The Reluctant Armchair Auditor

Sorting spending fact from fiction

Posts Tagged ‘potholes

Localism: the reality ‘pothole’

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I spent Christmas on retreat with a large parcel of reading to catch up with. Anyone who thought coalition government would strangle the volume of paper flowing from the initiative engine room down by the Thames was clearly barking up the wrong tree. Each department seems to have decided it’s Year Zero.

In my experience there’s an absolute correlation between the quality and quantum of the capacity available to deliver change and its success. Public sector careers are littered with experiences of sweeping up after disastrous change programmes whose benefits were sketchy to start with and never got close to being realised.

For the first time in the experience of almost anyone but the hardiest veterans of public service we face rapidly reducing public expenditure coupled with enormous and complex reform of public services. Less money and fewer people to do more work. All the ingredients of a perfect public policy storm.

A certain amount of change is inevitable with any new government but my clients have now suffered a severe sense of humour failure. But, although the lights are on in Whitehall, there’s no evidence that there’s anyone home listening.

Instead what local public service organisations get for raising queries about the direction and pace of change is the chance to get publicly rubbished by an administration which seems fixated on rubbish collections.

I listened to a minister from CLG yesterday on my way home, interviewed alongside the Leader of Exeter. The minister had written to all councils to admonish them for failing to collect household rubbish over the Christmas holidays. The Leader at Exeter – a council in the ministerial sights – made two not unreasonable points: it had been a tad snowy; and, even if his troops had worked throughout Christmas the Council would have had nowhere to stick the waste collected because it’s not the waste disposal authority (WDA). The WDA’s dumps were, of course, closed on the public holidays over the break.

Few things seem to galvanise the CLG ministerial team more than the question of rubbish collection. Yesterday the minister repeated the old canard on the radio that the move by councils to alternative weekly collections of waste and recyclables was forced on them by a government/Audit Commission plot. Local politicians will tell you this isn’t true. The Audit Commission has also made it plain that this simply is not true. Perhaps if it gets repeated often enough it might become true in some magical and unexpected way. (Sorry, I happened to see Peter Pan over the holidays and yes, I believe in fairies.) You can read the Audit Commission correspondence here.

Changing these arrangements made economic sense and was good for the environment too. In many cases local elections have been fought and won with the issue of changes to local refuse collection arrangements as a hot topic. In any event surely this is a prime example of a local issue where local politicians should be held accountable through the ballot box rather than to ministers’ letters? Perhaps I have misunderstood what this localism malarkey is all about.

I had just about recovered some sort of mental equilibrium when up popped a transport minister to talk about potholes. He said it was up to local councils to sort it out and the government shouldn’t get involved in prescribing what happens locally. But surely, I thought to myself, that’s just what CLG have just been doing over its fixation over bin emptying. The minister boasted that councils had got £3 billions in the spending review to spend on roads and said poorer performing councils should learn from the good practice of the good ones. Quite how that is going to happen was left unexplained.

However, a whacking thump from the suspension as I hit yet another pothole brought me back to the issue at hand. On the final miles home I mused about the £3 billion figure. Here’s the fruit of that musing.

There was a Ministerial statement in the Commons on 13 December. This did indeed announce the £3 billion mentioned. But it’s £3 billion over 4 years. I had a look then at the length of the road network maintained by councils in England. You can have a look at the details here on the Department for Transport website.

Highways experts may correct me but it looks like councils have to look after around 182,000 miles of road. So councils have just over £4,100 a mile to work with each year. That does not seem like an awful lot of money to me. Just think how much it costs to get a drive skimmed with a new layer of blacktop. Of course it looks even less generous when you realise that this money will not be evenly distributed across the road network. Some roads will clearly see not a penny of this £3 billion.

In the interview the minister made the point again that some councils have ‘lots’ of money in reserves. If they do then, as I have said before, this is for genuine un-budgeted for emergencies. If money is needed for planned highways schemes then it is almost certainly already earmarked.

My overall point is that while the government may be intellectually committed to localism it seems pathologically unable to deal with its consequences. This makes for poor relations between Whitehall and local decision-makers who I know are becoming fed up with the constant second guessing that flows from this aggressive authoritarian localism. The ever excellent Local Government Chronicle is reporting today on the local government response to all this noise from the Whitehall machine.

As I pick up the traces from December and clamber back into harness I sense this growing disconnect will increasingly dominate the debate over public service ‘reform’. I haven’t even mentioned what my NHS contacts are saying about what’s going on in that service. That is a whole new post.

There’s certain to be a lot of work for us armchair auditors in the year ahead.

By the way, Happy New Year.