‘Weak’ council scrutiny raises concerns

9 Feb 15
Over two-fifths of respondents to a survey on the effectiveness of local authority governance have warned that scrutiny committees are not doing enough to challenge the way that councils operate.

By Richard Johnstone | 9 February 2015

Over two-fifths of respondents to a survey on the effectiveness of local authority governance have warned that scrutiny committees are not doing enough to challenge the way that councils operate.

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A poll of over 100 senior council officers and members for Grant Thornton’s annual local authority governance review found that 43% agreed there was insufficient interrogation from the committees. Their role in council governance has been questioned following Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles’ decision to intervene in the running of Rotherham.

The examination by Grant Thornton also included a review of 2013/14 governance statements for 140 English councils, which found a wide variation in the number of meetings held by the committees each year. Although the average was 17, some councils had just one meeting whilst one council had 66.

Publishing the data, Grant Thornton’s head of local government Paul Dossett said the scrutiny committees, which were introduced 15 years ago as part of moves towards cabinet governance, had been a mixed success. ‘Nearly one in five of the councils surveyed said that they had returned, or were considering returning, to the traditional committee structure,’ he added.

However, this could be backwards step, as the committees can offer a valuable ‘check’ to the executive.

‘Potentially, they can also offer a fresh perspective by taking both a long-term view of strategic issues and ‘deep dives’ into vital areas of council operations,’ Dossett added.

‘We know that some councils are doing this with great success so it's important that those who are struggling receive support to improve their processes so that they are not tempted to fall back in to outdated methods of scrutiny.’

The poll comes after the Centre for Public Scrutiny yesterday called on councils to review their governance in the light of the Jay report, which found a variety of historic and serious child protection failings in Rotherham.

Paul Hughes, Grant Thornton’s public sector governance lead, added that good governance remained critical in ensuring that the public interest was at the heart of decision-making.

‘Maintaining strong scrutiny over how local monies are spent is a principal tenet of good governance, providing assurance to council members and the wider public,’ he added.

‘Challenging why things are done and scrutinising processes and decisions encourages the development and introduction of more efficient and effective ideas.’

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