The tougher scrutiny of local government predicted by North East Bylines in January was confirmed by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove in a speech at the Local Government Association (LGA) this week.
The new Office for Local Government (OfLog) will “improve accountability and transparency, and help all councils succeed,” Gove told the LGA annual conference.
“By providing targeted data and analysis, Oflog will champion the very best in local government and also help us to identify where councils need targeted support to deliver.”
Gove praised some councils for their innovation, but also named some where there have been recent problems: Thurrock, Liverpool, Croydon, Slough and Woking.
“A handful of cases, the exception,” he said. “But the problems did not happen all at once – they were there for some time, and they worsened over time.
“We, collectively and in the department [of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities], I think, need to be able to respond to the warning signs.
“These failures are felt most acutely by taxpayers and residents in higher costs and worse services. The reputation of local government as a whole and the many excellent officers also suffers. As does the cause of devolution for which we all want to be making such a strong case.
“Where government intervention is needed to deal with these problems – in the most serious cases – we must be able to take targeted action. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill strengthens our ability to act to protect taxpayers where trouble is brewing.”
Gove also announced reforms to the external audit of local authorities. Problems with internal scrutiny and audit by backbench councillors at Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) were identified by North East Bylines on 9 May.
There is no suggestion by Bylines of failings by external auditors in relation to TVCA or South Tees Development Corporation (STDC). Nevertheless, the terms of reference of the review established by Gove last month into allegations of corruption, wrongdoing and illegality connected with TVCA’s oversight of STDC and Teesworks Joint Venture included the “effectiveness and transparency of decision making and external scrutiny arrangements (including independent audit).”
“It’s just not working at the moment,” Gove told the LGA. “We need to tackle the delays in external audit and are talking to firms, council representatives and others on concrete steps that will get us back to a system where we all have faster and more effective, swifter and less bureaucratic reassurance in the way money is being used.”