Metro mayors like Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and North of Tyne’s Jamie Driscoll will be expected to hold public Question Time sessions under independent chairs at least once every three months under new guidance issued this week by the government in a move to increase democratic accountability.
Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has also published an 18-point Scrutiny Protocol intended to strengthen the hand of backbench councillors in holding mayors and other leaders with devolved powers to account.
Gove’s action comes within weeks of the expected completion of an inquiry into allegations of corruption, wrongdoing and illegality related to the Teesworks site, part of the South Tees Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC), which Houchen chairs. Houchen denies any wrongdoing.
It also comes less than six months after North East Bylines revealed the weakness and ineffectiveness of Tees Valley Combined Authority’s (TVCA’s) cabinet and backbench overview and scrutiny committee (OSC) in holding Houchen to account over a number of issues, including the municipalisation of Teesside International Airport.
Mayors, says the DLUHC, “provide greater democratic accountability by having a single visible leader directly accountable to the public at the ballot box for their performance and the decisions they make. Mayor’s…question time should also be organised where the mayor takes questions from the public, chaired by an independent person – a local journalist of businessperson, for example. These should be held at least every three months.”
The government will also expect areas to adopt MP sessions to further enhance scrutiny, similar to those being established in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands combined authorities.
The Scrutiny Protocol
Overview and scrutiny committees (OSCs) through which backbench councillors scrutinise the work of mayors, leaders and cabinets, have been a feature of the town hall scene since the Labour government’s Local Government Act 2000, but have been regarded as often ineffective almost from the start. The failings of Tees Valley’s OSC were described by North East Bylines on 9 June, as mentioned above.
Now, according to the DLUHC’s new Scrutiny Protocol:
“Effective scrutiny is critical for ensuring there is appropriate accountability for the decisions made by local decisions makers. When done well, local scrutiny should drive understanding, enhance the performance of services and improve the outcomes for those people affected by those decisions.”
Among the 18 key principles in the Protocol:
- OSCs should be politically and geographically balanced, with an independent chair, and should be paid, transparently through an independent remuneration panel;
- Members should bring skills, interests and experience to the OSC and where possible be appointed for more than one year to provide continuity; they should be briefed and trained on key functions like finance, commercial and data interrogation;
- OSCs will be able to invite outside technical experts to meetings to help with their line of questioning, as happens in West Yorkshire;
- Mayors and portfolio leads (cabinet members with specific responsibilities) will have to engage with OSCs regularly and attend when requested;
- Bringing decisions for scrutiny at the last minute should be avoided.
There is a special mention in the Protocol for the role of local media:
“To allow scrutiny to be effective it is crucial that the public can easily understand the work and performance of committees. With this in mind, local journalism plays an invaluable role in the fabric of our society, in supporting communities and in ensuring the provision of reliable, high-quality information.
“Local news publishers remain uniquely placed to undertake the investigative journalism and scrutiny of public institutions are a local level that is vital to helping ensure a healthy local democracy. Local press and media must therefore continue to be able to play a key role in facilitating public accountability, with opportunities created for them to engage with the committees, its members, and their work, and findings.”
The new Office for Local Government (Oflog), set up by Gove in July as part of the DLUHC under Lord Morse, former chair of the National Audit Office, also has a part to play:
“Oflog will support the improvement of local government performance by fostering accountability through increased transparency. It will provide authoritative and accessible data and analysis about the performance of local government and will publish key data for institutions with devolved powers. This should be considered as part of committee business.”
North East Bylines has already published reports on three of Oflog’s first investigations, into council debt, waste recycling and adult education, as part of its contribution to holding local government in the region to account.
Question Time and the Scrutiny Protocol are an important step forward in facilitating the democratic accountability of local government. It should make backbench councillors better equipped, better informed and better motivated to hold directly elected mayors and leaders to account.
Mayors and councils will not be able to ignore the new scrutiny regime, even though it is not statutory. Ministers regard it as a “key factor” in allocating funding for the next stage of devolution.
We do not yet know what the independent inquiry into the Teesworks affair will find. Whatever the findings, the Question Time and Scrutiny Protocol – which certainly seem to flow from the events in Tees Valley – are a good outcome. North East Bylines reported in January that Gove was planning to toughen scrutiny for local government and now with Oflog, mayor’s and leaders’ question times and the Scrutiny Protocol, he has proved as good as his word.
It is welcome that the government recognises the important role of local media in scrutinising local government but unfortunate that many local newspapers have never been in a weaker position to do so, in spite of the sterling work of the Local Democracy Reporting Service, as news and advertising transitions from print to online. New papers like North East Bylines are starting to fill the gap but do not yet have the resources or mass circulations that local print papers once boasted.
Whatever the findings of the independent inquiry as far as corruption in Tees Valley is concerned, these new steps to make local government more transparent, coupled with the establishment of Oflog, are welcome. They will also, to be realistic about the politics, enable the government to say: “We have taken note and acted.”