What 2017 holds for local government…. and scrutiny

Posted on January 25, 2017 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

We hope that 2017 proves less interesting than 2016. Particularly in the weeks following the referendum, I seemed to get very little work done, as about eight years’ worth of news seemed to have been compressed into only a few days.

Not only was there a huge amount happening on the international and national stages; local government saw some big changes too. The big events in the news must have been Donald Trump’s election and Brexit – and it’s important to remember that it will be in 2017, with the new President’s inauguration and the (expected) triggering of Article 50 in the spring, that both of those events will start having a real world impact.

So it is in local government. Devolution arguably had the highest profile, but for all the sound and fury about the dealmaking process it won’t be until May this year (and the election of executive Mayors in those areas who have done their deal with Government) that we begin seeing how it might change the way we work – and whether local or national government has the appetite for more of it. Similarly, we’ve heard an increasing amount about the development of STPs – proposals for the transformation of healthcare at a local level. These will come to fruition in 2017, even though much of the work to prepare for them happened last year.

An ongoing fact of life in local government – one that we have been living with for the best part of a decade – is austerity and the increasing financial challenge for local services. 2017 could bring many things. A flurry of reorganisation proposals, as areas seek to unitarise to realise “economies of scale” (phrase placed in inverted commas to denote healthy scepticism). More informal joint working, with joint commissioning and the proliferation of Teckal companies and councils selling their services to their neighbours, and those from further afield. And, most worrying of all, could 2017 be the year that brings with it the first effective council “bankruptcy”? We know that many councils are teetering at the edge, trying to balance the books for what looks like it will be an especially punishing 2017/18. Will the pincer movement of reductions in the RSG, changes to the New Homes Bonus and increasing pressure on social care make some authorities simply unsustainable?

It goes without saying that we think that scrutiny has a role to play in bringing some democratic accountability to all this. This has been our message since our inception in 2003 and certainly in this context since the publication of our report “The change game”, looking at council transformation, in 2015.

It is, however, easy for national bodies like us to urge practitioners to take on yet more responsibility, to look in more detail at more issues, when there are a huge range of local circumstances – no less significant to local people – that also demand that scrutiny’s light be shined on them. Juggling these competing priorities is one of the most difficult parts of managing the scrutiny function.

Most councils will now be turning their minds to their 2017/18 work programme – thinking about the burning issues that are likely to dominate politicians’ time in the next municipal year, and how scrutiny should engage with them. As councils – as you – work towards that goal, we’d encourage a few things:

  • Develop a realistic understanding of how much resource you will have – across the whole scrutiny function – to work with next year;
  • Decide how you’ll make the tough choices about what you will and won’t scrutinise;
  • Have some early, frank member-to-member discussions – between scrutiny councillors and between scrutiny councillors and Cabinet – about what the priorities will be for the area and how scrutiny will contribute;
  • Be prepared to be flexible. You will never be able to agree a work programme that is delivered exactly as you initially expected. In 2017/18 particularly, everything will be subject to change. Scrutiny will have to be flexible to be relevant.

Where we can help, we will. The LGA fund us specifically to provide some support to councils on these kinds of issues. Get in touch if you think that this is something from which you might benefit.

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About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.