Headlines: July 13th, 2005

A leading academic in the field of local government structures says that
overview and scrutiny has tremendous potential to transform the quality of local
democracy. Steve Leach, Professor of Local Government at De Montfort University
in Leicester, was commenting on the publication of a five-year review of the

He has written ‘Practice, Progress and Potential – an assessment of the local
government overview and scrutiny function’ on behalf of the Centre for Public
Scrutiny. The paper evaluates the effectiveness of the function since its
introduction under the Local Government Act 2000.

The assessment is based on the Centre’s four principles of effective scrutiny –
providing ‘critical friend’ challenge to executives and external agencies;
reflecting the voice and concerns of the public; leading and owning the scrutiny
process on their behalf and making an impact on the delivery of public services.

He has found that many authorities were using their overview and scrutiny
function in innovative ways to achieve these goals and lists a number of
examples, including Knowsley Metropolitan Borough’s budget scrutiny that
prompted unanimous support for revised proposals as well as Salford’s review of
flooding, which led to long term collaboration between the council and United
Utilities. In another example he praises Waltham Forest’s education scrutiny
meetings that are often held in schools to maximise public involvement.

He added that many authorities were still struggling to ensure that what they do
‘adds value’. He lists the four key barriers they face as the continued presence
of party political behaviour within scrutiny; the conflicting demands of a
councillor’s community leadership role; reliance on inappropriate scrutiny
structures and processes and the limitations or lack of dedicated scrutiny

Professor Leach said, “The bad news about overview and scrutiny used to outweigh
the good news, however the balance is now shifting and there is an upward spiral
of making it work. As this spiral continues, we will increasingly see that
scrutiny is far more exciting than the old service committee system in terms of
bringing democracy to life.”

Professor Leach, whose research interests include political leadership, local
politics, local government structures and the impact of the post 2000 Act,
believes a number of measures would allow scrutiny to move further towards
fulfilling its true potential. He says the majority party in a council needs to
recognise the legitimacy of evidence-based challenge and says scrutineers need
independent policy advice. He also calls for committees to be more open to
public involvement.