Localism National politics

Scrap the Audit Commission

The Audit Commission has made it onto the front page of the Sunday Times this morning. The commission is not the most exciting bit of government but superficially at least they look like an important bit. They started off as in-house auditors for the government but under New Labour their role in performance assessment has come to the fore as they have been used by Labour to try to drive their agenda through to the local level. They started off under the Thatcher administration, created as a result of the 1982 Local Government Act, as a tool to impose some financial discipline on local councils from the centre.

According to the Sunday Times:

ENGLAND’S local government spending watchdog has paid a lobbying firm with links to Labour for advice on how to undermine Tory frontbenchers who challenged its activities.

The Audit Commission, which is supposed to be politically neutral, paid nearly £60,000 to the lobbyists, who advised it to “combat the activities of Eric Pickles”, the Tory party’s chairman.

The story is essentially how ex-GLC Labour councillor head of the Audit Commission has been illegally using £60,000 of public money to pay a Labour insider public affairs company to lobby the government. Why? The reason is organisational self-preservation. The Tories see the Audit Commission as being largely unnecessary and will certainly curtail it, if not destroy it entirely. The organisation employs 2,000 people and costs £216 million per annum to run, see their annual report and accounts here. Most of their income comes from fees they levy on public bodies so it is easy for the central government to dictate an increasingly onerous oversight regime on local government as they don’t pick up the bill – councils and the NHS pay. This all means that the red tape is paid for by ordinary people in the form of higher council tax or worse services.

If you go to Ealing statement of accounts (page 27) here you will see that Ealing spent £533K last year and £681K the year before on audit costs. If you compare with the private sector you will see how costly the Audit Commission is. Take WH Smiths. Their turnover is £1,340 million, compared to Ealing’s £1,107 million. But they only spent £200K on audit last year and £300K the year before. It is straightforward to argue that our one council is paying a premium of over £300K for the Audit Commission’s “added value” service over regular plc auditing practices. (If anyone wants to argue that local government accounting is more complex I would merely say let’s make it simpler and more comprehensible for everyone involved!) This is not the only cost of the Audit Commission. It costs us at least the same again to jump through the Audit Commission’s hoops, to collect the metrics they want, to prepare and take part in their assessments, etc. The total bill for the whole central control mindset imposed by the Audit Commission is in the order of £500-1,000 million per annum. Losing this cost is one of the main points of the Tory’s localism agenda.

Laughably in their annual report the Audit Commission claim to be the 5th biggest audit firm in the UK. You wonder how big they would be if they had to compete with real audit firms?


Remote councils

Writing about the centralisation of local government in Britain today on the ConservativeHome website (follow link), Nick Cuff, a Wandsworth councillor, has some good points to make including an interesting table that shows just how out of step we are compared to the rest of Europe in terms of how big our councils are and therefore remote from their electors.

I am not sure that I would make councils any smaller but you could argue that they are big enough to look after themselves!

I repeat his figures – he does not say where they came from.


Average population per council

Number of electors per councillor
































More power for councils

Today the Local Government Association published its document Closer to People and Places. The LGA, a mouthpiece for local authorities, is adding its voice to the Lyons Inquiry (see previous posting), the Conservatives and LibDems who are all calling for more power for local authorities and for the abolition of Brown’s sandpit in which councils have to go cap in hand for silly little grants from the Treasury rather than being able to raise taxes locally and spend them how they see fit locally.

Key points are:

  • Slashing 1,000 targets to save taxpayers £2.5billion
  • Giving councils extra powers including over transport, infrastructure, planning, economic development and skills
  • A return of the local Business Rates with an inflation safeguard so they have freedom in raising revenue and setting their budgets
  • The power for local people to hold NHS chief executives, police chiefs and council leaders to account if they consistently perform poorly
  • Dedicated budgets for ward councillors to spend on local projects
  • Greater ‘postcode choice’
  • Opposition to any proposals by central government to cut the number of councils or councillors

Philip Johnston in the Telegraph today adds his opinion to the debate.

The current regime is costing us all big time. I will be asking our officers to work out how much the current regime costs in Ealing.


Same old boring, ineffective, expensive councils

On Monday of this week the Lyons Inquiry into local government funding, which is also addressing the function of local government and its future role, published an interim report on the second part of its brief which was added in September of last year. In the report Sir Michael Lyons suggests that greater local choice rather than more central control is the answer. The key phrase in his document seems to be “local choice”. This sounds like the localism that the LibDems have long championed and the new localism the Conservatives are now increasingly seeing as the way forward too.

The report was covered in the Telegraph on Tuesday. The columnist Philip Johnston and the Telegraph’s headline writers put a business rates scare spin on the story but the real story is more local control for good or ill with post code lotteries abounding. The article ended on some comments from the new Communities and Local Government Department which said that there was no chance of Sir Michael’s recommendation being implemented – particularly after the Tory gains in the local elections. “We spent 10 years taking power off them. We are not going to give it back when they are all turning blue.”

The cynicism of our Labour government is naked. They prevaricate by putting the future of local government into the hands of an enquiry for two years, Prescott and Brown set up this inquiry in July 2004. When the answer comes back that councils would be more effective if they were free to raise their own income and spend it as they see fit the result gets binned. Prescott is history but Brown wants to keep his control of local government and his panoply of targets and silly little financial carrots are his chosen tools.

All councils, whatever their colour, need to start ignoring the centre and setting their own agenda. Both Lyons and Direct Democracy show them the way.

Coincidentally, on Monday Dara Singh, Ealing council’s chief executive, was briefing the councillors on the major strategic and corporate issues facing the council. It was not his fault that this talk was deeply tedious and had no relevance to the councillors present, let alone the people they represented. The talk simply described Brown’s sandpit, the small, bounded box the council is allowed to play in. Yawn, yawn.


Antidote to the BNP – more power for local councils

Danny Kruger writes very well in the Telegraph today explaining that local elections will remain fertile ground for the likes of the BNP as long as local government has so little power to change things.

Localism Public sector waste

Councils’ priorities, not ours

In the run up to the end of their financial year councils will be making some hard decisions about budgets for next year.

An article in today’s Telegraph highlights an area that many councils do not prioritise – libraries. 50 libraries to go. Tax payers’ priorities 0, councils’ priorities 1.

Where does the money go? Look at the job pages. On Sunday Surrey County Council advertised for four Strategic Directors. They offered “attractive six figure salaries” for all. At the same time they are proposing to close 6 libraries in the county.

Surrey ad 22-1-2006.jpgThe prominent, quarter page advert in the Sunday Times must have cost £5,000. The recruiter will be looking for fees of 20%, ie £80,000 worth of fees for four posts.

I suspect that Surrey Council Tax Payers would happily give up a Strategic Director for Policy & Performance in return for some libraries. You might imagine that the so-called Chief Executive might think that their job would include policy and performance? 

[See letter in Telegraph next day.]


New localism

The Telegraph today finished its four-part series covering the new localism proposed by a group of Conservative MPs, MEPs, candidates and activists in a book called Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party. A really challenging set of ideas.

For more information go to