Headlines: July 23rd, 2009

Local councils are to be given more power and responsibility in proposals announced by Communities Secretary John Denham. The council will become the point of scrutiny for all local public services and it will be able to influence the spending of public bodies in their area.

Councils are at the centre of decision making in each area across the country. They provide services, but they also act as community leaders in a way which other service providers can’t. They take a broad view of the needs of local people and are uniquely placed to pull together the public, private and third sector bodies to tackle cross-cutting issues. They also have a democratic mandate to do so.

Although scrutiny has been extended widely, few local councils have fully utilised the powers on the statute book. In many ways, scrutiny is a lion that has failed to roar. The proposal now is that councils will be able to summon service providers to the Town Hall to hold them to account about how they’re spending public money, getting the best value for that money, and providing high quality joined up services for citizens.

Broader scrutiny will be put in place by making more resources available and by ensuring that current powers are fully used. Artificial barriers will also be lifted for example by challenging decisions of the Environment Agency about flood defences, although this may not be part of a local area agreement target for the area. It is also intended to bring new organisations, like the utilities, under local scrutiny.

The proposals to influence spending by public bodies in the area will be spearheaded in the Total Place pilots which are trialing a move away from a traditional view of individual service areas limited by institutional boundaries. Councils are joining up with other organisations such as primary care trusts, Job Centre Plus and the police. By mapping how all public money is spent in the area all the public bodies will be challenged to produce ideas on what could be done differently to make savings.