Blackburn with Darwen BC
Joint LGC Council of the Year Blackburn with Darwen BC became a unitary authority around the time Labour came to power in 1997 and has been something of a guinea-pig for government initiatives.
'The downside is that others know about our achievements and our people get attracted elsewhere. But I'd rather have it that way and get the best out of people for three or four years than have people treading water.'
Mr Watson, who has worked for the council for over
30 years, says the virtue of being a unitary born out
of the old Lancashire CC and districts is that 'change becomes part of the furniture. You no longer fear it'.
Blackburn is a beacon council for school improvement, for libraries as a community resource, and for business support. It was the first to have an Improvement & Development Agency peer review and, like joint winner Camden LBC, was one of the first council's to sign a public service agreement with the government.
The council has had more good results since that evening at the Hilton in March: its social services were awarded two stars and found to be one of the most improved in the country during the last three years
Its success has attracted high profile visitors: Tony Blair, Nick Raynsford, Lord Faulkner and Sally Keeble have passed through, as well as many in the local government consultancy industry.
'We're thinking of putting the Town Hall on the tourist attraction trail because in the last six months we've had so many visits,' says Mr Taylor. He says Blackburn's secret is 'fostering good relationships and creating an atmosphere where ideas can be fostered, floated, taken up or binned. We've got good relations between members and officers and good external relations with partners'.
The council's partnership with Capita to provide support services to the council and to establish Capita's business centre for the north-west included the promise of 500 new jobs in the area within five years. 'They've already delivered that with a new building for the staff in a fairly unpleasant part of the borough, with knock-on effects in stimulating other investments such as cafes and bars,' says Mr Taylor.
Mr Watson gets annoyed when national newspapers confuse Blackburn with neighbouring Burnley, which was hit by riots last summer. Blackburn managed to avoid violence despite its similar ethnic mix and social problems. He says: 'We had the Mela festival in the local park last year about the same time as the riots. There was a certain risk, but if we had cancelled it we'd have been giving in to the forces of darkness.'
As an ethnically diverse borough with huge gaps in income and wealth, joint LGC Council of the Year Camden LBC has a job on its hands to achieve social cohesion. The figures are stark: the average house price in Camden is£360,000, but one third of households live in the 10% most deprived wards in the country.
The borough has had some notable successes however. Camden has no less than six awards of beacon status, two of them in education. One was for raising standards for 14-year-olds and the other in raising standards among black, Bangladeshi and refugee pupils.
'Our goal is to close the attainment gap between groups who traditionally do well and those who don't,' leader Jane Roberts (Lab) says.
'It's not just about good exams results, we have a lot of innovative projects on music and arts.'
Camden's other beacons include the promotion of independence among older people, the housing benefit service, tackling fuel poverty, and a partnership to make legal and welfare advice more widely available.
Camden's housing department scored a hat-trick in the latest report from the Audit Commission's housing inspectorate - its capital programme was given a three-star rating, while housing management and housing repairs services were given two-stars.
'What we are about as a local authority has got to start with the context of where we find ourselves, which means our goal has to be to reduce social inequality,' says Ms Roberts. 'The way we do that is to make sure there is high performance and look at the gaps in provision.'
The council, which was a runner-up in Council of the Year in 2000, has not been shy in letting staff and the public know about its award. It has been incorporated in a stamp on all council envelopes and is visible on council signage. 'It doesn't cut much ice with people on the street, but it has a major impact internally,' says Ms Roberts. 'It boosts morale and is very useful for recruitment and retention. I believe the award is translated into higher quality of service.'