Headlines: December 12th, 2002

More than half of the largest councils in England are either good or excellent, according to a major report today from the Audit Commission but the assessment process has been condemned by a local government think tank which wants the one billion pounds spent on inspecting councils to be redirected to improving services.The Commission has published the results of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment of all 150 county, metropolitan, unitary and London councils. The authorities are rated as excellent, good, fair, weak or poor. The Local Government Information Unit, meanwhile, has criticised inspections and set out its own plans for improving local government.

The Commission has developed CPA this year working with local councils, Ofsted, the Social Services Inspectorate, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate, and the Government and this is the first time that such a comprehensive picture of local authority performance has been compiled to give people a clear idea of how well their local council is performing. Each council has been marked from 1 to 4 in a number of key service areas – education, adults’ and children’s social services, benefits, housing, resources, environment, leisure and libraries – as well as being given an overall score.

The Audit Commission Chairman, James Strachan, said, “This is the most detailed analysis of local government ever, and an exciting opportunity for all councils. The whole point of CPA is to create a powerful tool for improving public services. The results highlight the large number of excellent and good councils but there are still many weak and poor, struggling to improve. Now is the time for all councils – regardless of ranking – to focus intently on where they can do better.”

But the LGIU director, Dennis Reed criticised the CPA even before today’s publication. “No one will learn anything new except what an unelected and unaccountable quango thinks of their council. Local people already know what is good and what is not so good,” he said.

The inspection regime failed to reflect local people’s priorities, he said, and was an expensive control device which would undermine public confidence in local authorities. “People would be quite right in thinking that a billion pounds would have been better spent on helping all councils to deliver better services,” Mr. Reed added.

The CPA results show that 22 councils are rated as excellent, 54 are good, 39 fair, 22 weak and 13 poor. Councils generally did well in their corporate assessments which measure how they are delivering important local priorities such as regeneration. County councils have performed the best overall – 49 per cent are good and 23 per cent are excellent. London councils show extremes, with 24 per cent excellent and 12 per cent poor.

The Audit Commission says the results show that even councils in deprived areas can perform well. It points to the North East where Gateshead, Sunderland and Hartlepool are all rated as excellent. In other regions, it says, Kirklees in Yorkshire, Wigan in the North West and Camden in London, show that local deprivation is not a barrier to excellence.

The LGIU has published its own five-point plan for improving local government, including government support for a national recruitment campaign to make working in local government more attractive and ensuring that a larger and more diverse number of people want to become councillors.