Local leadership is vitally important during this crisis, but, writes LGIU’s Head of Briefings Janet Sillett, so too is democratic accountability and scrutiny.
Can we as a society put democratic accountability to one side now we are facing this crisis? I would say emphatically not. Council leaders and elected mayors clearly agree – they are taking the lead in communicating with residents and businesses. That is essential right now but maintaining local democratic accountability is, of course, much more than communications, however crucial that is during this crisis.
The challenges, of course, are profound: the practical ones of physical meetings increasingly becoming unthinkable; the postponement of local elections; the need to prioritise responses to the pandemic, sometimes in a very short time with limited capacity.
Many of the practical difficulties will be overcome – even if the solutions are sometimes, inevitably, compromises. The UK government, for example, has said it will legislate for virtual committee meetings. But the parliament is expected to close this evening (25th March) after pushing through the emergency coronavirus laws with a, possibly brief, return on 21st April to pass budget legislation.
So what is clear is that there will be far less scrutiny of decisions and fewer people making decisions, both in central government and in local authorities. More decisions will have to be delegated to officers or to fewer members. Scrutiny could formally disappear. Some of what councils need to do will be dictated by government, health or other expert advice, but other decisions will be fundamentally political. And even those where councils follow government guidelines and rules will have numerous implications, some obvious and some unforeseen.
We know that local authorities will be having to make some very difficult choices in the weeks and months ahead. And that some of those decisions will have profound effects even after the worst of the pandemic is over. It cannot be right that they are made without oversight, debate and scrutiny. Decisions about the budget and resources could be highly contentious and those about services having to be reduced or stopped equally so. How this will affect already vulnerable groups needs to be properly evaluated. Again staff capacity may be a real issue.
Ed Hammond, the director of research and campaigns at the Centre for Public Scrutiny, has written about these challenges in the LGC. He suggests some ways democratic accountability can continue:
“It will involve councillors coming together remotely in wards, and divisions, to understand and deal with the biggest challenges. It will involve the chairs and vice chairs of scrutiny committees doing the same – even if their formal committees fall dormant – to consider and reflect on what is happening, drawing on intelligence from the community, and feeding a different insight and perspective into the council response. It will involve the conversations throughout this process being both publicly accessible, and ones in which the public can also positively participate.”
Perhaps the hardest part of this will be to engage the community – groups, individuals and businesses. Engagement isn’t easy even in the best of times – how much more difficult it is when there are other pressing priorities, when there will be staff ill, when the local media will be taken up with coronavirus news of the day. Social media could play a major role here. Ed Hammond suggests that small groups of members could take a lead in understanding and overseeing the impact on key groups in the local area – with publicly-viewable discussion drawing on the insights of local people, and transparently feeding back into the council’s emergency planning process. He is right too to say that this is a way of including all councillors and not just those in executive positions.
It will also be important for relationships between council staff and councillors to be maintained and for councillors to be supported with carrying out their roles remotely.
It will become more and more obvious that leadership where we live has to come from local government. The pandemic has already taught us that trust is a major issue. Without trust in government, central or local, what is a catastrophic situation could become totally unmanageable. That doesn’t mean government of any kind should not continue to be subject to scrutiny and challenge. But it does mean residents need to be able to trust their elected organisations and members.
Local government may not face having to make the hugely difficult decisions that governments globally are having to make about, for example, imposing stringent restrictions on freedom of movement with the need to protect individual human rights, but the impact will be felt locally and in many cases local government may have to ‘police’ the outcomes. We have already seen following Boris Johnson’s lockdown statement on 23 March that councils will, for example, have to ensure the new rules about which businesses can open are complied with.
Local authorities will need to be able to provide transparent justification for decisions that can affect their communities beyond the pandemic. It is very early days – councils and councillors are rightly focusing on responding to a rapidly changing situation which is throwing up challenges, questions and problems every day – but maintaining good governance, although hugely problematic, is going to be more and more important.