Inspection and improvement in local government has remained a thorny issue ever since former communities secretary Eric Pickles announced he would scrap the Audit Commission, just a few weeks after the 2010 General Election.
While localism – quite rightly – demands councils should be left to their own devices without fear of central government meddling, there remains a dilemma over peer challenge.
Does the Government trust councils to inspect their own?
Furthermore, there is the ‘Doncaster effect’ – what happens when a council is not in membership, or worse still, is in membership but doesn’t want to play ball?
The Local Government Association’s (LGA) consultation on sector-led improvement very clearly comes out in favour of mandatory peer reviews.
But the LGA, for whatever reason, has balked at forcing the issue.
Whether that is a lack of legal powers, or a fear of losing subscriptions, I don’t know.
However, the report claims the Government ‘could indicate if a council chose not to [have a peer challenge] then they would be subject to a government led inspection/challenge using Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) existing power to inspect.’
It could be read as a thinly veiled threat: If you don’t let us in, we will send in the DCLG.
Alternatively, it could be the fears of the LGA raising their head.
Either way, the LGA knows the answer – it came out loud and clear in the consultation – but is failing to address it.
Ironically, the association recognises the weaknesses of Ofsted and is keen to call for an overhaul of the inspectorate – despite being less keen on amending its own issues.
If local government wants to be taken seriously, wants to prove to central government and the public that it is strong, efficient and capable of taking on the task of devolution, claiming to have an electoral mandate and to be closer to the people is only the start.
The whole sector – no exceptions – needs to step up.
It also needs to prove its worth – if it doesn’t give the LGA teeth, it will be mauled by central government.