The permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has rowed back from previous comments suggesting councils need only provide statutory services.
Melanie Dawes sparked controversy when she told the Commons public accounts committee in November that a council was considered sustainable as long as it could provide statutory services.
Appearing before the Commons housing, communities and local government committee yesterday afternoon Ms Dawes told MPs the ministry’s assessment went beyond that.
She said: “We look at the statutory services but we do also make sure in our assessment we take into account the flexibility councils need to deliver more than statutory services and also to respond to events.”
Ms Dawes was also pressed on how she could be sure there were not going to be any more financial failures like that seen at Northamptonshire CC, especially given the National Audit Office’s recent criticism of the ministry’s oversight of the sector.
She said the ministry had a local authority sustainability tool with eight core metrics which was not dissimilar to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy’s resilience index and also looked at inspections reports and Local Government Association peer reviews.
“We could never say with certainty that another council was not in that situation but we were not surprised by the situation Northamptonshire got into by the end,” she added.
Asked why it had taken the government so long to intervene in Northamptonshire if it knew it was in trouble, Ms Dawes said they wanted to give the council a chance to put its own house in order. She said the final straw was when the council failed to respond to a damming LGA peer review.
Director general for local government and public services Jo Farrar said of Northamptonshire: “This was largely a failure of leadership on the officer side.”