The author is chairman of NatWest and was controller (CEO) of the Audit Commission from 1987-92
The UK authorities’s levelling-up white paper, lengthy in gestation, has had a troublesome delivery. It has been obliged to compete for consideration with partygate and the warfare in Ukraine. The lack of a big price ticket has additionally served to decrease its affect.
That is unlucky, as beneath all Michael Gove’s historic speak of what a “Medici model” did for Florence, there are some vital coverage initiatives. It marks a brand new section within the on-again off-again love affair between the Conservatives and native authorities. The paper bears its coronary heart on its sleeve. We want, it declares, “further devolution of decision-making powers to local leaders where (sic) decisions are often best taken”. This has been welcomed by many councils and by elected mayors specifically.
But there’s a sting within the tail, or not less than on web page 138. If mayors and council leaders get that far they may discover that as they make these selections they are going to be helped by a brand new unbiased physique which can “publish rigorous, comparable data on performance”. These will “strengthen local leaders’ knowledge of their services . . . [and] increase central government’s understanding of [the sector]”. Gove has now introduced the formation of a brand new workplace for native authorities. So Whitehall might not know what’s greatest for Whitehaven, however it’s going to know much more about what the Cumbrians are as much as.
Those with lengthy recollections might surprise if they’ve seen this movie earlier than. In the Nineteen Eighties, Margaret Thatcher’s coverage was to get native authorities to boost extra of their very own funds, to extend ratepayer strain on councillors and to present the Audit Commission — a Michael Heseltine ministerial building — the ability to evaluation how these funds had been spent, evaluating the worth for cash delivered by completely different authorities. Unfortunately for Gove, Heseltine’s intelligent concept was abolished in 2015 by the coalition, as a part of the bonfire of quangos.
The Commission did two issues, which got here collectively neatly. It audited native authorities and printed comparative information and worth for cash research. If you wished to know the way a lot it prices, city by city, to take a tonne of family refuse to a landfill, we might inform you. The auditors collected the information as a part of their assurance work. As the Institute for Government famous, “Out of the audit data came the ability to compare and contrast council performance on a large range of services.”
The abolition has not gone nicely. In response to criticism that its efficiency had deteriorated, the federal government commissioned a evaluation of native authorities audit in 2019 from Tony Redmond. He famous a decline in high quality and effectiveness and really helpful a brand new organisation “with the clarity of mission and purpose to act as the system leader for the local audit framework.”
But it was an excessive amount of of a U-turn for the federal government, which bizarrely handed the position to the yet-to-be-created Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority, constructed on the Financial Reporting Council. This has up to now been primarily centered on listed firms, and has no expertise of native authorities.
Now the federal government itself has proposed the recreation of the second leg — the comparative information assortment and repair critiques. That is a welcome concept, however doesn’t acknowledge that the 2 legs had been in apply joined on the hip, as legs are typically. Much of the information was collected by the auditors embedded in every council, which made it dependable and exhausting to contest. A one-legged physique is not going to degree up: it might nicely fall flat on its face.
The Institute for Government’s evaluation in 2014 concluded that “at some point in the future . . . the Commission’s role in audit and data standardisation . . . will have to be reinvented”. That time has come. The authorities has not discovered it troublesome to desert different coalition insurance policies. Levelling up offers it the excuse to take one other decisive step again to the longer term.