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FEATURES-LIGHTS OUT FOR THE BEACONS SCHEME?

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The idea was to show off the best local government had to offer. But now applications are down, councils feel victi...
The idea was to show off the best local government had to offer. But now applications are down, councils feel victimised, and the knives are out for the beacons scheme, says David Blackman

Nick Raynsford proudly announced last month the DTLR had received 131 applications for beacon status. But an increasing number of councils are wondering if a pat on the head from the local government minister is worth the trouble of applying.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the beacons initiative is slated by the government's political opponents.

Jane Edwards, the Liberal Democrats' researcher at the Local Government Association, says: 'We are not particularly convinced it is delivering the results people were hoping it would.'

Conservative junior local government spokesman Tim Loughton is blunter in his criticism of the scheme, which, he argues, offers little added value compared to the charter mark introduced by John Major's government.

'We think the beacon council scheme is overly bureaucratic. It's another example of the nanny government wanting to interfere. It can be used as a device to impose central government's views on local government.'

A decreasing number of councils think it is worth their while to bid for beacon status. For 1999's first round, 211 stepped up for the chance to become beacon councils, submitting 269 separate applications. By last year, the number of applications had dropped to 173 from 123. And with just 131 applications from 95 councils for this year's round, the figure has dwindled yet further.

Chris Leslie, who supervises the Improvement & Development Agency's work with beacon councils, argues the slump in the number of applications reflects the fact councils are becoming more savvy about the bids they are submitting. But others argue councils are put off by the time it takes and the money it costs to put a bid together.

Brent LBC, which had its application for beacon status turned down by ministers, had a senior policy officer tied up for the best part of a year.

The£40,000 beacon councils receive means they should not be out of pocket after a year in the beacon limelight. Mr Leslie argues the work that goes into applying for beacon status is not wasted.

'Applying requires councils to review services, which effectively takes them through a 360o health check.'

But Steve Connor of the Local Government Association's County Council Network, believes the effort of putting applications together is sapping councils' appetite for the scheme.

'The beacon council initiative is competing with schemes that are a lot easier to get through, like charter marks, and some where you get a substantial benefit at the end of the process,' he says.

Any councils having second thoughts about entering bids are not likely to be encouraged by the experience of those who have been through the process and emerged empty handed.

Ministers rejected Brent LBC's accessible service delivery beacon application. The last-minute decision was prompted by the inquiry into the events surrounding the death of Victoria Climbie.

Brent's social services department had had temporary responsibility for the little girl who died following abuse and neglect at the hands of her great aunt (LGC, 12 and 19 October).

But Brent chief executive Gareth Daniel says the investigation had no relevance to the award it had applied for.

Despite feeling bruised by the experience, Mr Daniel says it has not deterred the council from pursuing beacon council applications.

'A considerable amount of officer and councillor time went into this process. If we were going to be vetoed it would have been better to know at the beginning of the process,' he says.

Mr Daniel does have some criticisms of the way the decision was publicised.

'They put out more information about the councils whose bids they had rejected than those they had awarded beacon status to,' he says.

But his fundamental point is that pan-council performance problems should not automatically rule out examples of excellence within individual departments. The bigger a council is, he says, the greater the chance that areas of excellent will be dragged down by failures within other services.

Mr Leslie acknowledges Brent's point. 'This is an issue,' he says, 'they [government officials] are aware potential good practice is being lost because of the overall performance element.'

Another factor putting councils off is the fact that the rewards promised when the initiative was first launched have never materialised.

Mr Loughton says: 'The first suggestion was that councils would get extra money, but at the end of the day what are councils getting out of it?'

The original prospectus for the scheme promised phase two of the initiative would bring greater funding flexibilities for successful councils. No such loosening of the purse strings has happened.

Meanwhile, the Treasury has launched public services agreements, which offer councils real financial rewards.

Ms Edwards argues the route to unleashing good ideas is to give councils their heads.

'The route to high-quality innovative service is not just extra funding, but also giving councils more powers,' she says.

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