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As LGC launches next year's National Awards for Local Government Seamus Ward profiles the 2006 Council of the Year ...
As LGC launches next year's National Awards for Local Government Seamus Ward profiles the 2006 Council of the Year - West Lothian

The West Lothian question has been pushed back into the limelight recently, with politicians and commentators asking why Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on matters that affect only England. But students of local government might add their own West Lothian question - why has West Lothian Council been crowned Council of the Year in the LGC Awards, and what has it to teach others?

In March, West Lothian was thrust into the spotlight as it became the first Scottish council to win the award. The judges said West Lothian's entry was an 'outstanding example' of community leadership, which has helped the area recover from the economic doldrums to become one of the UK's fastest-growing economies. It also demonstrated 'remarkable partnerships and innovation' in health and social care, as well as successfully tackling anti-social and criminal behaviour.

The secret of its success is simple, according to leader Graeme Morrice (Lab) and chief executive Alex Linkston. They say they make a difference by addressing the every-day issues uppermost in locals' minds.

'If you get the little things right the bigger things will look after themselves. People aren't interested in high-level strategy and community and corporate plans - though we have all these things - they want to know things work,' Cllr Morrice says.

A£300m investment plan approved by the council in 2003 provided the foundation for its strategy. It included an£84m scheme to modernise all its nursery, primary and secondary schools, as well as£77m to resurface its roads and maintain its footpaths, bridges and street lighting. The investment appears to be working - the council is ranked first in Scotland for the condition of its roads.

All this has been achieved with a council tax that is just below average (average band D for Scotland in 2006-2007 is£1,129; West Lothian band D is£1,101).

'It's not rocket science. It's about asking people how we can provide better services,' Cllr Morrice adds.

Mr Linkston continues: 'The council did a quality of life survey and most people mentioned things like dog dirt and potholes as the things that concerned them most. We established community groups to agree the priorities and created neighbourhood response teams to clean up quickly when we receive notifications of litter.'

The council's neighbourhood response teams tackle anti-social behaviour. They are multi-disciplinary teams that include council staff and a police secondee. They are able to respond to complaints any time of the day or night and have resolved more than 700 disputes without the need for legal action.

Mr Linkston is proud of the way the council has turned around local schools. It was once the second-poorest performing area in Scotland, but in its last report (2004), HM Inspectors of Education judged the service to be 'very good' in eight quality indicators and'good' in the other three.

In April 2005 the council put together a community health and social care partnership with NHS Lothian. This has a single management structure that Cllr Morrice says will be more efficient and provide better, integrated services.

In the 1980s West Lothian had the second-highest unemployment in Scotland, at 22.5%, but this has been cut to 2.5%, which is below the Scottish and UK average.

The council holds 27 charter marks and is working with the Cabinet Office to gain a charter mark for the whole of the council - likely to be the first in the UK. It expects to achieve this accolade next year.

'We benchmark against the best in the public and private sectors - whichever is appropriate,' Mr Linkston says. He adds that West Lothian is not afraid to learn from other councils. For example, it has developed a considerate constructor scheme. 'We looked at what Birmingham and Aberdeen were doing and used their experiences to develop our own scheme.'

With this long list of successes, surely something must have gone wrong in the last 10 years? Neither the leader nor chief executive can think of anything obvious. 'If we had a service that wasn't working, we would have sorted it out,' the leader says.

Even so, the recognition given by the LGC award has been an important boost: 'We were in the final the year before, and when we didn't win we recognised it was still a great achievement. This time it was probably more important to win. It's great news for councillors but even better for our staff and the community,' he adds.

Cllr Morrice and Mr Linkston say the council's success relies heavily on its staff and constantly pay tribute to their work. In recognition of its Council of the Year award and their efforts to improve performance over the last 10 years, West Lothian has given all staff an extra day's holiday this year. It also held a draw for employees with 60 prizes sponsored by local businesses and MPs.

West Lothian is also innovative. The council is using technology to support people who are over 60 and wish to live in their own home. Over 2,000 residents are currently in the Home Safety Service and more are expected to join this year. The council wires up their homes with motion sensors, and flood and smoke detectors. If motion sensors do not pick up movement over a 24-hour period, the council's call centre will be alerted.

Another innovation is its quality improvement tool, the West Lothian Assessment Model, which is attracting a lot of attention in the UK and Europe. This tool brings together criteria for the European Foundation for Quality Management excellence model, charter mark, best value, ISO 9001:2000 and the Investors in People standard.

A council that has just been judged the best in the UK, has received a complimentary best value report from Audit Scotland and has high levels of customer satisfaction might be forgiven for resting on its laurels. But West Lothian refuses to do so.

The council is planning a new£53m civic centre, which will move its three main offices onto one site. The centre, due to be completed in 2009, will also include a new Sheriff & District Court complex and divisional police HQ. Sharing buildings is set to produce a net saving of£2m over 25 years.

It is also working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Executive to pilot outcome agreements and plans a move to locality planning in September. Cllr Morrice says locality planning will ensure priorities are met when Scotland's councils move to proportional representation and multi-councillor wards next year.

Scotland's population is fairly static but West Lothian's is increasing due to the influx of people attracted by job opportunities in the area or looking for a home near Edinburgh or Glasgow. In 1996 West Lothian had 146,000 people; now it has 162,000 and is predicted to grow to 192,000 by 2024. The new population will be mostly young families so new facilities will be needed.

'We are speaking to other parts of the public sector as well as landowners and developers. It is a major resource issue and we have approached the Scottish Executive for more funds,' Cllr Morrice says.

Perhaps the national attention on West Lothian following its LGC Council of the Year award will help secure that money.

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