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Scrutiny scrutinised

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

“Overview and scrutiny is potentially the most exciting and powerful element of the entire local government modernisation process. It places members at the heart of the way in which councils respond to the demands of modernisation.

“In addition, overview scrutiny is the mechanism by which councils can achieve community leadership, good governance and by which councillors can become powerful and influential politicians.”

So said a 2002 statement from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

It was sensitive to criticism that, with almost all power freshly vested in cabinets, the new scrutiny role was just an innocuous pastime for backbenchers who now had no committees on which to sit.

Who was right may become apparent when the communities and local government select committee inquiry reports later this year on scrutiny’s workings.

Launching it committee chair Clive Betts (Lab) said: “This inquiry is long overdue. Local authority executives have more powers than ever before but there has not been any review about how effectively the current overview and scrutiny arrangements are working since they were introduced in 2000.”

The committee pointedly noted horrors that escaped scrutineers’ attention, such as child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, high mortality rates at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, and governance failings at Tower Hamlets LBC.

Mr Betts said he would “consider what changes may be needed to ensure decision-makers in councils and local services are better held to account”.

His committee might make the short journey from parliament to Haringey LBC, whose cabinet this week approved plans for a £2bn Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), owned 50:50 with Australian firm Lendlease and the largest such deal undertaken by a council.

The borough’s scrutiny panel’s conclusions could hardly have been plainer: “It is clear that very significant risks with the proposed HDV remain. What the council, and by extension its tenants and residents, gain from the proposed HDV is far less clear than what it and they stand to lose.”

For good measure, the scrutineers added: “The panel has no other option than to recommend that the HDV plans are halted and that further scrutiny work should be undertaken.”

Its concerns were politely ignored, with the exception of some largely concerned with future reporting.

Haringey ploughed ahead and the scrutineers lacked powers to require the cabinet to do anything, making panel members look something less than “powerful and influential”.

Even in places where scrutiny is properly independent of the executive, nothing need result from it unless a council leadership has an unusually selfless wish to be held to effective account.

Councillors get elected to make things happen. Those confined to scrutiny committees can but ask questions and make comments. Mr Betts and his colleagues will have to assess what point that role has.

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