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Kerslake: Scrutiny must 'shrug off' Westminster style

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Council scrutiny committees need to “shrug off” Westminster-style approaches to become more effective as local authorities seek to make risky transformational change, according to Lord Kerslake.

The former permanent secretary of the Department for Communities & Local Government also expressed concern at the way devolution deals were being negotiated.  

Speaking in his capacity as chair of the Centre for Public Scrutiny during a discussion at the Local Government Association’s annual conference in Harrogate, Lord Kerslake said he recognised councils would now need to make “transformational” savings, as any back-office cuts had already been achieved.

Lord Kerslake told delegates such changes carried a “huge amount of risk” and warned councils against making further cuts to scrutiny budgets. Research by the CfPS found the average discretionary budget was £3,277 in 2014-15, down from £3,447 in 2013-14

“You can understand why people on executive boards might do that but I think that would be a very big mistake because when it’s properly done scrutiny can ensure savings are delivered, they achieved their intent, and minimise their adverse impact,” he said.

Lord Kerslake urged scrutiny committees to stop “matching the behaviour and approach” of Westminster politics.

As someone who appeared before the public accounts committee more than 20 times, he found it to be a “retrospective process” and added: “It doesn’t move things on and you don’t learn from that kind of process. Scrutiny has got to move beyond that and be there at the beginning of the process and not the end.

“That’s a much more productive use of resources. To make that a dynamic and real process some of the habits of Westminster need to be shrugged off and local government to do scrutiny in its own way.”

Lord Kerslake also expressed concern at the way devolution deals were being negotiated.

He said there was a “risk” to having only a small number of people involved in the negotiation process, although he was “not against” it.

He said concerns had been raised by residents and the voluntary sector about whether devolution deals he helped to negotiate in Greater Manchester and the Sheffield City Region were “properly thought through”.

Lord Kerslake said: “It’s absolutely essential we go into this deal-making devolution model with our eyes open and think about transparency and accountability arrangements.”

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