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, from Professor of Local Government at De Montfort University in Leicester, was commenting as a five-year review of the function was published.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 scrutiny 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 support.

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 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.