Improvement is in the hands of badly performing councils themselves, not the government, Nick Raynsford has insisted.
Challenged to name councils falling into the poor category which could be facing intervention when the comprehensive performance assessments were unveiled, the local government minister simply insisted 'the ball is in their court'.
'We will look at what capacity an authority has for turning itself round without the need for intervention,' Mr Raynsford said. 'Intervention is certainly possible but we want to encourage authorities themselves to take ownership of the process.
'Swindon asked us on a voluntary basis to work with them to improve the provision of services.
'We want councils to take responsibility and make the running.'
Mr Raynsford acknowledged there had been 'scepticism' in local government about the CPA process but councils now saw there was a lot that could be learnt from the high performers.
The minister was adamant there was no link between deprivation and councils' scores or between political control and excellence.
'Councils in some of the most deprived parts of the country have achieved excellent scores, while those in more affluent areas have failed to do as well as they could.'
Many councils in the top categories are county councils that stand a good chance of being scrapped if elected regional assemblies are set up.
In a surprise move, Mr Raynsford said the unitary authorities to be formed in their place 'could be based around counties or groups of districts'.
But the minister dismissed as 'an old chestnut' suggestions Downing Street intervened to downgrade education scores (LGC, 8 November). Similarly schools minister David Miliband, when LGC put the allegation to him, replied: 'absolutely not'.
Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association, praised ministers for responding positively to 'trepidation and misgivings' many councils felt.
But he said freedoms and flexibilities should be seen as 'tools, not rewards'. And, Sir Jeremy suggested, central government should be subjected to the same process of assessment as councils.
He said he wanted to see government and its agencies 'match the performance of the best in local government'.