Getting under the skin of council budgets: what does good scrutiny look like?

Cllr Ketan Sheth

It’s a testing but all-too-familiar mix: funding cuts from central government, skyrocketing demand for local services, a growing population, tough choices and communities vulnerable as they recover from the social and economic shocks of the pandemic. As we approach budget setting, our situation in Brent – a NW London borough – mirrors the position of local authorities around the country.

​Against this challenging backdrop, I believe the role of effective Scrutiny is more important than ever, and so too is learning from one another.

This year, I co-chaired Brent Council’s Budget Scrutiny Task Group. It was our job to get under the skin of budget proposals, to grasp their real-world effects, to understand any mitigations, and to make recommendations where we felt the decisions of our Cabinet, and Full Council, could be strengthened.

To bring forward a balanced budget, this year we were called to scrutinise a package of savings totalling £2.7million, alongside Council Tax increases.

A deeper approach to scrutiny

Given the stark financial picture across the country, from the outset, we wanted to make sure that scrutiny was grounded in the complex reality of the difficult decisions that the Cabinet needed to take. We were determined that the scrutiny process must add value.

As a group, we worked with officers to develop a much broader approach than simply reviewing proposed savings. Instead of solely relying on the community consultation undertaken by the Cabinet, we went into detail on the impacts and sought out testimony from people on the ground. We felt we needed to get a deeper understanding of the experience of those who use Brent’s services and the complexity of their situations.

The idea was to test underlying assumptions made in the proposals, in order to give Cabinet and Full Council information and evidence to base their decisions on. We identified a number of areas to probe:

1. Impacts of Covid-19 on income from business rates, Council Tax and rents;

2. The impacts on health inequalities work when grant funding ends;

3. Implications of Covid-19 on the adult social care budget, especially mental health;

4. Pressures within the Dedicated School Grant; and

5. How the council’s £17m Covid-19 recovery package is being spent

The task group agreed a mix of less conventional scrutiny methods to build this holistic view, including focus groups and detailed evidence sessions with people on the ground. From local head teachers to voluntary and community sector partners, teams from our well-being  services, and Brent Hubs staff (Brent Hubs are spaces in the community bringing lots of services together under one roof to improve access for residents with more complex needs).

By taking this approach, we were able to assess the wider financial and service context, identify possible future budget pressures and the likely emerging needs of our communities.

It allowed us to make a number of nuanced, practical recommendations when reporting back. Most focused not on the savings themselves, but on how the Cabinet  might work differently to overcome and address some of those pressures. Helpfully, the group also identified areas where we felt the Council could effectively lobby for more support nationally and regionally. We’ve also put in place mechanisms for pulling insights from these testimonies as well as learnings from this deeper process through to future budget scrutiny cycles. Ultimately, we are all trying to deliver a better outcome for local people, and so I’m a big believer in the power of scrutiny to support good decision-making. I think that this is best realised by being a “critical friend”. The deeper, more contextual approach we took in Brent this year achieved just that, and I look forward to seeing these efforts bear fruit when the budget is taken to Full Council later this month.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Brent Council’s Chair of Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee and co-chaired its Budget Scrutiny Task Group

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