The new government must think seriously about a coherent strategy for effective public scrutiny at national, regional and local levels, in order to ensure increasingly complex mechanisms for modern multi-level governance deliver genuine results. A paper published by the Centre for Public Scrutiny argues that today’s governance arrangements, characterised by a complex network of relationships between different tiers of government, are not currently complemented by a coherent system of accountability and scrutiny. It highlights the overlaps and gaps in the relationships between local councils and the centre, between the centre and the region, between regions and the council, between neighbourhoods and town halls and between parishes, districts and counties. There are also more generally difficulties between the national regional and local arms of other service deliverers.The paper visualises a situation where lower tiers of governance scrutinise higher tiers. A local, neighbourhood council may want to scrutinise how the main council executive is planning things and make sure they are taking into account local circumstances and preferences. As part of the local government overview & scrutiny function, the role of backbench ward councillors could be increasingly interpreted as being ‘locality’ scrutineers, challenging all those executive authorities responsible for services in an area and not just the executive of the council.
The powers of public scrutiny invested in elected bodies need to be strengthened in order to do the job properly. The overview & scrutiny function in local government needs to be reviewed to ensure that it has the powers needed to call in witnesses and receive information and, perhaps more importantly, that those being scrutinized are compelled to respond. The local authority power of health scrutiny provides an interesting blueprint.
There is also a call for the relationship between inspectorates, regulators and democratically elected scrutiny functions to be clarified and reviewed so that they have a role in supporting the scrutineers.