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Power comes under scrutiny

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When David Cameron claimed his Control Shift green paper represented “radical devolution to every part of the country”, this magazine was not alone in expressing a healthy dose of scepticism.

The communities secretary John Denham has engaged in an even bigger bout of hubris, describing his consultation into strengthening local democracy as “the biggest single transfer of power to elected councillors for a generation”.

To recap, the main proposal in the consultation was to expand and enhance councils’ scrutiny role so they are able to summon and interrogate the people responsible for more than £100m of public expenditure each year.

Scrutiny is “the lion that hasn’t roared”, Mr Denham insisted, claiming a damning report about local road works from a council scrutiny committee should carry sufficient weight to make a recalcitrant water company change its ways.

So how does Mr Denham see his scrutiny proposals working?

In some ways, the announcements on scrutiny summon images of hit US TV show The Wire.

The series, about a range of civic institutions and criminal organisations in the city of Baltimore, chronicles the rise of Democratic councilman Tommy Carcetti. Carcetti uses his position as chairman of the council sub-committee for public safety as a bully pulpit, partly to shame the police commissioner into making changes to the police service but mainly to launch his bid for city mayor.

The position is portrayed as a hugely influential one. But a number of the prerequisites for UK councillors to be similarly empowered appear to be missing.

  • The police commissioners who get dragged to the town hall in the series are highly visible and directly appointed by a locally elected politician (the mayor). In the UK, the people most likely to be summoned will be faceless employees of quangos, accountable to their parent departments in London.
  • The councillors are able to tip off strong, well-resourced local TV stations and newspapers when there will be a lively session worth turning up for. With local newspapers virtually dead on their feet in the UK and not inclined to cover council matters, local authorities could potentially thunder away at whoever they like with their residents none the wiser.
  • America’s political system allows for ambitious young politicians to prove themselves on city councils before moving up to either positions as mayor or to state-level government or further. In the UK, the politically ambitious head straight for national government. Councillors, whilst hugely committed, tend to be less inclined to wring every last drop of power or influence their positions allow them.

Mr Denham is clearly aware of these and other cultural barriers that prevent councils’ scrutiny committees matching Parliamentary select committees in terms of power and influence.

He proposes placing an obligation on council chief executives to ensure scrutiny committees are properly resourced. He also suggests councils should rank the position of chair of a scrutiny committee equally to a cabinet post with an equal special responsibility allowance.

Nevertheless, his proposals met with limited approval from the LGA.

“We support the extension of scrutiny powers, which we have advocated for some time,” the association’s on-the-day briefing note read.

”However, the proposed power to scrutinise public spending in the area is in no way a radical decentralisation of control over services and budgets; it is a power for councillors to question and comment, but not to change the allocation of public spending.”

But as ever with major government announcements, the focus has not been on the content of the proposals so much as what they are not.

Most in local government will welcome the so-called “Duty to Co-operate” being extended to cover the likes of water, bus and train companies or broadband providers.

But the Local Government Association and lobby groups such as the Local Government Information Unit have been calling for much further reaching changes that would actually see councils given direct control over police and education budgets. In that light, the consultation is a disappointment.

Similarly on constitutional issues, the creation of a joint Parliamentary committee implicitly to monitor the government’s compliance with the European Charter on local self government was welcomed.

But the document’s scepticism over the need for a general enabling power has prompted widespread dismay.

Mr Denham will need an enthusiastic endorsement from the rest of local government if these proposals are to see the gloom of Parliament.

The consultation will run for three months before final proposals are brought forward. Questioned as to how this will work in terms of timing, Mr Denham admitted the proposals were far from certain to become reality.

“The legislative programme crowded in the best of times and it will be particularly crowded in what will clearly be a truncated session,” he admitted.

“My colleagues will tend to say ‘is this an enthusiasm of John Denham’s with no resonance in the wider world? And if so how does it fit with things that do have resonance?’ So to some extent we are probably a bit in your hands. That’s the real politics of it.“

It was an admirably honest answer. But if this consultation marks the extent of the government’s ambitions for local government, and if the secretary of state feels compelled to appeal to the sector to respond to it, then councils can be forgiven for considering it a downbeat swansong.

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