We have local council elections in England on Thursday this week (May 4th). According to the opinion polls, the Conservatives may lose one thousand seats to Labour and (in areas like Surrey where we live), the Lib Dems. Of course, as a mere procurement author and commentator, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting how you should vote. I mean, if you think we have seen growing prosperity in recent years, improving public services, clear rivers and lakes, a great train service, a ruling cadre that deeply cares about the people… you should vote accordingly.
Personally, I would like to see more councils where there is no single party in control, or at least where the control does and can change over the years. Where the same party rules for decades on end, complacency can set in, or elected councillors can even start behaving in an unethical or criminal manner.
We’ve seen some extreme cases of this in recent years. It is not just one political party behind these disasters either – it was Labour led councils that failed in places including Slough, Liverpool and Croydon, and the Tories in Thurrock, Woking and Northamptonshire. But they have all presided over financial disasters, with gross incompetence always a factor and accompanying fraud in some cases.
Certainly one common thread is the secrecy, lack of openness and transparency that we see in the behaviour of the councils. My own local council, Surrey Heath, is not quite a disaster on the scale of some of these others, but the Tory council made an extremely misjudged investment in commercial property in Camberley town centre, buying right at the peak of the market. In terms of asset value, that has cost the local taxpayer over £50 million and counting. But the deals were stitched up by a very small cabal of councillors and executives – not even all the Tories in council knew what was going on. Hopefully, the Lib Dems will win here this week, then at least we might get to see the full accounts and the full story behind what went on.
In the case of Thurrock, it was brilliant work by journalist Gareth Davies that exposed the huge and very “strange” investments that may end up costing the taxpayer £500 million in real cash losses. Again, there was no transparency and councillors refused to disclose information for year, even after Freedom of Information requests. (I will be astonished if no-one ends up in court over this case).
Many of the cases involve “bad buying” in a conventional procurement sense too. That was certainly true in Croydon, where construction and refurbishment contracts were part of the story – that is another case where we don’t know yet if the driver was fraud, incompetence or both. In other examples, it is dodgy investments (which is “buying” of a sort, I suppose), and we also see ridiculously extravagant payoffs to top executives too.
At the end of 2022, Labour published their plan for greater devolution of power. If Labour win the next election, the government will devolve more budget and control to local councils and mayors. I’m all for that in theory, but given what we have seen in the last few years, it also makes me nervous. If Keir Starmer really wants to do that, he must put in place some checks and balances to make sure we don’t just see more Croydons and Thurrocks, but with even bigger sums of money.
Transparency needs to be addressed, public scrutiny should be made easier, and there should be a strengthened audit regime for councils. But the problem with audit is it is after the event when the money is already gone! So maybe there should be some sort of pre-expenditure check for projects, investments or contracts over a certain amount? Perhaps a reincarnated Audit Commission could fulfil that role? Anyway, just throwing more money and power at some of the incompetent and /or crooked muppets we have seen around local government in recent years does not seem sensible.