The question of accountability has been on the agenda recently.
Under single pot devolved funding for trailblazer devolution areas, new Parliamentary oversight arrangements introduce a role for MPs scrutinising mayoral combined authorities (MCAs). The recently published English Devolution Accountability Framework gives more consistency to a deal-led devolution process that has been lacking transparency.
So far, progress has been on the narrow terms of Government, which is not the only stakeholder requiring stronger accountability within our complex governance landscape. The focus is on the one-way accountability of local governance structures – MCAs and councils – to central Government.
Whitehall is notoriously reluctant to let go and won’t step too far beyond trusted models. Enter the new Oflog, whose remit is not yet clear – but will involve oversight of the local government sector and powers to intervene. Even if it starts life with a light touch, there’s little to guard against mission creep several years down the line, eventually manifesting the Audit Commission 2.0.
Two elements are missing from accountability developments to date. Firstly, what accountability do local partners have to back up the system? There are no mechanisms for local government to scrutinise the actions of national Government. This is a problem when decisions are made which have massive consequences locally – such as the Treasury unilaterally deciding that levelling up investments are not value for money.
Secondly, what about local accountability to people? In the frenzy to provide central Government with assurance, this appears as an afterthought. Beefing up scrutiny and oversight of new devolved arrangements from the perspective of communities themselves is an important dimension, especially for elected mayors. The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny has long suggested local public accounts committees could make a strong contribution – bringing scrutiny out of the institutional shadows and playing a more visible role across the local public sector. This would sharpen the public’s line of sight over decision-making.
In an era of declining trust in our institutions, robust accountability has never been more important and it must lead directly to communities.
Jessica Studdert is deputy chief executive at New Local