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ANALYSIS - A FEW CARROTS ARE A POOR INCENTIVE

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Big stick, small carrot, was the perennial complaint about the comprehensive performance assessment heard from with...
Big stick, small carrot, was the perennial complaint about the comprehensive performance assessment heard from within local government.

Local government minister Nick Raynsford's long-awaited freedoms and flexibilities for top-ranking councils (LGC, 29 November) massively increases the size of the carrot - but the jury is still out on whether indulging a favoured few is the best way to raise standards across the board.

The government stuck to its pledge of giving 'substantial freedoms' to the cream of England's councils. Those councils ranked as excellent under CPA - expected to be around 20 - will benefit from the almost complete removal of ring-fencing and a huge cut in planning requirements, as well as a three-year respite from inspections.

For those outside the elite, the freedoms are far more modest. But the scope of the freedoms for top-performing councils still caught most observers by surprise.

The Local Government Association called the menu of freedoms 'ambitious' and said the announcement sent a 'very positive message' to excellent councils, while the New Local Government Network said the unexpectedly radical nature of them 'handed the baton over' to local government.

But the announcement also sparked a debate as to the role freedoms and flexibilities can actually play in making the worst councils good and the best even better.

'Freedoms and flexibilities are not a reward,' says Neil Kinghan, director of economic policy at the LGA.

'They should be seen as a means of helping authorities to do better.

'A lot of the restrictions imposed at the moment are unhelpful, and we need to persuade the government and others that councils need the freedom to innovate.

'I hope it will be clear we can do more the less constrained we are by regulations, and that will be a reason to extend the freedoms to other authorities.'

As it stands, however, there is a risk that the fast trackers, buoyed with new freedoms, will continue to stride ahead, leaving others floundering in their wake.

'Good councils might see areas where they can improve so they can be up there in the promised land,' says Dan Corry, executive director of the NLGN.

'But those ranked as weak will think they've got the worst of all worlds because they're miles away from benefiting from the measures but they haven't got the freedom to do anything about it.'

His views are echoed by John O'Brien, acting executive director of the Improvement and Development Agency.

'In our experience, some of the most dramatic improvements come when people are given the freedom to innovate and be creative,' he says.

'If an authority is ranked as good or fair, the freedoms are an incentive and you can see how they could accelerate the pace of improvement.

'But for an authority that is weak or poor, freedoms won't be a disincentive, but its drivers are going to more immediate - like local people not getting services they need.'

Some councils expecting to celebrate their accession to the ranks of the CPA elite may have their champagne go flat when they discover they still have not done enough to qualify for key freedoms.

A handful of 'excellent' councils will find their education freedoms curtailed because they failed to score three stars for their education services (LGC, 29 November).

Under the new system, excellent councils awarded only two stars for education will not be given freedom from ring-fenced education funding, education plans and inspections until they achieve three stars.

Mr Kinghan is opposed to subdividing categories along departmental lines.

'If you have a category like excellent, you should stick to it and not start having divisions,' he says.

Dennis Skinner, assistant chief executive at Camden LBC, says to be classified as excellent and still lose out on education freedoms would be 'unjust and unfair'.

'It's not in the spirit of what we were led to believe would happen following the consultation,' he said. 'There's an implication that new categories are being created and that some councils are more excellent than others.

'There is a minimum score which must be achieved on education anyway to get an excellent rating, so to put an additional hurdle on that seems slightly strange.'

Christopher Duffield, chief executive of Bexley LBC, says the distinction between two-star and three-star rated councils is 'symptomatic of nervousness and silo-based thinking' by the government.

'It's a shame that government can't let go of the reins,' he says.

'Authorities that have struggled to get to an excellent rating have proved that they can do it, and what they want is maximum freedom to improve.'

A further fear is that the new freedoms, far from pushing up standards across local government, could actually widen the chasm between the haves and have-nots.

Alan Hill, director of resources and corporate services at Halton BC, says the government should have taken the opportunity to cut struggling councils some slack.

'The councils which will see the benefits are the ones which are doing very nicely anyway,' he says.

'It's the ones which aren't good or excellent that need the breathing space from delivering plans so they can concentrate on services.

'But it's the same old story - the government can't quite bring itself to trust us.'

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