A key requirement of democratic local government is the ability to hold the Council to account.
The Council’s complaints procedure has been modified by the Council so that it is now discretionary i.e. the Council can refuse to accept a complaint or to progress a complaint. The Council’s complaints procedure has two stages – stage 1 is a review by the officer who took the decision/action, and stage 2 is a review by the officer’s line manager. There is no independent review of a complaint.
Referring a complaint to the Ombudsman is equally futile because it is entirely at the discretion of the Ombudsman whether an unresolved complaint is investigated. Even if it is investigated any recommendation by the Ombudsman can be ignored by the Council because the Ombudsman has no statutory powers.
A judicial review is beyond the financial resources of an individual or a Residents’ Association.
The Council has a Scrutiny Committee which should scrutinise the Council’s policy and procedures. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee of the House of Commons is reviewing whether these committees are effective in holding decision makers to account. HRA has made a submission to the Select Committee in which it explains why the Scrutiny Committee is not effective in holding the Council to account.
CLG Select Committee Submission
Written evidence submitted to the CLG Select Committee by Nicholas Marbrow on behalf of Heston Residents’ Association.
Hounslow Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee is ineffective in holding decision makers to account.
The Committee reflects the political balance of the Council and hence is rarely critical of the administration
The Council has a “Policy and Scrutiny” team of 4 who are also responsible “for other functions including policy and some partnership and project functions”. It is likely that scrutiny officers are not independent of, and separate from, some subject matters being scrutinised.
The Chair is appointed by the administration and members are appointed to reflect the political balance of the administration.
The Committee makes no attempt to act as a voice for local service users, indeed members of the public are not encouraged to attend. There is very limited transparency, and no engagement with borough residents.
Topics for scrutiny are agreed by the committee members. There is no interface with the public. The website provides no information on how the public might refer an issue to the committee.
The Committee proved itself to be totally inadequate in scrutinising a significant loss of public funds in an arms-length operating unit. It could not be established what the scale of the loss was (estimates varied between £50,000 and £1.5m) or whether there had been any criminal activity. It appears that the police could not investigate whether there had been criminal activity because actions by the Council had contravened the PACE rules. Nobody was held accountable for what occurred and nobody knows the extent of the financial loss.
While it is clear the overview and scrutiny committee does not provide effective scrutiny of council actions and decisions, there is no other facility which does do so.
Because of the absence of any effective scrutiny, the Council is now completely unaccountable.
The lack of accountability means many Council activities are often inefficient and/or ineffective and/or contradictory.
This is exacerbating an ever-increasing democratic deficit between local government and the public that it exists to serve.
The CLG Select Committee should address the lack of accountability in local government as a matter of urgency.
1. Heston Residents’ Association (“HRA”) was founded in 1928 and is dedicated to the preservation of our heritage and the maintenance of an acceptable standard of environment for all residents of Heston present and future. Heston is part of the London Borough of Hounslow and is located 3 miles to the east of Heathrow Airport and just 1 mile from the A4 “Golden Mile” – home to several of the largest businesses in the UK.
2. To remain relevant to its membership of around 600 households, HRA provides a focal point for issues of concern to members and provides help and advice to members when they are dealing with their Local Authority. This gives rise to a significant amount of casework for HRA Officers, particularly in the realms of planning control, planning enforcement and other environmental issues.
3. HRA pursues its mission through scrutiny, challenge and representation. Operating in this way, HRA Officers have developed significant expertise in Council procedures, local government law and planning regulations. They also observe trends in areas of concern to HRA members and in the operational style (“culture”) of their local authority. Of particular concern to HRA Officers is the growing complexity of local government decision-making processes which both elected Members and the general public have difficulty in understanding.
4. It is often the case that the complexity of both internal process and the regulatory framework cause difficulties for officers’ understanding of the appropriate actions to take, particularly where there is ambiguity in either the description of the internal process or the regulatory framework, or both.
5. This has resulted in decisions made by Council Officers becoming more difficult to challenge for both Members and borough residents. Pressures on finances and increasingly demanding timescales for completing tasks such as determining planning applications have encouraged Officers to take decisions under delegated authority that appear to be based on administrative convenience rather than compliance with legislative requirements and/or published procedures. This in turn challenges fundamental principles of democratic control of local government.
6. While every local authority expresses total commitment to transparency and public engagement in the decisions they take, their procedures are rapidly moving in the opposite direction.
7. Elected representatives have little or no interest in case work on behalf of their electorate. This may be due to lack of available time, reluctance to research complex issues, lack of confidence in challenging officers on complex matters such as planning, or a reluctance to rock the boat
8. To retain democracy within local government it is essential that there is a simple and inexpensive way in which the public can hold its local authority to account, and challenge decisions that appear to owe more to administrative convenience or political expedience than they do to compliance with agreed procedures or delivery of public service.
9. There is a widely held view amongst amenity groups and borough residents that there is now no procedure to enable local government to be held to account. HRA subscribes to that view.
10. The Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee operates as a resource for Councillors only. It only considers matters referred to it by Councillors. Councillors do not take casework to the Scrutiny Committee. If the public refer an issue to a Councillor they are invariably directed towards the complaints procedure or the appropriate Area Forum and not to the Scrutiny committee.
11. Members of the Scrutiny Committee reflect the political balance of the Council; the administration always has a built-in majority. This ensures that any suggestion of censure or disapproval is always rejected by a vote of the Committee. To the public, the focus of the Committee appears to be to confirm that both Members and Council Officers are doing an excellent job.
12. Those members of the public who regularly attend meetings of the Committee are likely to conclude that members of the opposition party no longer seek to hold the administration to account because they know that they will always be defeated because of the in-built majority of the administration. There is an overwhelming sense of Councillors just going through the motions.
Alternatives to the Scrutiny Committee
13. The Council did have a three stage complaints procedure; a stage 1 review by the original decision maker, and a stage 2 review by the officer’s line Manager. This is incompatible with the concept of impartial review. Stage 3 of the process was adjudication by a panel of three Councillors. The Council has removed this stage of the process so there is now no element of independent review in the Council’s complaints procedure.
14. The Council has also revised the procedure so that all stages of the complaints procedure have been designated as “discretionary”. This enables the Council to simply refuse to accept complaints or refuse to allow referral to stage 2. The complaints procedure can simply be closed to the complainant with no reason given.
15. The complaint could be referred to the Ombudsman, but the LGO provides no support for complainants unless the complainant can demonstrate “significant harm resulting from maladministration”. The LGO has absolute discretion to not investigate a complaint. The number of complaints investigated is dependent on the availability of resources to investigate a complaint rather than the validity or significance of the complaint.
16. The LGO’s current assessment code does not allow a “class action” – where the Council changes its procedures in a way that is incompatible with statutory requirements, its own Corporate Governance Statement, or its Statement of Community Involvement. Such actions may not cause direct harm to any specific individual but might cause significant consequential harm to all borough residents.
17. The LGO organisation is institutionally biased in favour of the Local Authority because it has no powers to enforce any judgement it makes. The LGO knows that the Local Authority can simply ignore any ruling it makes, and therefore avoids any contentious finding.
18. Of even greater importance is the fact the Local Authority also knows that it need not comply with any suggestion or direction from the LGO. The LGO will always choose not to engage in any battle that it knows it cannot win. Thus, the biggest obstacle to holding the Local Authority to Account is the LGO itself. Its existence merely maintains the pretence that the public are able to hold a local authority to account.
19. A judicial review is beyond the financial resources of the general public or an amenity group.
20. For every residents’ association it is essential that the local authority fully complies with its own procedures at all times. If it does not, then it becomes impossible for any resident’s association to give advice to its members, and hence the relevance and existence of every residents’ association is put in jeopardy.
21.There is currently no facility to allow borough residents to hold its local authority to account.
22. The Ombudsman is a barrier to effective public engagement in local government. While central government urges the public to hold its local authorities to account, the Office of the LGO is the main impediment to doing so.
23. The medium-term solution would be to replace the LGO with a system modelled on the small claims court – moderately priced resolution of disputes between residents and their local authority in a short time frame. If the procedure requires modest financial payment by complainants then it would eliminate the current sense that the Ombudsman is doing the public a favour by even considering a complaint.
24. Some immediate actions should be considered:
The LGO’s assessment code should be amended to allow residents’ associations or other amenity groups to represent an individual complainant
Provision should be made for “class-actions”.
The Overview and Scrutiny Committee should be put on a statutory basis with a requirement to ensure neutrality, transparency and public participation.
Treasurer, Heston Residents’ Association
5 October 2017