I wonder if the two government-led reviews of local authorities in Birmingham and Rotherham ought to be causing rather more serious sector debate than we are seeing at the moment.
It’s fair to say that, in Bob Kerslake and Louise Casey, the reviews are being led by two advocates for localism and local government. However, they remain senior Whitehall officials leading reviews of local authorities.
It is perhaps predictable, not to mention ironic, that the result of ending CPA and Audit Commission inspection is bringing in direct central government reviews, but I’d argue it’s also avoidable. It’s now well over a decade since the round of crises that brought Hackney, Liverpool and Walsall to the national front pages. What ought to be worrying us is that while much has been learnt about the improvement journey in that time, I’m far less confident that the mechanisms to avoid such corporate crisis are any stronger.
Put simply, do chief executives and leaders have the effective tools of sector-driven challenge and assurance that would prevent such failures? It may be folly to be writing this the week before my own authority undergoes a peer review but, as an active member of London-based peer networks, a peer review team leader and so on, I’m not sure any of these have a robustness that we would genuinely stand by.
All of this matters if we are to put forward a convincing localist argument. We need not only to prove that locally determined services and priorities are better but also to show clearly that, when things aren’t working, we can manage that risk ourselves.
These are testing issues for the LGA as they involve the sector holding itself to account. As a former staff member of the IDeA, I know how difficult that issue is but, as Rotherham shows, a failure in one authority quickly draws in the wider sector. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues seem thankful that the spotlight is on someone else. A sector that wants to be serious about devolving power needs a rather more mature response than that.
I have been digging around trying to understand what methodology, benchmarks and so forth the reviews will use. Will long-forgotten audit files now buried deep in a filing cabinet be dusted off? Wouldn’t it be far better if an LGA process, with a sector-led team, with clear sector accountability, were now at the forefront of that process?
Nick Walkley is the chief executive of Haringey LBC