Monday, 2 July 2012

Should Parliament play a bigger part in central local relations?

Is Parliament thinking more strategically about the role and purpose of local government than the Government? Looks at some of the work that is under way.

The Public Accounts Committee has been examining in some detail the way that accountability for public expenditure will be secured in a more localised future and has found, perhaps not too surprisingly, that the overall approach to accountability for localised services lacks coherence and clarity.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has been examining the case for codification of the relationship between national and local government.

The Communities and Local Government Committee has been examining community budgets and suggesting that more profound changes will be needed in terms of accountability for public funds, both nationally and locally, if these are to come close to fulfilling their potential. Through the Councillors and the Community inquiry, the committee is also examining the role of local politicians as leaders of communities and neighbourhoods and the associated questions of accountability.

The Public Administration Select Committee has (as I have commented before on this blog considering strategic thinking in Government and raising some questions which go to the heart of the unresolved issues about central-local relationships.

Also rumbling away in the background is the Alignment project which will bring a much clearer line of sight between the Estimates being voted by Parliament and the resource accounts which are produced by Departments. This could result in changes to the way that spending plans are put to Parliament, and significantly expand the scope to make input prior to the approval of final spending plans.

Some of these Committees are even talking to each other!

From these various pieces of work could come something quite profound in terms of the role that Parliament (not just the Executive) might play in central - local relations:

- an embedded set of expectations about the role of local government and how to facilitate more collaborative working arrangements between services at local level

- a joint committee of other form of Parliamentary apparatus to oversee how that is implemented in practice; and

- a greater opportunity for Parliament to consider the implications of the spending plans being put forward by the Executive which would give greater emphasis to what happens before money is distributed alongside the impressive interrogation of what happens once it has gone out of the door.

The last of these points is significantly underplayed in current discussions.  The reality is that the detail of public expenditure allocations is rarely the subject of detailed scrutiny in Parliament. Even more pertinently, the combined effect of the different allocation in terms of the total amount of resources being made available for a given locality is never considered.

Parliament, in voting through the Estimates and the annual settlements that cover local services and local government, may engage with some of the bigger distributional questions but each is looked at in isolation.  Parliament does not consider any changes that would reflect the different local circumstances across the country and which might improve value for money. 

Some steps are being taken through City Deals, but to make much more of a reality of the rhetoric about more genuinely devolved arrangements would mean changes within the Executive in the way in which money is allocated and presented to Parliament and some changes in the Legislature in terms of how it scrutinises the proposals of the Executive. It would be even better if there were some choreography between changes in each.

At the moment there is probably greater likelihood that much of the work being undertaken in Parliament will grind into the sand. But there is the opportunity to build on some of the questions already being asked and to push forward on significant changes which would make the rhetoric about greater devolution turn into something which is a product of the way that Government and Parliament work together rather than something which is currently largely frustrated by those very arrangements.

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