7 May 2021, 2-4pm, zoom, register here.
Local government is at a breaking point after a decade of harsh cuts. Yet this is only the last straw after three decades of outsourcing and financialisation with decreasing oversight. Councils are encouraged to borrow from capital markets, hedge against risk, enter into public-private partnerships and make speculative commercial property investments. When things go wrong, risk-taking jeopardises the delivery of basic services.
Covid has intensified this crisis. At the end of last year, 25 councils reported to the National Audit Office survey that they were at acute or high risk of financial failure. In this context, a system of accountability and financial audit which prioritises public over commercial interests is needed more than ever. Decisions about how to allocate resources need to be accompanied by increased public involvement, scrutiny and debate.
Research for Action’s report “Democracy Denied: Audit and accountability failure in local government” details widespread and serious accountability gaps. It reveals the significant role played by private auditors in disempowering residents, and shows a concerning lack of accountability on the part of local authorities.
The Local Audit and Accountability Act gives the public the right to inspect council accounts and ask questions about them to the auditor. If residents believe spending is not in the public interest or could be unlawful, they can file an objection to the accounts.
The experiences we document show that local audit needs a complete rethink. The public rights in the Local Audit and Accountability Act do not fully enable residents to hold councils to account. However, we believe they have potential to enhance democracy, as in some cases they gave the public access to information that otherwise would have not been forthcoming. With Freedom of Information rights under attack, this offers another avenue into scrutinising public spending.
Council accounts are open for inspection every summer from early June onwards.
With the time window for using the public rights coming up for 2021, how can we best make use of them? How can we as residents, journalists and researchers work together on scrutinising our local authorities? Why does scrutiny matter more than ever?
Join us for an afternoon of discussion and skill-sharing on 7 May 2021, 2-4pm.
Professor David Whyte, University of Liverpool
David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Liverpool. He has written extensively on corruption and the connections between law, corporate power and political economy.
Lambeth People’s Audit
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of residents in South London who believe local government spending should be open and accountable to local people. They share a common interest in ensuring that local councils spend money wisely and can account for that expenditure. They have scrutinised their local council since 2015.
Stephen Kingston, Editor of Salford Star
Journalist Stephen Kingston has been publishing the independent local media outlet Salford Star for the last 15 years and has extensive experience of using the FOI and LAA Acts to scrutinise Salford Council.
Alex Parsons, mySociety
Alex Parsons is a Research Associate at mySociety. He holds a MSc in Democracy and Democratisation and has been published in academic and general-interest publications. Alex has produced multiple pieces of research on Freedom of Information (FOI) in the UK, including mySociety’s latest report Reforming Freedom of Information and minisites exploring FOI statistics.