Reflecting on the Public Account Committee’s view of Devolution

Posted on 20/12/2016 by Ed Hammond.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), before Christmas, put out the latest in a series of reports which have been generally unconvinced of the Government’s approach on devolution.

There are in my view three main elements to the PAC’s views as they have been expressed so far.

  • Government needs to be much clearer about its objectives for devolution, because without this is it at risk of failing;
  • Much more effective local scrutiny is necessary;
  • The PAC – with its power to “follow the public pound” has a duty to look into the way that devolution is delivered in detail, and will do so.

These reflect arguments made by Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, at our conference in December.

Each point deserves unpacking a bit.

First, the point about clarity of Government’s objectives. We too hold this view but for different reasons than the PAC. For us, clear Government objectives are about making the process of negotiation easier for local areas. A sense of what Government wants to achieve from devolution would help local areas to be able to put together bids and proposals that give those objectives better local context – or which engage with and challenge those objectives. It is about producing a level playing field. I would love the situation to exist where Government had no objectives whatsoever – that devolution was purely about giving more power to local areas to take responsibility. But this is clearly not the case, and while it continues not to be the case, such clarity is sadly necessary.

If I can read into their thinking without being too unfair – and I hope I can – the PAC’s vision here is slightly different, and is reflected through the prism with which they view every large Government programme. For them, Government’s clarity over its objectives is necessary in order to ensure that Government money is being properly spent in furtherance of those objectives.

If this is an accurate assessment (and I’m not actually sure it is, but let’s go with it for the moment) this is a centralisers argument which reduces local authorities to incidental bit players – the delivery mechanism for some set Government priorities. Indeed, this centralising argument is troubled by the concept of negotiation in the first place, because that might make even less distinct Government’s priorities.

What suggests to me that this is the PAC’s line of thinking is their approach to other large-scale Government projects like universal credit, where this line of delivery accountability is often central to their scrutiny. You might uncharitably say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail – and the PAC’s hammer is a relentless focus on the thread from political vision to delivery on the ground as part of a well-oiled Whitehall machine. A necessary approach when scrutinising the procurement of aircraft carriers – perhaps less so in this case.

The second point is about the need for more local scrutiny. It goes without saying that we agree with this, but even here we would add more nuance. The PAC – informed by the evidence it has gathered – focuses on the resources made available to scrutiny. I think that even with the best intentions, Combined Authority (CA) scrutiny is never going to be heavily resourced. CAs are deliberately trying to established lean, streamlined approaches to governance. A scrutiny function resourced to allow the kind of wide-ranging scrutiny inquiries and reviews that some local councils were able to carry out at the time when scrutiny benefited from significant and sustained funding (and yes, there was, incredibly, such a time – compared to now, anyway). Nor, really, should it. Combined authorities are different beasts entirely to local councils, and scrutiny needs to be designed accordingly. Resourcing is only part of the story – scrutiny’s role and focus is most important in the short term. What is scrutiny here to do? How does it find its niche amongst the work of the wide range of partners operating at local and “sub-regional” level?

The third point is for me the most contentious, and leaves me conflicted. On the one hand it is right that the PAC has the right and freedom to follow that public pound – with the support of the NAO – and to delve into issues wherever public money is being spent. This absolute jurisdiction is critical to its role, and its ability to sniff out examples of poor spending and delivery. On the other hand, this is the centrist’s dream – a national body getting involved in operational issues at local level, tweaking them with the proverbial two-hundred mile long screwdriver from the committee corridor in the Palace of Westminster. Surely there’s a better way – ensuring the effective spend of that public pound but recognising that there are independent actors at work here with mandates and roles which don’t look up to Westminster and Whitehall – but down to local communities?

I think there will be a productive job of work for the PAC and the scrutiny functions of individual CAs to engage with one another as equals, to identify issues of mutual concern and to work on them together. We can help each other here. The PAC can satisfy itself that there are others with similar objectives who are working on these issues locally. For local scrutiny, it’s perhaps an opportunity to start gently changing minds amongst those at national level – getting them to understand that, perhaps, some self-imposed limits to that untrammelled jurisdiction might help us all to rub along more smoothly.  

A final point. Proper governance at local level is messy. It is based on relationships at local level and often the personalities of certain key individuals. It is tied closely to organisational culture. Approaches that work well in authority (or combined authority) X may not work in authority Y. While we would have liked something in legislation providing for combined authorities to set out their approach to openness around policy development, performance management and public involvement in particular, we know that governance only really works when it’s home-grown – when it reflects the needs and priorities of the community within which it sits. It is this sense of immediacy that prevents governance from feeling remote and irrelevant. Too much looking up to Whitehall and Westminster and too little looking down (even the implications associated with that language are revealing) to local communities will definitely make devolution – irrespective to its objectives and how clear they are – a hollow promise.

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.