Best Value intervention: what is it and what does it mean for local accountability?
Last week the Secretary of State announced his intention to exercise his powers to appoint commissioners to run certain services operated by Liverpool City Council. This is a big, and rare, event – only four councils since 2010 have previously been subject to this kind of intervention (for the completists, they are, in reverse order, Northamptonshire, Tower Hamlets, Rotherham and Doncaster).
This isn’t a post about Liverpool; it’s a post about the intervention power and about how thinking on its use has evolved in recent years.
The power to intervene in this way is provided for by the Local Government Act 1999. This Act imposes a requirement on all local authorities to deliver what is termed “best value” – essentially, to be able to demonstrate that the council is making arrangements that are economic, efficient, and effective, and that it has regard to the need to secure continuous improvement in how it carries out its work.
These are words and phrases which have far less currency now than they did a decade and more ago. This is because, sitting behind and around the Best Value duty used to sit a performance framework – a panoply of indicators reported by councils to the Audit Commission and which could be used to make judgements on whether Best Value was being delivered. For a number of years councils had to prepare and deliver against a “Best Value Performance Plan”.
The power of intervention in the 1999 Act is predicated on the comparative ease with which Government – with access to this suite of indicators – could previously make a judgement on whether Best Value was being “delivered”. If the Secretary of State considered that this was not the case they could trigger a Best Value inspection, which could in turn recommend that commissioners are appointed to intervene directly, with power of decision-making being removed from the council.
The bluntness of the power (and the lack of nuance in how it has been described, especially in the non-specialist press) hides the fact that there are different gradations of intervention, and different gradations of informal oversight as well. For example, in recent years only Rotherham has experienced what might be described as a “total” intervention, with all services being subject to the oversight of commissioners. In Tower Hamlets, and as now proposed in Liverpool, intervention has been limited to specific, named services rather than applying across the piece.
Post the abolition of the Audit Commission and absence of data which previous Secretaries of State might have used to exercise their BV powers, Government has been reticent in the use of its powers, choosing in some instances to put in place support mechanisms which fall short of direct intervention.
The context to and background for these judgements can be found in an MHCLG publication from last year, “Statutory intervention and inspection: a guide for local authorities” (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/925202/Statutory_intervention_and_inspection_a_guide_for_local_authorities.pdf) This is an invaluable primer on the specific processes Government uses to embark on the process and provides significant transparency on what could otherwise be seen to be a rather murky process.
The guide doesn’t dwell much on “non-statutory” interventions, although we have seen quite a few of these in recent years. When Birmingham was in difficulty an “Improvement Panel” was appointed – with mixed results. Following the Grenfell tragedy, a Task Force was appointed by Government to support the council, which had similar features. In Croydon and Nottingham, in recent months, Improvement Boards have been established. All of these measures had commonalities – an external group of individuals with substantial expertise, credibility and legitimacy in the local government sector (qualities shared by commissioners) usually supported by civil servants, with a specific task to perform (as directed by the Secretary of State), reporting back publicly and regularly and appointed by advise and support the council rather than to oversee or run day-to-day operations.
Politics doesn’t, and shouldn’t, play a part in how these arrangements are made. In a high level sense it is possible to argue with the presumption that central Government is better able to make the judgement on a council’s ability to deliver on its obligations; that this power should simply not exist in legislation because councils are democratic institutions. But Parliament has chosen to give Government these powers, and that’s how our system works.
We do, however, find ourselves in a situation where revisiting the intervention powers may be necessary. The absence of the BV performance framework to underpin the Secretary of State’s judgement has been a gap for some time; it might be time to think of a different phrase or test to trigger both inspection and intervention. Others could be involved – given intervention a more pluralistic flavour. Neighbouring councils (depending on the nature of the local relationships), similar councils in other parts of the country, or the local government sector at large could all have a more formal role to play.
We could also attempt to systematise the way that informal oversight and support works, and make more transparent the informal escalation mechanisms used by Government where concerns come onto the radar.
Intervention remains a fact of life – extremely rare (as the Secretary of State took pains to note) but still a high profile presence. As councils continue to face substantial stresses and pressures and as some see the pandemic leading to the exposure of substantial risks, this is something to which we are likely to return to – possibly something for forthcoming legislation on devolution and local government, due later this year, to address substantively.