There's no accountability in English local government

A dispatch from the front line of England's creeking democracy.

Rich Hadley
8 March 2016

Cheltenham Town Hall, public domain

It is possible that the now defunct council watchdog, the Audit Commission, was just another bloated public-sector body that urgently required serious slimming down.

Set up 25 years ago to oversee local government spending, the Commission was abolished in the so-called ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ by the last Tory/Lib-Dem government. The bluff Sir Eric Pickles and his conservative colleagues called it ‘wasteful, ineffective and undemocratic’.

That’s as maybe. The question is whether it was genuinely in the public interest to do away with the entity precisely set up to tackle incompetent, reckless or nefarious behaviour among local councils.

When the Audit Commission was finally abolished in 2015, town and parish councils were rid of any public oversight or scrutiny, beyond, that is the efforts of local democracy campaigners. This means that if you wish to complain or ask questions, your only recourse is to tackle the offending council itself or go to the police: the first option is usually doomed, the second is nuclear, and without compelling evidence of criminal activity, is also futile.

Parish and town councils are not overseen by the government ombudsman, no standard code of conduct exists for councillors or officials, there is no higher authority to appeal to if you are dissatisfied. Town and parish councils are literally laws unto themselves. They set their own rules, investigate complaints against themselves by themselves, and if they so decide, can banish you from view as a ‘vexatious complainant’.

In one of its final acts, the Audit Commission issued a report bemoaning the shoddy state of financial reporting by first tier local government, the parish and town councils which handle about £590 million of public money each year. Over 10% of councils were found to be deficient in their financial management while seventy four of them had failed persistently to improve their performance and demonstrated “systemic weaknesses” over several years. In future, the malpractice in these councils will most likely go unnoticed.

Audit is now the responsibility of councils themselves. The new arrangements allow even the most errant local council client to hire and fire their own auditors with impunity. As a parliamentary committee commented, it has been a principle of public sector policy for the last 150 years, ‘that those commissioning audit reports should be independent from those being audited.’ Not any more.

In the past, the audit service was able to commission ‘public interest reports’ (from independent auditors) into financial mismanagement and other maladministration, precisely because it was completely removed from the councils it was seeking to inspect. Auditors were free to do their job without fear of losing contracts if their findings were uncomfortable or compromising for dodgy local politicians or officials.

“It is interesting”, the Audit Commission’s ex-chair Michael O’Higgins noted in a Guardian interview, “that no public interest reports [were] issued on NHS foundation trusts, which are allowed to appoint their own auditors, despite some performance and financial scandals. That may not be a coincidence".

Public sector fraud and wrongdoing may now blossom in this new era of political deregulation. Says respected academic Elizabeth David-Barrett of Transparency International, "with local authorities appointing their own external auditors, those auditors may not challenge local authorities for fear of not getting their contract renewed or winning other contracts for providing services."

It is not just corruption, sleazy back-scratching or managerial incompetence we should be worried about either. The Localism Act 2011 also abolished the national standards board which was responsible for setting and enforcing a standard code of conduct for all elected members across the country. Now, depending on where you behave badly, you can get away with the most flagrant abuses either scot-free or score just a few column inches in the local press if you are very unlucky, all quickly forgotten.

In one of rural Herefordshire’s idyllic market towns, Ledbury, political toxicity is approaching lethal concentrations. As an ex-town councillor hounded from office trying to lift the lid on what I believe to be financial incompetence, and possible misconduct, I took a leaf out of Sir Eric Pickles’ freedom of information manual and started up a blog.

The awful truth is that if you are a first-tier councillor (as I have learned to my cost), there really is no sanction against abuse, intimidation, lies, bullying and all the thousand other deplorable little tricks that are endemic in the world of parish politics. Out here, it’s survival of the fittest. You wonder whether the new free-market political ethos is purpose-designed to weed out the weaklings and reward the sociopaths. Progressive voices, transparency campaigners and democracy activists can expect to be chewed up and spat out like a mouthful of stale tobacco – and then be accused of bullying for their pains.

The 2013 report Corruption in the UK, The Mounting Risks highlighted the pernicious effects of the relaxation of the rules over elected members’ behaviour. Councils no longer have a duty to operate a ‘standards’ process. In Herefordshire for instance, there has been no standards committee for at least two years. Complaints are dealt with ‘informally’ (ie by local government officers), and are not officially published. Even if the informal procedure finds against a councillor, there is no sanction – except the remote chance of being kicked out at the next election. Around here, people have stopped raising complaints against bad councillor behaviour. There seems little point.

With touching, laissez-faire insouciance, Communities Minister Andrew Stunell said: “In the future, councillors must expect to be judged at the ballot box by an electorate with real access to their accounts and personal interests in a new transparent era”.

This is of course nonsense. If complaints are never published, how can the general public possibly judge the ethics and probity of candidates at election time?

Even worse, among town and parish councils, there are usually so few candidates as to render elections almost meaningless or to make it that they don’t happen at all.

Like most market towns of its size, Ledbury Town Council has for decades avoided elections because fewer candidates threw their hats in the ring than existed vacancies to fill them. In May 2015, at least twenty-one candidates were needed to trigger a poll. Hoorah, we did it – just. Twenty three people came forward. Even if your name was Fred West (a local to Ledbury lad), your odds of being elected were rather sporting. With such 'elections' taking place across the country, so much for weeding out the liars, time-wasters and the lazy, the racists and ne’er do wells who skulk around many town council’s offices.

If my experience is anything to go by, the un-or-under-contested 're-election' of toxic cliques will do much to deter any new faces from stepping forward for election next time round. Who, except the very brave or the foolhardy, would want to put themselves in the path of these people. And thus, against all logic and natural justice, the ancien regime manages to linger on, self-replicating like a non-lethal, but rather nasty virus.

Unmatched in the public sector for amateurism and incompetence, self-serving abuse and resistance to reform, so many parish and town councils are not fit for purpose – but now there is hardly anybody there to say so.

Between them, councils in Britain’s first tier of local government spend over a half billion pounds, serving 16% of the population. Despite their increasing power with the move towards devolved local services, the checks and balances have gone. All of them. Our communities are being run by the same old stuff shirts and reactionary power freaks that they ever were. Keithley, Tewkesbury, Peterlee, Edwinstowe, Chard, Broughton Hacket, Berwick on Tweed, Hertford, Kimberley, Seaford, Arlesey, Shepton Mallet, Rothbury, and the rest of you, (not forgetting Ledbury), take a bow.

We should have known. ‘Localism’ was meant to give power to local communities to shape their destinies. With a few inspiring exceptions, all it has done has been to hand over the keys of the town jail to the local political Mafiosi, left and right, covert groups of cronies determined never to let go. Short of a change in the law, where scrutiny and accountability are enshrined in their rules, town and parish councils around the country will continue to hobble the hopes and dreams of their communities. There has to be a rethink. Local activism is important and good, but it is national policy that that has to shift in favour of genuine local democracy.

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