In this article, Dr Andrew Walker, LGIU’s Head of Research at the Local Democracy Research Centre, discusses the updates (or lack of) surrounding the aloof Office for Local Government. He poses some straightforward questions about the purpose of this new government office, what it may mean for trust in local government and how it will differ from the DHLUC.
Since the announcement of its inception back in June 2022, we have heard precious little from Westminster about the brand new Office for Local Government. At the start of this year, it was announced that Amyas Morse, who used to run the National Audit Office, has taken up the interim chair of this new venture. But… that was it, leaving lots of questions begging yet again.
Then, at the LGA conference in Bournemouth recently, the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove told delegates that Oflog now exists as a government office. Despite this, full clarity still remains distant as we are left wondering
- What it really is?
- What it will do?
- And, when it will actually begin to operate?
The outline document, published alongside Gove’s speech, says that the government does not want Oflog to be an exercise in micromanaging local authorities, or to replicate the Audit Commission. But the track record shows that the institutional logic of central government ventures like this tends towards ever more top-down control. This is especially true when new offices are set up on a whim, with ill-defined purpose and structure.
Already, it is clear that Oflog will focus on improving performance and minimising failure. The recent experience of councils triggering section 114 after financial disasters is front centre and it is commonplace for ministers in Whitehall to want something to pull on so they can feel a measure of control.
But the reasons for financial failure in local government are deeper and wider. Local government is not struggling to balance the books because we lack a central government body checking in on performance and it is disingenuous to suggest as much.
In our recent survey of council leaders, chief executives, chief finance officers and cabinet members, we found that local authorities are doing everything they can to keep the show on the road, including dipping into reserves year-on-year, increasing charges and council tax and looking at what level of service provision they can realistically maintain. The holes in local government finances have been growing for over a decade. People are paying more and getting less and even Conservative leaders say they do not believe the government has a plan to fix the problem.
Gove said, “We collectively, especially in the department, need to be able to better respond to warning signs because these failures are felt most acutely by taxpayers and residents in higher costs and poorer services.” Well, quite.
One aspect of Oflog that could yet prove to be useful and interesting is the proposed Local Authority Data Explorer. This is a platform that, the government claims, would pull together useful information about services and spending across the sector so that Oflog “will provide authoritative and accessible data and analysis about the performance of local government, and support its improvement.”
This could indeed be useful, and better, more accessible data for councils to draw on something we at LGIU have repeatedly called for in the past. But the risk again is a government platform that reverts to type, providing competitive league tables rather than a rich resource for shared improvements. There is also the associated challenge that to improve outcomes across places the data local government really needs is held in different government departments, not just DHLUC.
The other big question is a more fundamental one for the Whitehall-local government relationship:
If we need an Oflog then what is a DHLUC for?