Government and intervention

Posted on 14/05/2020 by Ed Hammond.

A few people in the sector noted with raised eyebrows that Government chose last week to publish a paper setting out its approach to future interventions in failing councils.  

As a reminder, Government has the power under the Local Government Act 1999 to initiate what is known as a “best value” inspection. 

In the context of a growing sense of worry that many councils will find themselves in serious difficulty (for the vast majority owing to the acute financial pressures that they now face – on which we have published a guide for scrutineers) this could be seen as an indication that Government expects more of these sorts of interventions in future.  

In reality it’s unlikely that publication is for this reason; furthermore, the guide itself doesn’t set out anything new, although it does serve to clarify certain elements of the process by which a BV inspection might be triggered and acted on. We have called for more transparency on this in the past.  

Local government scrutiny forms an important part of the local governance framework, so it’s important for scrutineers to understand the process by which intervention can be triggered. Having a sense of the evidence that Government is likely to use to inform its ongoing risk analysis within the sector will help scrutiny to guide its own local work.  

Before the pandemic hit, we were drawing to its conclusion a major piece of work looking at the risk and resilience of local authority governance arrangements – how councils can recognise where governance might be weak, so they can take action to improve and strengthen their systems and organisational culture (you can find more information about the project here). That work has been put on hiatus, but there is no question that sector’s resilience is being tested right now – hence the interest in Government’s publication.  

Formal intervention will continue to be used “in extremis”, and we should expect to see some examples of it in action before the year is out.  But scrutiny has an active role in avoiding it. Through robust and candid conversations with senior officers and members of the leadership, scrutiny can bring a different perspective on where the areas of greatest risk lie. It can help to chart a path out of uncertainty.  

More explicit statements from Government on the process and methods underpinning intervention will help because they allow us to concentrate our minds on the evidence and information we can use ourselves to understand how we can improve and strengthen governance and services in the longer term. As ever, scrutiny lies at the heart of this learning culture. At this time of greatest risk to the sector’s sustainability, we need to recognise that critical role and act on it.  

Our guides on scrutiny’s role during the crisis and on the critical role of financial scrutiny can be found here. And as you continue to grapple with the uncertainty we are here to help – you can find more information about our helpdesk and other support services here 

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.