The vast majority of respondents to a Local Government Association consultation on sector-led improvement has backed compulsory peer reviews.
Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the 201 respondents – which included 160 council leaders and chief executives – said councils should be subject to regular peer reviews.
Gary Porter (Con), chair of the LGA, told LGC that while he supported compulsory peer reviews there was “no way” the LGA could enforce them.
However, he warned those authorities that failed to participate could leave themselves open to other kinds of external inspection.
He said he expected ministers to look favourably on a proposal by the Centre for Public Scrutiny that suggests that peer review rebels should be prevented from either joining or forming combined authorities and beneftting from devolution.
“That is something you would expect government to be considering,” Cllr Porter told LGC.
“If combined authorities are the vanguard and the new ways of working, and yet a council is so insular and not prepared to open themselves up for any external validation then that’s quite a high-risk strategy for the government to devolve extra powers to them.
“I can quite easily see why that would be attractive to the government.”
Cllr Porter said he would not, however, support a proposal to link LGA membership with compulsory peer reviews because the organisation was “not the policeman of the sector”.
He added that ministers appeared to be “roughly in the same place” in believing that sector-led improvement was more effective and efficient than the work of the now-defunct Audit Commission.
The government’s approach to funding the peer-led improvement regime would become clearer towards the end of the year, when the draft local government settlement is due to be published, he added.
Sector-led improvement is currently funded from a “top-slice” from councils’ funding from central government.
“If our top slice gets hammered then clearly they are not that keen on sector-led improvement,” Cllr Porter said. “If the top slice is reduced in a more manageable way then clearly they are committed to what we are doing.”
LGC reported in December that the funding from the top slice was cut by 10% to £23.4m. Cllr Porter acknowledged that budget was a “relatively soft target” for cuts.
Other results in the LGA’s consultation revealed mixed views on whether the results of peer reviews should be published with just under half (47%) agreeing they all should be.
A third (32%) said reviews should be published unless there were exceptional circumstances.
The remaining 21% said it should be a matter for local choice. Cllr Porter said he would “struggle” to see a reason why any review, once finalised, should not be published.
Meanwhile, eight in 10 (82%) respondents believed councils should be expected to produce an action plan following a peer challenge.
The consultation ran between 20 January and 20 March 2015. As well as council leaders and chief executives, it received responses from other ‘stakeholders’ including former communities secretary Eric Pickles and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers.
Picture taken by Todd Chandler