The 22 councils categorised as ‘excellent’ in the Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment have received their initial rewards. Their funding will no longer be ring-fenced for specific purposes, except for schools, they will be relieved of the requirement to submit plans and they now have a three-year holiday from most inspections. This is the start of a process which it is hoped will lead to significant decentralization and a freeing up of councils.The top councils and central departments are working together to explore the scope for greater freedoms and to find improved ways of delivering services. Integration of council services is a key area of exploration. Initiatives that might be launched include leisure centres or libraries offering any service from health care and policing to education and employment.
Community safety is another big issue. Ways are being sought to give councils freedom and flexibility to help tackle crime and the fear of crime. Potential freedoms include the streamlining of planning requirements, a single pot for community safety and the extension of freedom to all agencies represented on the Crime and Disorder Partnership. Partnerships may also be able to agree locally the transfer of certain functions.
The potential is also being explored for giving councils greater powers to deal with schools that are failing to improve, the so called ‘stuck schools’. Work is also in progress on a scheme for giving financial rewards to help incentivise more joint working between local government and the National Health Service to help reduce hospital admissions of older people.
An Innovations Forum has been launched to take the work forward and pioneer new ways of delivering a better quality of life and improved services for local communities. At the first meeting of the Forum representatives from the top councils met Ministers from across Government. The next meeting will be in October and the Forum will then meet at four monthly intervals during 2004.