Intervention in local government

The response of public bodies in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy on 14 June 2017 attracted much criticism.  Both the leader and the Chief Executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea resigned shortly after the tragedy.  A number of calls followed, notably from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for the Government to intervene in the running of the council.

On 26 July 2017, Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, announced the appointment of an independent task force to support Kensington and Chelsea’s recovery plan.  However, this is not a full-scale intervention in the council: that would involve the formal take-over of the council’s powers, a rare event in the UK.

Kensington and Chelsea: the taskforce

The taskforce’s members are:

– Aftab Chughtai, Chair of the West Midlands Police Independent Advisory Group

– Javed Khan, Chief Executive of Barnardo’s

– Jane Scott, Leader of Wiltshire council

– Chris Wood, partner at Altair housing consultancy, and former director of housing for 3 London boroughs

Its terms of reference are to:

– Act as a sounding board and help drive the Council as they develop and implement their recovery plans

– Advise, scrutinise and where necessary challenge all Council recovery plans

– Help the Council to galvanise the local government sector nationally to support and work with them on recovery

– Provide assurance to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that the Council is able to deliver recovery

– Engage with survivors and the local community about the longer term recovery alongside the Council.

This taskforce does not constitute a statutory intervention in the running of Kensington and Chelsea.  The terms of reference state:

The Taskforce is not responsible for the delivery of the recovery operation itself.   It will support the Chief Executive and Leader to help drive the recovery effort. The Taskforce cannot make decisions on behalf of the Council.

The taskforce is distinct from the Grenfell Tower response team, which is being co-ordinated by John Barradell, Chief Executive of the City of London Corporation.

Contingency planning in the UK is localised: there is no national agency tasked with leading disaster response.  Local agencies are expected to refer to the Government’s good practice notes and the publication Emergency Response and Recovery.  The Government states:

In some instances, the scale or complexity of an emergency is such that some degree of central government support or co-ordination becomes necessary. Central government will not duplicate the role of local responders who remain the basic building block of the response to an emergency.

Intervention: the legal position

The legal power for the Government to intervene in the running of a local authority is broad and flexible, permitting the takeover of any local functions by the Secretary of State or appointees.  Intervention takes place under section 15 (6) of the Local Government Act 1999.

Each intervention begins with a formal direction notice.  Typically powers are returned to the local authority after a period of years, although they may not all be returned at once.  Some interventions have been preceded by reports based on ‘best value’ inspections, though this is not a legal requirement for an intervention to take place.

Formal Government interventions in the running of local authorities are rare, and to date they have occurred in response to high-profile service failure or scandals, not disaster management.  The circumstances of each intervention have been quite different.  For instance, the Government intervened in Rotherham MBC in the light of a report on child sexual exploitation in the borough by Dame Louise Casey.  An earlier intervention in Hackney was focused on social services, education and waste management.

To date, seven interventions have taken place under the 1999 Act:

1 – London Borough of Hackney (2001-2007)

2 – Hull City Council (2003-2006)

3 – Stoke-on-Trent City Council (2008-2010)

4 – Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (2010-2014)

5 – London Borough of Tower Hamlets (2014-2017)

6 – Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (2015-present)

7 – Anglesey Council (2009-2013: intervention by Welsh Government)

In each case, the Secretary of State (the Welsh Ministers in Wales) appointed ‘commissioners’ to take over certain functions of the councils in question. The breadth of commissioner responsibilities has varied between the interventions.[1]

A Library briefing note Local government interventions also includes details of the most recent interventions, in Rotherham, Doncaster and Tower Hamlets.  The Communities and Local Government Committee examined two of these further in its 2016 report Government interventions: the use of Commissioners in Rotherham and Tower Hamlets.[2]

A last resort

The small number of interventions undertaken highlights that it is a rare occurrence, and there is no fixed policy governing when the Government should intervene.  In its evidence to an inquiry by the Communities and Local Government Committee in 2016, the Government stated that statutory intervention was very much a last resort:

Statutory intervention … is part of wider strategies that the Government uses to monitor risk and ensure accountability in local government. … It acts as an effective backstop should significant failings be identified.[3]

Footnotes

[1]     See Clive Grace, Steve Martin, Tim Allen and Mike Bennett, evidence to Communities and Local Government Committee, June 2016

[2]     Communities and Local Government Committee, Government interventions: the use of Commissioners in Rotherham and Tower Hamlets, HC42 2016-17, 20 July 2016, p.18. The quote is from the responsible Minister, Marcus Jones MP

[3]     DCLG, Evidence submitted by the Department for Communities and Local Government, CLG Committee inquiry, June 2016

Picture credit: £65m Stoke-on-Trent City Council HQ, April 2015, by Futurilla. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)