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FEATURES - A LEAGUE OF THEIR VERY OWN MAKING

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Next week, the dreaded CPA results come out. Nick Triggle finds what the effects of the scores will really be...
Next week, the dreaded CPA results come out. Nick Triggle finds what the effects of the scores will really be

The waiting willl soon be over. On 12 December a new era in local government begins. For the first time ever, councils will be given one overall rating for the services they provide when the results of the first comprehensive performance assessments are released.

In effect, a national league table of all 150 county, unitary and London councils will be produced. The worst will be named and shamed and forced to buck up their ideas, while the best will be lauded for achievements.

So far, the attention has been focused on the rigorous inspections all the councils have undergone and the methodology used to produce the five grades - excellent, good, fair, weak and poor.

But by next week, that will all change. The Audit Commission, charged with grading the councils, will produce a scorecard for each council and a report summarising findings. A round of backslapping and commiserating will undoubtedly follow - but then what?

The government has been promising councils that, in return for all the inspections, the promised land of more freedoms and flexibility will beckon for those that do well. A spokesman for the ODPM says the government is making preparations to give the best-performing councils an unprecedented amount of freedom. He says this will entail some, or all, of the following: a significant reduction in ring-fenced funding, planning requirements will be kept to a minimum, a 50% reduction in inspections and a relaxation in budget-capping.

But, for the poorest-performing councils, the long, hard slog to redemption begins. Under current proposals those ranked in the poor category will have to draw up recovery plans. In some cases, the development and implementation of these may be accompanied by a partnership or improvement board, comprising experts, senior council officers and business executives.

For those who are unwilling, or perhaps unable, to play ball,that dreaded word, intervention, will come into play. External contractors from the public, private or voluntary sectors will be brought in to make improvements or interim management teams will be parachuted in to run the council in a similar scheme to that at Walsall MBC.

The OPDM spokesman says the two models will not be finalised until results are released but the government's intentions are clear. Junior local government minister Chris Leslie, in an interview with LGC this year, warned there would be no shirking from intervention.

So, amazingly, less than a week before the CPAs are unveiled, councils are still left in the dark. 'It is a bit of a mess, to be honest,' says Dennis Reed, director of the Local Government Information Unit. 'It is typical of local government that we are trying to make the best of something that has been foisted on us.'

David Clark, director general of Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, is equally scathing. 'There is this fantasy that there's a plan in place - there isn't. The most important thing to do is to work out why a council is not achieving the things it wants to and that is a complex job. Then a programme has to be worked out to address that. However, what works for one authority will not necessarily work for another.'

But Sally Hammond, who is leading on improvement planning for the Audit Commission, dismisses the criticisms. 'We will be working with individual councils to tailor an improvement programme for them. This is an opportunity for councils to improve performance. The CPAs are a diagnosis for councils to take forward - they should be used constructively.'

The commission points out some forward planning has already gone on. While the results are still to be published, improvement planning based on the draft corporate assessment reports began in November. By the end of the month, all the councils had told the commission what their top priorities for improvement were. Over the coming months, starting with the poorest-performing councils, the commission and individual councils will discuss what programme of audit and inspection is needed. The deadline for these to be finalised is 31 March next year.

Of course, help will be at hand from the Improvement & Development Agency. The IDeA performance support service will be lending help and expertise in eight corporate areas from procurement to performance management. While the service is directed at the poor councils, the IDeA says it is quite willing to provide help to others, claiming 'our aim is to provide a one-stop shop for the provision of improvement services to help ensure the return on improvement investment is maximised'.

Nonetheless, the focus will be squarely on the councils to see how they react to the CPA results. There is always the danger they will react badly to the results of a new inspection process many never wanted in the first place.

Dan Corry, executive director of the New Local Government Network, believes councils will react in a positive way on the whole. 'As with any league table, people will first be concerned with where they appear, with some inevitably complaining about not doing as well as expected while at the same time comparing themselves with the assessment of others. Some councils will get stuck in that mode of thinking but many others - either off their own backs or with the help of government - will seek to improve.'

The nature of the system of categorisation is expected to bring its own problems. Many experts believe the consequence of having one single mark for a council could have an adverse affect. 'Part of the problem is that the classifications will distort what needs to done. Councils with good ratings may feel they are above everyone else, when probably they will have a similar mix of services,' says Mr Reed.

He says that the importance placed on certain core services - no council will reach excellent unless it scores better than one star in education and socialservices - will lead to problems. 'Throughout the CPA process, councils have concentrated on certain services, namely education and social services. This has meant that some other areas of council activity, often ones that are extremely relevant to local people, such as street cleaning, have had to take a back seat. It is not certain that this imbalance will be addressed - that is a danger.'

And David Reeson, KPMG's director of local government services, goes even further, warning that excellent councils can always 'regress' and there needs to be a way of taking away the freedoms if necessary. While CPA re-inspections have been talked about, the government says that the details have not yet been finalised. Mr Reeson is adamant that excellently performing councils need to be responsible and share their good practice.

If a rating of excellent can bring problems, then the consequences of being judged poor are obvious, according to Mr Reeson. 'The risk for authorities is to their reputations, which could have a knock-on effect in the ballot box. It could blight the careers of officers or lead to staff looking for work elsewhere, perhaps at better-performing councils,' he says. These are sentiments that have been shared by the town-hall unions GMB and Unison.

But Matthew Warburton, the Local Government Association's head of futures, sees it slightly differently. 'If a council is designated as weak or poor, it really does depend if it sees itself on the way down or up. Hackney will undoubtedly not be classed as excellent but it is seen as an authority on the way up.'

Instead, Mr Warburton believes those ranked in the middle have the 'greatest challenge of all'. 'Those designated as poor will be galvanised into activity. Councils in the fair category will either be on the way up or way down and clearly there will be problems.

'Those in the good category are not that far off being excellent but for the fair ones it is still a long way off so requires a lot of effort. We have been pressing the government to recognise that support and help should not just be targeted on the weak councils,' he adds.

But the immediate effects of the CPAs may be more subtle. It has emerged that London boroughs are clustering disproportionately around extremes of excellent and poor, with hardly any middling performers.

Mr Reeson says this polarisation could lead to a rethink of how they operate in the capital. 'What it will probably do is point the way towards a more lateral thinking about services provision, more of a consortium approach.'

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