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FLAWS SPOIL THE LOOK OF PERFECTLY FORMED PSAs

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Local public service agreements - a terrible name but a brilliant concept. They are, in a nutshell, a package of ta...
Local public service agreements - a terrible name but a brilliant concept. They are, in a nutshell, a package of targets and freedoms tailored to individual councils.

However, flaws are beginning to emerge in their implementation.

An LGC straw poll of pilot agreement authorities showed that not one, including one signed as long ago as September 2000, has received its full complement of negotiated freedoms.

All those polled agree they have got something remarkable out of the process: face-to-face contact with central government and a new relationship with the centre. This heralds a new era for some who have never had such direct contact with government before.

However, few find the actual agreements as impressive. While most say the model is untested and so bound to have teething problems, others find it lopsided - councils work hard on targets while the dinosaurs in central government take their time to reciprocate with flexibilities.

Every council had one or more freedom which was 'in the pipeline'. In many of these cases, the dialogue which they so valued was patchy or absent altogether.

The degree to which some central government spending departments are uninterested in the agreements was illustrated by the Department for Education & Skills' recent announcement that school bullies must be excluded. This crushes underfoot a common PSA target to cut the number of school exclusions.

The Conservative Party has said the agreements are a tool of Treasury control. But what if the opposite is true? What if the agreements are just hot air and the priorities of ministers in spending departments lie elsewhere?

And these are only the pilots. If even they cannot manage to get the dialogue they expected, what hope is there for the hundred-plus remaining top-tier authorities?

While the Local Government Association is not about to criticise one of its biggest achievements to date, its chair, Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab), told a conference that the agreements would test how far the new central/local relationship had permeated the rest of Whitehall and if ministers were 'genuinely prepared to be less prescriptive'.

The obvious conclusion so far has to be that they are not. The agreements are an excellent vehicle for ensuring central government targets are delivered through local government, but there is still a long way to go to educate some departments about their importance.

LGC

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