There is a worrying accountability vacuum in local government. Since the closure of the Audit Commission in 2015, there is neither any overarching oversight of local government audit, nor a central government body that has oversight of governance or spending irregularities across multiple authorities. Even though citizens have rights to information and accountability, these are not often respected. We have documented this in detail in our report, Democracy Denied (2021). This lack of accountability is particularly concerning given the alarming state of local government finances and further rounds of austerity cuts.

During 2022 Research for Action has facilitated a citizen auditor network to bring together people who are scrutinising local government. The work of citizen auditors (attending council meetings, scrutinising minutes, accounts and documents) is vital for democracy. Examples of issues participants have worked on include: sale of council assets for below market prices, overpayment of contractors, PFI safety issues and senior officers’ inflated and sometimes fraudulent salaries. When risky ventures go wrong, it is taxpayers and residents who pay the price, with increased council tax bills and worsening public services. Citizen auditors’ work can be isolating and dispiriting, as councils often resist scrutiny, and outsourcing and privatisation have created additional barriers to transparency. The network provides a space for people to discuss, learn from and support each other. It also gives participants insight into other local authorities, which helps us all to understand the bigger picture around local government accountability and collectivise the issues.

Our report, Citizen Auditors: Investigating local governments’ accountability gap’ (September 2022) shares some case studies and perspectives from different groups and places on the challenges and approaches to auditing ‘from below’.

In 2023 we will carry on this work, including holding training events in order to help network members skill up!