I can’t help but like Ed Miliband’s small piece in today’s Guardian on his promise to lead a localist Government. A lot of the article is, unsurprisingly, a mix of political and platitude. It’s difficult to see, without details, how some of the pledges are different from the status quo. However, what caught my eye was his pledge to set up local Public Accounts Committees:
Labour will introduce a statutory requirement for authorities to set up a public accounts committee (PAC) with powers to scrutinise value for money for all local services. The role played by Labour’s formidable chairman of the Commons PAC shows what can be done – and every town or city should have its own Margaret Hodge.
These committees, coupled with new requirements to publish performance data, would be led by councillors so they can challenge, hold to account and improve all public services in their area.
It is, perhaps, evidence that I’m optimistic (despite my usual demeanour), and over-estimate the volume of liquid in containers, to see this as positive. I recall I clung to the mistaken belief that Eric Pickles was a localist long after it was quite clear he was anything but. There is a tendency for oppositions—at whatever level—to be localist until they get power, at which point they realise that localism works best at exactly their level and no lower.
This is merely a trailer for a policy a potential Labour government would introduce, and I just can’t see Ed Miliband winning an election: whatever the polls say and whatever efficiency of the Labour vote under the first past the post system. However, it does look like a manifesto commitment from a major political party, which starts the debate.
Most public money in the area is spent with remarkably little public oversight and accountability. Even that spent by the council often isn’t directly scrutinised, but instead via the performance of a contract, and innovations like staff mutuals mean some of that gets another step further away from councillors. The Centre for Public Scrutiny’s (and now Ed Miliband’s) idea won’t shine a spotlight on every single penny spent, but councillor-led public accounts committees will bring into focus how public money is collectively spent and how effectively it is being used in achieving common aims.
It won’t be discussed in many living rooms and pubs tonight, but it’s a debate about the machinery of local government rather than merely whether councils collect bins weekly or fortnightly and regardless of who starts it, I’m glad someone has.