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FEATURES - VIEW FROM THE TOP

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Inspection is getting more bizarre - but Mark Sanders found a tough and supportive approach worked ...
Inspection is getting more bizarre - but Mark Sanders found a tough and supportive approach worked

The Audit Commission proposals for revising the comprehensive performance assessment could end up being more bizarre than the original. It is strange the challenge of how to update results has only been considered after the event.

Even stranger is what is suggested. First, there is an option whereby a council has to get more points to gain a better grade than in the first round. Second, there is a slow track for 'weak' councils when compared with 'fair' ones and, third, there is a constraint to ensure nobody can jump two categories in one year. Could it be that the methodology is being designed to reinforce the questionable first round?

Back in the real world, inspectors have moved in to 'weak' Bury MBC and discussions we have tried to convince the commission that poor resourcing does have an effect on performance. In the few quiet moments, we are also trying to deliver our improvement programme.

Best value, social services, housing and Ofsted inspectors have all done their bit. Ofsted, as incisive as always, report shortly and I was anxious to see the return of our three-star status, robbed from us last November by the details of one performance indicator's methodology. The Social Services Inspectorate improved our children's service to 'promising', best value inspectors provided a disappointing 'fair' regeneration service. But the most tension surrounded housing.

January 2002 saw a 'poor' housing rent arrears report, but with 'promising' prospects, a referral to the minister and a return after 12 months.

Last year's report was a wake-up call for us. Bury has good stock, an adequate housing revenue account and good tenants - all the components for a first-class service. We had plenty of excuses, other priorities and downward trends. Privately, the original inspection team was convinced Bury was serious, the improvement plan was toughened up and the positive help and suggestions f rom the inspectorate taken on

board.

On the back of the CPA, pessimism and demoralisation pervaded. There was concern with the new inspection and the individuals were not too gentle about their approach - 'fire-fighting not strategy' hurt the most and e-mails flashed back and forth until the week before the interim feedback. In December we just got our proportion of rent collected from bottom to top quartile, enough, it seemed to me, to gain one star, in turn enough to move our housing CPA rating up one score.

The day came: two stars and still 'promising' prospects. Tenants' representatives cheered, councillors were pleased and staff and managers looked relieved.

I have not been one to welcome inspection and have been vocal about CPA methodology, but I will admit to our need to have had our complacency shattered, to welcome the positive approach, the advice, guidance and staying in touch, and to a robust inspection process. It helped us deliver and I can only hope that other regimes and inspectors can learn from their colleagues about the constructive help they offered to Bury.

Mark Sanders

Chief executive, Bury MBC

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