Protestations from the Local Government Association about over-centralised regulation show that it missed the point about the abolition of the Audit Commission
You reap what you sow. When Eric Pickles had his hissy fit and abolished the Audit Commission a couple of years ago, local government clapped and cheered. ‘Ya boo’, was approximately the response of the Local Government Association, as it swallowed the Pickles line about localism and liberation.
But now here’s LGA chief executive Carolyn Downs getting worried about the march of the Whitehall regulators. Could that by any chance be connected to the demise of the Commission?
She’s going to get a lot more anxious, it seems. Read the National Audit Office’s annual report, just out, and see it increasing its budget for local activities, including a new generation of value for money studies of what councils are doing and supervision of local audit.
The NAO has already beefed up its staff with local government expertise, and for the first time, in its recent study of transparency, asked for data from councils before – in a hands-off way of course – assessing their performance.
Was the LGA merely naïve or just politically biased in imagining that the vacuum created by the disappearance of the Audit Commission wouldn’t be filled? The naïvety is congenital: it seems never to have understood Whitehall’s hierarchies and the sheer irrelevance of CLG when the shots are being called by the big spending departments, the Treasury or Number Ten.
As for the NAO, this Comptroller & Auditor General has never particularly wanted to get inside the town and county halls. His problem has actually been passivity – if he had been a bit more assertive he could have made the Pickles’ plan less chaotic and destructive. Whatever its sins, the existence of the Audit Commission acted as a kind of guarantee in Whitehall eyes: it gave departments assurance about local spending and delivery. Take it away and inevitably they pile in.
The LGA might have read the signs when the centrepiece of Pickles’ promise – free choice of auditor by councils – was whittled down to free choice subject to all sorts of central caveats and then deferred for years. It’s a fair bet that, with huge spending cuts yet to beimplemented and Whitehall departments getting alarmed about what is happening on the ground, this section of the legislation never gets put into effect.
Pundits picked up on the performance of Michael Gove at the Leveson inquiry this week, interpreting his stout defence of press barons as a ploy in case he makes a bid for the Tory leadership. Just imagine the localist consequences if he did become leader – a secretary of state who is already harrying councils over adoption and whose plans for education involve the complete extirpation of elected local government from the running and inspection of schools.