Headlines: May 14th, 2003

A special new forum, bringing together ministers and local council leaders, is being set up to find, test and implement new ways of improving public services. The first meeting of the Innovations Forum will take place next week under the joint chairmanship of the Local Government Minister and Lord Peter Smith, the leader of Wigan Council.The new body will be made up of ministers, civil servants and the leaders and chief executives of the current 22 upper tier councils graded as excellent by the Comprehensive Performance Assessment. It aims to discover, trial and implement new ways for central and local government to work towards improving people’s quality of life, providing better services, co-ordinating services at the local level, delivering both national and local priorities and enhancing the role of local authorities.

Initially the forum will look at four themes, citizen-centred local services, school improvement, community safety and care of the elderly. Individual councils are expected to lead on particular projects and report their findings back to the forum after receiving contributions from other authorities. The ‘Knowledge’ website provided by the Improvement and Development Agency will enable councils to keep track of progress and contribute to the work of the forum.

Councillor Lord Smith, whose authority is one of the 22 taking part in the forum, welcomed the opportunity of a real dialogue between excellent local authorities and the government with the shared objective of improving public services. He said local authorities were at the heart of local communities with a responsibility to push this agenda forward. There were many examples of how this could be done but it was vital that adequate freedoms and flexibilities were in place to remove the obstacles that would otherwise get in the way of local councils.

Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the vice-chairman of the LGA and leader of Kent County Council, which is also one of the 22, said the excellent authorities had the potential to raise standards in all public services within their areas. The Innovations Forum, he said, would be a test of the government’s commitment to delivering the decentralisation agenda and the freedoms promised to local government.