Local government minister Lee Rowley has admitted the new sector watchdog may miss some future council failures.
In his speech to the Local Government Association conference this week, levelling up secretary Michael Gove officially launched the Office for Local Government (Oflog), insisting the new body would ‘identify potential problems in councils earlier’.
Mr Gove said: ‘Problems don’t happen all at once. They were there for some time and worsened for some time.’
However, in an interview with The MJ moments after Mr Gove’s speech, Mr Rowley said Oflog would only ‘pick up some problems,’ adding: ‘I don’t know whether it will pick up absolutely everything but we hope that it should pick up some issues at an early stage that won’t necessarily translate into large-scale failure or anything like that but will just give that comparative opportunity for people to look at what’s working and what isn’t.
‘There are some councils where the issues have come very quickly and established data flows will not necessarily pick those things up.
‘What Oflog, I hope, gives is an opportunity, on a comparative basis, to see where councils are heading in the right direction.’
Mr Rowley denied abolishing the Audit Commission was a mistake and that Whitehall had been asleep on the job, insisting Oflog was ‘demonstrably different’ from the body that was abolished in 2015.
He continued: ‘This [Oflog] is about saying we trust local authorities to do the right thing and they do excellent work on a day-to-day basis but, as we’re devolving more, it’s important that people, residents [and] taxpayers have an understanding of what their council does and how it compares with other councils.’
However, also speaking at conference, the incoming chair of the LGA, Shaun Davies, was more sceptical about Oflog.
He said: ‘As leaders of place we know our areas inside out – better than someone at a desk in Whitehall ever could.’
Cllr Davies suggested Oflog should also be used as a tool to hold central Government to account and ‘challenge other public organisations such as the NHS and policing,’ as well as his own sector.
Amid the launch of Oflog, Smith Square has outlined its own plans to beef-up oversight of council financial performance and governance as part of its peer support programme.
The LGA said its programme for 2023-24 would focus on providing councils with corporate, finance and governance peer challenges as staff look to strengthen the offer, which was launched as an improvement tool following the demise of the Audit Commission.
Amid lingering concerns over the financial viability of some councils following tight finance settlements, controversial commercial deals and the issuing of section 114 notices, the LGA said its corporate peer challenge (CPC) programme would include ‘strengthened focus on financial management and sustainability’.
Governance, leadership and assurance frameworks are also expected to receive more stringent assessments during the CPC process.