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BERESFORD: IGNORE CCT AT YOUR PERIL

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Environment minister Sir Paul Beresford this week warned councils against ignoring his tough new regulations in the...
Environment minister Sir Paul Beresford this week warned councils against ignoring his tough new regulations in the hope of a Labour victory at the next general election.

Speaking to LGC the day after he unveiled the final white-collar regime proposals, Sir Paul insisted that errant local authorities will face the wrath of both the auditor and his department if they are caught out having banked on a Blair win at the polls.

'I think they need to look back to '92. They need to recognise that the betting shops have halved the odds [on a Tory victory],' he said. 'They need to recognise on the more practical side of it that, at the end of the day, whoever is in government is going to have to produce [quality] services.'

He warned that the new rules were designed to be clear to district auditors, who would be able to swiftly pick up on any shortcomings.

His remarks reiterate strong messages coming out of the DoE that adopting a 'do nothing' policy this side of the election is fraught with danger. Officials are confident that councils risking such a strategy will struggle in the event of a Tory victory.

Sir Paul painted a bleak picture for any authority which failed to adequately prepare by January 1998, the date when the bulk of the new regulations are due to come into force: 'Doing the services under those conditions would be ultra vires and the auditor would be stepping in and it is quite clear the auditor would step in very early on. There are various actions we can take.

'I would be extremely surprised if there were any local authorities [who did that]. If you look back to blue collar, I know some people played ducks and drakes with the rules but, at the end of the day, they do go out to competition and they do follow the rules.'

Sir Paul rejected claims that the threat of judicial review from the local authority associations had delayed his announcement, scuppering his preferred implementation timetable: 'The changes that have been brought in are changes in response to consultation. It's all been carefully reasoned. We're not sitting there fearing threats.

'We always look at [proposals] to make sure they are legally watertight. But that doesn't just apply here. It applies to everything else - planning, the lot. It's always part of the system.'

Sir Paul said the 19-week wait between the end of the consultation period and Tuesday's announcement was down to proper consultation: 'We have to think about the results and we reacted . . . you can see there were changes. We had to discuss it with other departments and we had to make sure it was legally watertight.'

Asked why he had decided to alter his approach to maximising competition as stipulated in his May proposals, Sir Paul said: 'It was fairly apparent that the method we had before was an item-by-item type method and that, to my mind, it didn't give local authorities enough freedom for lateral thinking.

'In addition, it was fairly apparent some local authorities were utilising the freedom that was there - the elbow room, the loopholes if not huge barn doors to go through - and we felt that we wanted to make the whole system more transparent and clear and to make the competition fair.

'We weren't getting that and many of the points made by local authorities as well as by the private sector were that it wasn't fair and it wasn't balanced.'

Sir Paul is confident the fresh regulations will achieve better competition than his original proposals: 'The private sector will now feel the competition is more balanced and its fair and I think in time people will recognise that. They will also recognise that it is clear for members and that equally it's clear for auditors.'

But it is evident that Sir Paul would have relished the opportunity to have been in charge of white-collar CCT from the start, enabling him to shape the policy from early principles, rather than having to endure what has been a tortuous process of reform.

He is now bullish about the prospects of active private sector involvement in white-collar services. Suggestions that firms will simply focus their energies on those authorities already favourable to tendering are dismissed. Sir Paul is quick to point to the history of blue-collar work.

Association complaints that the proposed timetable is too tight cut little ice with him: 'We've listened to them. We've listened to people who said it should be tighter and we've listened to people who've said it should be longer and we think from our experience of local authorities' experience it's not too tight.'

But it is tight enough to make ignoring the new gospel according to Sir Paul a very risky business.

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