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Jonathan Flowers: Councils at all levels must demand more regulation

Jonathan Flowers
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I was unique in local government few of weeks ago.

I was the sole lucky person who, in the same week, got to attend both the conference of the National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers summit.

There was a surprising, common theme to both.

In a thought-provoking session previously covered by LGC, Rob Whiteman, the far-sighted chief executive of the Chartered Institute for Public Finance & Accountancy, invited the sector to think differently. He reflected that for all its downsides, the regulatory regime associated with the Audit Commission did at least call attention to, and demand responses from, under-performing councils who could potentially undermine the whole sector. He questioned whether sector-led improvement, whilst being usefully developmental for those who want to make positive use of it, has little to offer for those who simply don’t want to play. As is often said at Solace conferences, it’s not usually the councils who come here that you need to worry about.

Mr Whiteman’s thought the sector should ask for regulation, soon and on its own terms, as a way of bringing remedial action to the developmental refuseniks, whose potential high-impact failure will damage the whole of the sector. The communities secretary’s speech to the Local Government Association conference focused very strongly on one awful failure, and applied guilt by association.

This has a strong echo in town and parish councils. Local councils have never been subject to the Audit-Commission led assessment and interventions, and have remained ferociously sovereign throughout. However, in a session regarding the forthcoming committee on standards in public life review of local government, various councillors expressed a desire for very strong sanctions on miscreants in the sector, furious that their actions colour the perceptions of the entire tier. Despite a level of proud localism second to none, they called for the central state to correct failures in local governance that cannot be resolved at that level.

Just as ethical companies seek regulation to create a level playing field in which they can take pride, so various confident parts of local government seem to be considering requesting regulation to create a stronger platform for growth and influence.

In contrast to his LGA speech, Sajid Javid’s speech to NALC was full of praise, support and encouragement for that “most local” tier. He praised double devolution, and expressed a desire for more funds to be transferred to local councils. He invited us to tell him of barriers to improvement, so that he could help to tear them down. He promised any signs of ambition would win his support.

In that context it is noteworthy that the farsighted Mr Whiteman also spoke so positively about the future role of first-tier councils, as part of a fundamental rethinking of the sector’s geographical footprint.

Jonathan Flowers, independent chair, Improvement and Development Board for Local Councils. He writes in a personal capacity

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