Devolution, local scrutiny and the Public Accounts Committee

Posted on 22/07/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

The Public Accounts Committee has been interested in the Government’s policies on English devolution for some time now. Earlier this year, they put out a report on accountability and devolution which we critiqued here.

It’s safe to say that the PAC view on scrutiny has undertaken something of a pivot since that report. More recently, they’ve published their thoughts again, and it’s interesting to see how things have changed. The relentless focus on national accountability hasn’t disappeared, but it is far less strident. And there is some far more nuanced discussion on local scrutiny.

This is to be warmly welcomed. We agree that local scrutiny is fundamental to the success of devolution. Without transparent, democratic local challenge, devolution will be remote and will feel irrelevant to the lives of many local people – despite its huge potential.

As more combined authorities prepare their governance schemes, what local scrutiny under devolution will look like has started to become a little clearer. We say “a little” because those schemes only represent the bare bones of what local scrutiny will look like. The detail remains frustratingly vague – even where combined authorities and combined authority scrutiny committees are already in place. All areas are going through a shift in plans and expectations as combined authority business becomes more publicly visible and implementation plans for devolution ramp up.

So while we share the PAC’s concern that local scrutiny does not appear to yet have the prominence it deserves, we’re pretty hopeful. As schemes are agreed and devolved arrangements established, experts will have to get down to the detail of combined authority governance, and onto these bare bones will be fixed the softer, fleshier elements of governance – the parts that will make it look and feel more human. (I was, unfortunately, too far down the path of using this metaphor without realising that it is slightly gruesome – but you get the general idea.)

It’s dangerous to look for precedent in areas where combined authorities (and joint OSCs) already exist. Their governance arrangements will have been established in the absence of detailed devo deals, and will therefore look quite “light”. We will, in the coming weeks and months, see a recalibration, as those areas review and strengthen governance, and new areas coming on-stream having done deals and preparing to establish their CA set out more consistent plans for how governance will develop. There will probably be consultations (some better than others), attempts to secure buy-in from a wider range of local elected councillors (attempts which may be ham-fisted) and the establishment of joint structures for decision-making and scrutiny which do more than the bare minimum required by law (which may end up looking over-bureaucratic).

None of these new systems, as the sector inches towards a meaningfully accountable and transparent framework for governance at combined authority level, will be perfect. Many will leave much to be desired. But they are at least a start, and afford us the opportunity to cajole, tweak and amend to improve iteratively – along the lines suggested in our recent report “Cards on the table”.

To finish, if the detail of combined authority governance is your thing – and if it isn’t already, it really should be – there is one document you should read now, and two to look out for. The first was published by the LGA recently – it’s by Phil Swann of Shared Intelligence and is about the detailed nuts-and-bolts mechanics of combined authorities. The two to look out for are from us, and are being published in December – the first is an attempt to produce a similar guide for combined authority overview and scrutiny, and the second is a look at the lessons learned by combined authorities and other groups of councils across the country as they have come together to grapple with scrutiny and governance. More on both very soon. 

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.