Council ‘Scrutiny has come of age’ or has it?

Paul Wheeler is the founder of the Political Skills Forum and a journalist for the Municipal Journal amongst other publications. The Political Skills Forum gave expert advice on good governance.

In an article he wrote for the Municipal Journal the headline states that ‘Scrutiny has come of age’ and cites Cllr Alan Hall’s work on Lewisham Council challenging their Executive and directly elected Mayor over plans to regenerate Surrey Canal Road or New Bermondsey as it was rebranded by the developer Renewal.

The Fabian Society have published an article based on the Millwall FC and New Bermondsey regeneration plans and the scrutiny process around the formal decisions. It begins by saying that speaking the truth to power is always a risky business, no more so than when considering how millions of pounds of public money should be shovelled into developments and contracts.

Paul Wheeler writes:

“And that in a nutshell is the purpose of scrutiny.- ‘asking difficult questions of those in power’. Awkward yes especially when those in the spotlight are your friends and colleagues but exactly what was intended by the legislation and what the public want. It’s taken a while but scrutiny has come of age.”

However, as Paul Wheeler acknowledged in recent correspondence: “All councils especially those with big majorities need strong scrutiny but sadly doesn’t make you a lot of friends!”

Lewisham Council returned a total redwash of all Labour Councillors at the May 2018 local elections and at the AGM immediately after Cllr Alan Hall’s style of scrutiny did not win favour with the new administration.

Paul Wheeler went on to write:

“many Leaders and Chief Executives seem to have operated on the ‘mushroom principle’ (keep them in the dark and feed them on …..) when announcing major development to the rest of the council). The cynics were always dubious whether councillors of the same party would ever effectively challenge their own colleagues in the cabinet.”

But it takes leadership to recognise scrutiny’s importance and it will be interesting to see whether Lewisham Council has learnt the right lessons or whether the ‘mushroom principle’ will surface with a vengeance.

 

 

Read Paul Wheeler’s full article here:

The admirable Centre for Public Scrutiny (declaration of interest I helped establish it in the early 2000’s) organises an annual Scrutiny Awards. Well for the forthcoming year can I put forward Cllr Alan Hall Chair of Scrutiny in the London Borough of Lewisham (declaration of interest I am a resident) as the Scrutiny Hero for 2017

MJ readers may have noticed over the last few weeks the unravelling of a major development scheme in Lewisham. Much of the attention has focused on the noisy protests of Millwall football supporters (club motto ‘No-one likes us we don’t care’). However the real hard work has been the diligent questioning and hard work of scrutiny councillors led by Cllr Hall

Football and local politics is a heady mix and I suspect that its current manifestation  has more to do with land values in a London Borough than any moral high ground. But put aside the noise and the success story is that scrutiny works.

Since the Local Government Act of 2000 the scrutiny role has always been the poor relation of local government. Deprived of resources by local councils it has been seen as the job for those councillors who couldn’t make the cabinet. As a consequence many Leaders and Chief Executives seem to have operated on the ‘mushroom principle’ (keep them in the dark and feed them on …..) when announcing major development to the rest of the council. The cynics were always dubious whether councillors of the same party would ever effectively challenge their own colleagues in the cabinet.

That perception of scrutiny was always unfair but the day to day work never attracted the attention of the media. Now that is changing. Elsewhere in London an all party group of councillors in Westminster have called in the decision of the Cabinet to vest  public land to the controversial Garden Bridge Project. In Bolton backbench councillors are asking difficult questions to the leadership about a grant to a local law firm.

And that in a nutshell is the purpose of scrutiny.- ‘asking difficult questions of those in power’. Awkward yes especially when those in the spotlight are your friends and colleagues but exactly what was intended by the legislation and what the public want. It’s taken a while but scrutiny has come of age.

 

 

Leave a Reply