For local government scrutiny to match Westminster, Westminster must fund, empower and trust councils to do it

by Mike Amesbury

For years, councillors, and local government as an institution has been rightly fed up. Fed up of being  told by Whitehall mandarins, policy wonks, and sections of the media that central government knows best, and that local government can’t be trusted to spend money efficiently and effectively.

When local councils feature in the national media it is more likely to be a report of an unfortunate, or context-free story about the odd daft parking ticket or litter enforcement notice, than any detailed coverage of innovative service delivery or agenda setting leadership.

National government – including disappointingly Labour in government, all too often saw local authorities as a funnel for delivering national policy, rather than trusted bodies able and capable of making their own decisions on spending and priorities. Of course, in comparison with the cuts councils currently face, a return to that 1997-2010 period would be hugely welcome. The unprecedented level of localised funding was positive and necessary – it was the constraints and control attached that were less so.

I know this, because for many years I was a councillor in Manchester, and when it comes to the assumption “Westminster knows best”, the reality is usually anything but. Recent LGA research showed that 72% of people trusted their local council more than central government to make decisions about their area. Satisfaction remains high and consistent – despite years of cuts and contraction in services. No local politician of any colour will look at Universal Credit, and accept that Whitehall knows how to deliver services locally.

So as a new member of the Communities and Local Government Select committee I’m clear that the approach I’ll take is to be local government’s voice in Westminster, not the other way round. I’m sure that my committee colleagues will do similar, with many of them bringing significant experience and expertise of local government to the House of Commons.

That said, I’m only a few weeks in to my role on the committee – and it’s already clear that when it comes to scrutiny, and holding the executive, and other influential bodies to account, Parliament is ahead of councils. And as such, I’m pleased that one of the Committee’s inquiries is into scrutiny itself.

I’m not about to indiscriminately bash local government – I’m aware that we aren’t comparing like with like when it comes to profile, the ability to compel witnesses, and the resource and support functions in terms of staffing that are afforded to Parliamentary Committee members are in a different league. The irony isn’t lost on me that it’s a central government body conducting the inquiry, yet only central government itself can give local government the legal powers and resources to match our own approach.

But being honest, even within its limited framework, despite some excellent examples that have been highlighted as our enquiry progresses, scrutiny at a local government level sometimes leaves much to be desired.

Having been an Executive member for 4 years, I’ve been at both ends of the committee room during scrutiny meetings, and whilst excellent issues were often raised, and thoughtful contributions made, rarely was policy substantially changed or amended, solely as a result of what happened in those meetings.

Scrutiny takes place in a framework of party politics; and in councils with dominant single party majorities, at times that framework can even be internal party politics.

The fear of the “next leaflet” or “newspaper headline” can overshadow forensic questioning and whilst such analysis can happen within party group meetings, it isn’t in the public glare. As such, it doesn’t always give the impression to the public at large that councils listen, reflect, and learn.

Now, before my former colleagues accuse me of forgetting the reality on the ground, be assured I haven’t.

I know that annual elections focus minds, opposition call ins are made in order to grandstand and attack the leadership on anything and everything rather than consensually amend policy, and the slightest criticism or consideration of alternatives can be scurrilously misinterpreted, overblown and sensationalised – usually by those who claim to be opposed to “politics as usual”. (yes, I’m thinking of you, Liberal Democrats)

I also know that, for Labour at least, collectivism is a strength not a weakness, and we shouldn’t conflate our tradition of collective responsibility and an agreed whip with lack of scrutiny per se. Party discipline does matter – but the way this is interpreted can sometimes stand in the way of good scrutiny. The power and standing of Parliament’s Select Committees mean that this isn’t the case nationally, and indeed the Chairs of Committees are considered serious and influential figures in Westminster parties precisely because of their vocal activity within select committees, rather than despite it.

There are risks to change in local government – but the prize on offer by matching parliament more closely, and demanding they offer the resources to do so is potentially great.

Imagine the benefits of being able to compel the CEOs of private utility companies to publicly give evidence to a local committee if they have caused problems or damage in an area?

I would certainly welcome councillors in my constituency having the ability to make leasehold companies face questioning, backed up by a legal framework – or the owners of derelict buildings being forced to account for their actions in a public arena – with evidence transcribed and there for all to see.

I’m sure the prospect of a public grilling might make those at the top of organisations with huge impacts on communities locally take a greater interest in what is happening in the neighbourhoods they operate in.

Small steps have been made in this direction over recent years, with councils having some limited ability to scrutinise certain public bodies – but there is little in statute to support them in holding the vast majority of people, or organisations to account for their actions in the communities’ councillors represent, or indeed conversely to consider the effect of council policies on them, or their organisations.

Achieving this will need a step change in culture from both central, and local government.

Firstly, and most importantly, central government has to trust local government with the powers and resources it affords its own scrutiny functions.

In providing this funding, it must give local government confidence that it is doing so in good faith. The central-local relationship would be damaged further, perhaps irrevocably, if councils that invested in scrutiny, whilst also being forced to cut services elsewhere, were criticised by Ministers for doing so.

Secondly, in return, local government has to shift away from often seeing scrutiny as a party political tool and instead, more often, see it as a good governance mechanism and avenue for greater public accountability.

Perhaps the carrot to achieve this is a genuine drive to widen out the remit to include other bodies and organisations, and raise the profile of the work and role of local government as a whole? The value of good, fair scrutiny of their own decisions, might be welcomed more by councils if their fellow colleagues could apply it more widely to other organisations.

Metro Mayors and Combined Authorities wield significant power and resources – but again scrutiny functions are limited in resource and influence. Perhaps there is an opportunity to give Combined Authorities more powers and resources to scrutinise partners effectively, whilst also giving members of councils’ greater ability to hold the respective authorities to account?

Two things struck me during my first meeting as a CLG Committee Member last month. The first was what I’ve already outlined – that scrutiny was well resourced, powerful, and independent. The second was that the people holding Sajid Javid, Alok Sharma, Marcus Jones, and colleagues to account weren’t councillors or tenants, but MPs.

I like to think we did and do a good job of it.

But wouldn’t it be interesting if they, or at least their representatives, also had to treat councils, and councillors, with that same level of respect and accountability?

Why not?

Mike Amesbury is MP for Weaver Vale and a former Manchester City Councillor. He writes in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee

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2 Responses to “For local government scrutiny to match Westminster, Westminster must fund, empower and trust councils to do it”

  1. swat says:

    Give us the tools… and money, and we’ll do the job! is what LG should be saying to Westminster.
    Scrutiny is one thing even LG has not got right.
    somehow elected officials and Cabinet Members must be held to account, and the only way I think possible is to impose not just financial penalties but also prison sentences if individuals act ultra vires or take decisions harmful to their electorate as a whole.
    And also Recall them back to face the wrath of their electorate.

  2. Tafia says:

    Swat – somehow elected officials and Cabinet Members must be held to account,

    They don’t have hardly any power anyway. The power in a council lies with the salaried officers, not with the elected representatives.

    What needs to happen is the salaried officers come under total contriol of the council and carry out the council’s instructions whether they like them or not and must not be able to over-rule the elected council. As an example, a major and highky contentious planning application where I live was voted down by the council twice and the salaried officers in Planning merely over-ruled the council and granted it. So what exactly is the point of elected councillors if they don’t actually have the power? Answer – no point at all.

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