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A leading local government think tank has called on the government to redirect£1bn spending on inspecting councils...
A leading local government think tank has called on the government to redirect£1bn spending on inspecting councils towards capacity building for all.

LGIU director Dennis Reed said: 'The inspection regime does not reflect local people's priorities, it does little to improve services and is no more than an expensive control device.'

The LGIU's comments come in a week when the Audit Commission will publish its first comprehensive performance assessment of local authorities on 12 December.

Mr Reed said: 'When performance tables are published this week 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, about their council: shoe-horning councils into one of five boxes simply masks the complexity of councils' performance and the range of things that they do. People would be quite right in thinking that£1bn would have been better spent on helping all councils to deliver better services.'

Mr Reed added: 'Local people know what they want from their council: better services that suit their needs. The sad truth is that councils are being forced to spend months and months preparing for inspections that are based on government's, not local people's, priorities. Three of the categories - fair, weak and poor - denigrate all the good practice that those councils have achieved. School reports have moved away from simple categorisation and promote motivation by recognising individual diversity and strength. It is a shame the Audit Commission and the government have not learnt these lessons.

'If councils do well on these criteria they will be virtually free of inspections and plan making regimes and will be free to innovate. If the Audit Commission thinks they are not up to scratch they will continue to be fettered by inspections and restrictions. That way they are forced either to adopt someone else's priorities or continue to struggle to meet what local people really want and need. The sad thing is that not only is it costing£1 billion to have the Audit Commission do this but also that the government is prepared totally to believe what they say.'

The LGIU has published a five point plan for improving local government.

1. Develop a more sophisticated framework of performance accountability:

* better reflecting the complexity of councils' performance and their ability to improve

* taking account of locally agreed priorities and the extent of local diversity

* recognising good practice and good prospects where they exist

* identifying what local citizens can do to help the council improve performance

2. Spend less on external inspection and use the money to incentivise peer support, through IDeA improvement programme, beacon councils, secondment, mentoring, twinning councils, training and development. Current government proposals are for authorities to meet the costs of their own capacity building activities out of budgets that are already stretched.

3. If freedoms and flexibilities bring benefits to councils they should be available to all and innovation should be encouraged. There is no justification for 'punishing' residents in an area because their council has one or more failing service.

4. Government to bring forward a public service bill to ensure that a greater diversity and number of people wish to become councillors and community leaders.

5. Government to support a national recruitment campaign to make it more attractive to work for local authorities.

10 effects of comprehensive performance assessment

1. Some 20 councils (14%) will be graded as excellent and have a 3 year inspection holiday and other freedoms and flexibilities

2. It will damage public confidence in most local authorities who will be classified as fair, weak or poor

3. It will lead the public to assume that those who are not classified as excellent have few or no excellent services

4. It will demoralise staff who have delivered a recognised excellent service and see their council publicly classified as fair, weak or poor

5. It will lower staff morale across the board in some councils classified as weak and poor

6. It will make it harder to recruit staff in councils classified as weak and poor

7. It will give the government and the audit commission more power over improvement planning

8. It will further waste public money

9. It will distort local priorities as councils do what is necessary to get through the hoops

10. A lot of newsprint will be sold

Seven things CPA won't do

1. Put a single penny into local government

2. Increase local accountability

3. Improve the reputation of local government

4. Help people engage with their council to improve services

5. Solve recruitment crises, especially for social workers and teachers

6. Encourage more people to stand as councillors

7. Help people understand their services


1. Joseph Rowntree Foundation research (2001) estimate the annual costs of external inspections of local government are£600m. The research also calculates that the cost of Best Value inspection alone total£50m.

The£600m estimate does not take into account indirect costs of inspection: compliance; council staff time; avoidance/displacement effects; damage to morale. The LGIU estimates these indirect costs to be at least£400m nationally.

'External inspection of local government: driving improvement or drowning in detail'. - published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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