asked to leave a meeting so that the executive, its committees or sub-committees can discuss matters in private, but only in the limited circumstances that are already explained.

How will I know about a private meeting of my council’s executive?

Prior to holding a private meeting, your council must have published on its website and at its offices at least 28 clear days’ notice of its intention to consider a matter in private and the reasons for the private meeting. This is to ensure that members of the public have reasonable opportunity to make representations as to why the proposed private meeting should not be held in private.

At least 5 clear days before the meeting, your council must confirm its intention to go ahead with the private meeting through another notice on its website and at its offices. This second notice has to include details of any representations received and the council’s response to them.

Can a private meeting of my council’s executive be held if 28 days’ notice is not given to the public?

A private meeting can only be held without 28 days’ notice after the agreement of the Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee has been obtained that the meeting is urgent and cannot reasonably be delayed. In the absence of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee Chairman, the permission of the Council Chairman (or, in their absence, the Vice Chairman) must be obtained. If this agreement is granted the council must publish a notice about why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred. This notice must be available at its offices and on their website. If agreement is not given then the meeting must either be held in public, or the council must comply with the 28 day notice requirements.

Can I attend an executive’s pre-briefing meeting with local authority officers?

No. The rules apply only to when councillors meet as a decision making body to exercise their statutory executive responsibilities. The rules do not apply to political groups’ meetings or to informal briefing meetings for councillors.


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Recording of decisions of public meetings

If I am not at the meeting, how will I know of any decisions made?

The fact that you are unable to attend a public meeting of your council’s executive, its committees or sub-committees does not mean you cannot find out about the decisions made there. The national rules require a council to keep records of any executive decisionsxi made as soon as reasonably practicable after any public meeting. The written records must reflect the following information:

  • Details of the decision and the date it was made;
  • reasons for the decision;
  • any other options considered and why those options were rejected;
  • details of any conflict of interest of an executive member of the decision-making body; and
  • a note of dispensation granted by the Head of Paid Service in respect of any declared conflict of interest.

You can then inspect the records and any reports considered at the meeting at your council’s offices and on the council’s website if it has one. All of these documents can be inspected for six years beginning from the date of the meeting apart from background papers which can be inspected for four years beginning from the date of the meeting. These records may be kept in electronic format.

Apart from information about meetings, are there other means of knowing about decisions likely to be made by a council’s executive, its committees and sub- committees?

Yes. The national rules require a council to publish its intention to make a key decisionxii in a document at least 28 clear days prior to when the decision is intended to be made. The notice has to include details of the individual or executive body that will make the decision, the matter that is subject to a decision, other documents to be considered, and where these other documents are available. This notice document must be available at the council’s offices and on its website before the decision is made.

This allows you to have sufficient knowledge in advance of those decisions that will be of genuine concern to you and your local communities.

Can a key decision of a council’s executivexiii be made without giving the 28 days’ notice?

Yes, provided the following requirements are met:-

  • the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committee Chairman is informed in advance and in writing (or all the members of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee) about what the decision is concerning;
  • a notice about the key decision to be made is made available for inspection at the council’s offices and published on the website; and
  • 5 clear days elapse following the day a notice is published about the key decision to be made.

If there is a case of special urgency, for example an urgent decision on a negotiation, expenditure or contract, the decision must only be made if the agreement of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee Chairman is received. In the absence of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee Chairman, the permission of the Council Chairman (or in their absence the Vice Chairman) must be obtained. If agreement is given, a notice explaining why the decision is urgent and cannot reasonably be deferred, must be published and should be available at the council’s offices and on its website as soon as reasonably practicable.

Can 28 days’ notice of a key decision also provide 28 days’ notice required for a council executive’s private meeting?

It is up to your council to decide whether the 28 day key decision document should contain the details required for a private meeting notice. Where there is an intention to make a key decision at a private meeting, your council must comply fully with all the national rules.

Can my council’s executive make key decisions and not follow the national rules?

No. Councils must comply with all the national rules since they are prescribed by law. Should a decision be made without applying the key decision rules because the council thinks that the decision is not a key decision, but subsequently the Overview and Scrutiny Committee decides the decision is a key decision, the executive may be asked to submit a report to the full council.


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Executive decisions by an individual member or officer

Can an individual member or an officer of a council’s executive take decisions on matters that are the executive’s responsibility?

Yes, where the rules of your council allow this. Decision makers can be individual councillors, and officers who have delegated responsibility from the executive to make executive decisions.

How will I know about an executive decision taken by a member or officer?

When a member or officer takes a decision on matters that are the responsibility of the council’s executive, this must be recorded in writing. The form of the written record is for the council to decide, but the following should be included:

  • details of the decision and the date it was made;
  • reasons for the decision;
  • any other options considered and why those options were rejected;
  • details of any conflict of interest declared by any executive member consulted in relation to the decision; and
  • a note of dispensation granted in respect of any declared conflict of interest.
Are all decisions made by councils’ officers to be so recorded?

No. The requirement to record decisions extends only to “executive decisions”. Executive decisions can sometimes be defined in your council’s rules. Decisions which are taken by officers under specific delegations from a meeting of their council’s executive are clearly executive decisions. However, many administrative and operational decisions officers take on how they go about their day to day work will be delegated within the council’s rules and are not in this “executive decisions” category; as such they do not need to be recorded.

The decisions that should be not recorded might include the following examples:

  • Decisions to allocate social carers to particular individuals, or for example, to provide walking aids;
  • decisions to allocate a social housing unit to an applicant or to send someone to carry out repairs;
  • decisions to review the benefit claims of an individual applicant and
  • decisions to allocate market stalls to individual traders.

Where officers have been empowered to act on behalf of their council’s executive, examples of decisions that should be recorded could include:

  • Decisions about awarding contracts above specified individual or total values;
  • decisions to exercise powers of Compulsory Purchase;
  • decisions on disposal of and/ or provision of allotment land and green spaces;
  • awarding of Discretionary Rate Relief
  • the opening hours of local libraries; and
  • the holding of car boot sales/markets on council-owned land.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, rather a series of examples to illustrate that, in the interests of maximum transparency, these Regulations require more than just key decisions to be recorded.

Ultimately it is for local decision makers to decide what information should be recorded on the basis of the national rules.

How can I see any records of decisions taken by executive members or officers?

Once a record of executive decisions taken by an executive member or officer has been made, you should be able to inspect the record at the council’s offices and on its website as soon as reasonably practicable.

However you will not be able to see some of the information if it is considered to be either confidential or exempt information.

Can I ask for a copy of any records of executive decisions?

Yes. You can ask for a copy of any documents relating to executive decisions and your council should supply the information once you have paid for the postage, copying or any other necessary charge for transmission which will be determined by your council. There are also additional legal rights to access information, outlined in Part 5 of this Guide.


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Your rights as a councillor

If I am a councillor, do I have any right to access meeting documents?

As a councillor, you can inspect any document that contains material to be discussed at least 5 days before a public meeting is held. In case of a private meeting or decision made by an individual executive member or officer, you can inspect the document within 24 hours of the conclusion of the meeting or the decision being made.

In addition, if you are a member of an overview and scrutiny committee, you can ask for any document that contains business transacted at a meeting of the executive, its committees or sub-committees or officer of the authority. The executive must provide the document within 10 days after it (the executive) receives the request. In an instance where the executive cannot release the whole or part of the document, the executive must provide you with a written explanation.

What other rights do councillors have to inspect documents of their councils?

In addition to the rights conferred on councillors by these Regulations in relation to executive decision making, councillors also have statutory rights to inspect documents of the council and its committees under Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972. Councillors may also request information held by their council under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (or the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 in relation to environmental information). Councillors may have rights under the common law to inspect such documents held by their council as are reasonably necessary for them to perform their duties.

What happens if documents relating to executive decisions are not made public?

It is a criminal offence if, without a reasonable excuse, a person who has in his or her custody a documentxiv, which the national rules require to be made available to the public, refuses to supply the whole or part of the document or intentionally obstructs any other person/s from disclosing such a document.

If a person is found guilty of such a criminal offence, he/she can be fined up to £200xv.


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< Open and accountable local government

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