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FEATURES - TARGETS, TIME AND MONEY

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Inflexible targets, local needs neglected, time wasted - an LGC poll, in association with Liberata, finds chief exe...
Inflexible targets, local needs neglected, time wasted - an LGC poll, in association with Liberata, finds chief executives are unhappy, reports Suzanne Simmons-Lewis

Relations between central and local government are often fraught. For decades now, Whitehall has been meddling in local government affairs, stripping back key powers while increasing local government accountability.

The removal of control over school funding and the ever-changing requirements of the comprehensive performance assessment are just two examples of the way central government calls the shots.

Despite moves by local government to fight its corner, the Whitehall steamroller continues apace, flattening many local government demands with occasional sweeteners such as the central role in co-ordinating changes to children's services.

To find out what chief executives think about central/local relations, LGC conducted a confidential poll. Not surprisingly, the results reveal a long list of frustrations.

LGA ineffective

The Local Government Association has been the single voice representing local government to central government for several years. However, almost two-thirds of respondents - 62% - said the LGA had not improved central government policies towards local government. One respondent said: 'The LGA has an increasing credibility problem.' Another commented: 'One step forward, one step back.'

Only 35% of respondents believed the LGA has had an effect in this area although one more supportive chief executive said the difference the LGA has made is 'marginal'.

A common complaint over the years has been the association's quality of representation for smaller councils. As one district chief executive said: 'The districts struggle to be heard.'

Meeting civil servants

LGC's survey reveals a surprising amount of interaction between chief executives and civil servants. Many chief executives meet civil servants fairly frequently to discuss issues arising in their councils, with 58% of respondents saying they met civil servants about every six months.

One chief executive reported holding monthly meetings. Another reported frequent meetings since local area agreements had been set up. However, nearly a quarter of respondents - 23% - said they never met civil servants.

Meetings were not always felt to be productive, however. As one cynic said: 'Meetings do not guarantee anything helpful to the local authority.'

Left to local devices

Today's chief executive spends a great deal of time and resources making sure his or her council complies with numerous targets set by central government. A question on how they would do things differently if there were no targets prompted a comprehensive wish list.

A theme for almost all respondents was the desire to concentrate on services that have the greatest impact on residents, such as cleaner, safer streets. They also wanted a greater engagement with residents to determine priorities.

One chief executive, echoing the feelings of many, said: 'We would place a greater emphasis on things that matter locally.'

An enthusiastic respondent opened a treasure chest of ideas, saying: 'We wouldn't do the children's directorate, notably. Members would much prefer a more services-dominated agenda and would want to withdraw from partnerships that weren't strictly about service efficiency and effectiveness.

'Lots of silly strategies that add nothing to the sum total of human happiness could be dumped. I could go on and on . . .'

Many chief executives said they would set their own targets. A typical response was: 'We would set our own limited suite of indicators more closely related to our own corporate objectives.'

Councils find it hard to be as imaginative as they would like because of the inflexibility of targets. Most respondents - 81% - said the government was completely inflexible in setting targets for councils.

Waste of inspections

In recent years, inspections have been on a steady rise, using precious time and resources in what can be a morale-crushing affair. When asked to estimate how much it costs to prepare for inspections, one respondent said: 'Our audit costs are equivalent to the amount we have to find to meet Gershon savings targets.'

Another estimated his council spent£300,000 each year on inspections.

Another chief said the cost was impossible to estimate 'as it is not simply the cash cost but the emotional energy gobbled up which could be put to better use'.

The highest estimated cost was for a county council. One county chief executive said: 'Based on County Council Network research into the average cost of inspection activity -£450,000.'

But how effective do chiefs think inspections are? More than half the respondents - 58% - believed inspections improved services, but only to a marginal degree.

One said: 'Many improvements are marginal and could be achieved by other means.' Of the 31% of chiefs who did not agree that inspections led to improved services, one said: 'You don't fatten a pig by weighing it.' Another commented: 'Resources improve services.'

Intervention dissent

Alongside more inspection, it is now more common for central government to intervene in serious cases of under-performance. Half the respondents believed central government interventions had improved services - but the gap was close with 46% of respondents thinking the opposite.

One chief executive said that focused intervention has improved services 'in some poorly performing councils'. Another agreed but said this was 'only in some extreme cases'. One undecided chief said: 'In some councils it has helped, but worsened in others.' A chief who disagreed said: 'Most improvements are driven locally.'

Despite the high profile of partnership working, just 27% of respondents expect to use the private sector to a greater degree. Only one respondent said this was because the council intended to look for public sector partners.

Mark Holmes, managing director at Liberata, views the shift to partnerships with public and private sector as an indication that councils recognise the value these relationships add.

'Many of the unitary councils are already reaping rewards from working in partnership. External partnerships have provided a number of authorities with the step-change needed to achieve efficiency savings.

'Smaller authorities face the greater challenge of establishing which services are capable of bringing return through externalisation. The location of service delivery is vital to this equation.'

LGA and civil servants

Local government has a single voice through the Local Government Association. Do you think it has improved central government policies towards local government?

Yes 35%

No 62%

Don't Know 3%

How often do you meet civil servants to discuss issues arising in your council?

About once a year 4%

About every six months 58%

Other 15%

Never 23%

How flexible is the government in setting targets for your council?

Quite flexible 19%

Not flexible at all 81%

Do you think inspections improve services?

Yes 58%

No 31%

Don't know 11%

Do you think the comprehensive performance assessment is an accurate reflection of a council's performance?

Yes 38%

No 50%

Don't know 12%

Do you think that restrictions on the powers of local government have decreased turnout in elections?

Yes 65%

No 31%

Don't know 4%

Do you think central government interventions have improved local government services?

Yes 46%

No 50%

Don't know 4%

Do the requirements set by the Gershon review increase the likelihood of your council seeking external private sector support for the delivery

of services?

Yes 27%

No 60%

Don't know 4%

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