Charities and campaigning organisations are today being urged to push for change through their local council.
In a major speech today, John Denham called on third sector groups to focus their campaigns on local councils who are being given new powers to shine a spotlight on the way all local services are delivered, on behalf of their communities.
Under a Private Members Bill, backed by the Government, councils will have strengthened powers to scrutinise all significant local public service spending in their area. They will be able to legally compel organisations to attend council scrutiny hearings in order to investigate issues, get answers and make recommendations around how public money is spent.
These changes have the potential to transform the way that third sector groups campaign and lobby for change on how local public services are run, whether delivered by the NHS, the police, private contractors or the council itself.
Rather than just concentrating efforts and resources to target central government, campaigners will be able to encourage councillors to act on their behalf by using their powers of scrutiny on issues like:
• residents associations angry at poorly planned and co-ordinated maintenance programmes by utility companies which leave roads and streets in a mess;
• campaigning groups who work on behalf of the elderly worried that bus provision in rural areas is leaving some people isolated and cut off;
• groups who support disabled people in finding work who want to challenge whether Job Centre Plus's local strategy is meeting their needs;
• women's organisations concerned about safety in poorly lit and badly maintained train stations;
• parents' charities frustrated about the costs of getting children to school.
John Denham said:
"Many organisations campaigning for improved local services rightly target MPs and Ministers, and this should continue. But few make effective use of the right of local council scrutiny committees to hold local services to account. Very often the key decisions on support for carers, school improvement, or the effectiveness of anti-social behaviour policies are taken at a local level.
"The Government is making sure that local councillors have the right to question how these decisions are made, and to require decision makers to justify their actions. We want local councils which can not only deliver their own services, but also shape and scrutinise all local public service spending.
"But these powers will only come into their own if local people, and national campaigning organisations put pressure on councils to use their scrutiny powers effectively."
For councils' own services, scrutiny is carried out by councillors outside the Cabinet (analogous to a Select Committee). For other local services, scrutiny can be led by the Mayor, Leader or Cabinet Member.
Already, there are a variety of ways in which voluntary groups have lobbied councillors to use their scrutiny powers to drive improvements in local services.
Groups of people using local parks were vocal participants in a scrutiny review of local green spaces, sparking a rethink of the strategy for parks in the borough. Other groups like Capital Growth and Sustain are heavily involved in a scrutiny review of allotment provision.
Meanwhile, Shelter has picked up on a recent review of services for pre-school children and has been instrumental in implementing the councils recommendations to develop closer relationships between housing associations and children's centres.
Jessica Crowe, executive director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, added:
"New powers for scrutiny can help to build stronger relationships between councils and the voluntary and community sector.
"Our research shows that scrutiny work can highlight the work of VCOs and help them to play a more central role in Local Strategic Partnerships. New powers for scrutiny to investigate a wider range of local partners will help to cut through complex decision-making processes to help deliver positive change for local people – and to help partner organisations understand the particular challenges faced by VCOs in playing a part in local decision-making and service delivery."
Increased scrutiny powers are a key part of wider reforms to reinforce the essential role of local government in delivering the Governments commitment to personalised services and to a strong local voice. Councillors will play a critical role in ensuring that people receive their entitlements to public services, make sure those services are responsive and effective and more accountable to citizens and communities – with redress where those entitlements are not delivered.
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