Rarely has critical oversight of public spending been more important than now when billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, mostly borrowed on tick, has been shovelled out the door to tackle the coronavirus.
Whether the cash has been in the form of financial assistance through furlough, increased Universal Credit and business loans or to buy ventilators and personal protective equipment, it is still needs to be accounted for, especially in the case of the latter where procurement practices have been, shall we say, less robust than usual.
So quite rightly mandarins at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Government (MHCLG) take a tough stance on the extra £7.2bn they have been handing to councils to cover pandemic costs. As they told this week’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), they are not handing over money unless it is needed, they expect councils to dip into their reserves, they do not intend to reward failure and they are certainly not plugging the shortfalls caused by longstanding poor financial management or speculative investment in property.
Unfortunately, the PAC also has its gimlet eye on the ministry’s own management of its numerous funding streams. For a start it wants to see a full officer assessment of the controversial £3.6bn Towns Fund which the PAC in an earlier report has already accused of being politically-driven. Lawyers have even been consulted to break the deadlock but the ministry maintains ‘a summary’ is perfectly sufficient. Separately, as revealed exclusively in The MJ (p7) the Future High Streets Fund, worth the by no means paltry sum of £675m, is languishing in the ministry’s bank account two years after it was announced and despite the fact high street stores are collapsing like ninepins. Apparently, 101 towns have been shortlisted and will be announced ‘in due course,’ and hopefully while there are still high streets left and before it becomes the Former High Streets Fund.
The phrase ‘glass houses and throwing stones’ comes to mind when Government departments finger wag at local authorities over managing resources. Let us be charitable and maintain that the proliferation of separate funding streams is confusing, inefficient and time-consuming for all concerned. In fact, recognising this, the mandarins told the PAC there was ‘complexity in the landscape’ and that therefore all these streams were being subsumed into the ‘levelling up’ agenda. Sir Humphrey could not have put it better himself.