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FORUM SETS THE BEST ON THE LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM

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The innovation forum, launched in a fanfare of publicity last week, is more than a feel-good carrot for the 22 coun...
The innovation forum, launched in a fanfare of publicity last week, is more than a feel-good carrot for the 22 councils classified as 'excellent under' the comprehensive performance assessment.

Interestingly, the forum was billed by the ODPM as 'an opportunity for the government to work with top councils', rather than the other way round.

Either way, the ostensible purpose of the forum is to develop new ways of delivering public services. But the top-performing councils are using the vision of better services on the ground to push for a more muscular framework of powers - not a wish list of new freedoms, but rather a ministerial commitment from key departments to tackle the historically bad co-

ordination between councils and partner organisations.

One of the most radical proposals, put forward by Kent CC, is to allow councils

to tackle bed-blocking by taking over responsibility for social care budgets for the elderly.

Ministers heard similarly bold ideas for greater public service integration within community safety and school improvement.

Feedback from the CPA gentry was generally positive. The forum was not a talking shop, said the councils, but a genuine attempt by ministers to listen to new ideas.

Little has been specifically said about cutting councils outside the 'excellent' category more slack, but it is hoped successful experiments led by the trusted few will cascade down to benefit the whole of local government.

Mike More, chief executive of 'good' Suffolk CC, welcomes the establishment of the forum, but points out that the need for innovation is not limited to certain CPA categories.

'Innovation isn't exclusively for those on the forum - local government as a whole should be innovating,' he says.

'I support innovation and improvement, and I think it's important for the innovation forum to work to raise standards across the whole of local government.'

But according to Dennis Reed, director of the Local Government Information Unit, the jury is still out o n whether the forum is capable of delivering improvements across the whole of local government.

'The government was sluggish in setting it up in the first place - it was only pressure from the 22 'excellent' authorities that led to the first meeting,' he says.

'The councils have done well in pushing the government so far. If they hadn't got together and pushed the government and the LGA, we wouldn't have got as far as we are now.

'But we've still to see the colour of the government's money in the four policy areas chosen by the forum.

'If some progress is made in improving services these areas, however marginal, it would be stupid not to roll it out across the board.'

Mr Reed says he would like to see the government take a more proactive role in spelling out which barriers could be removed to help councils deliver on centrally set objectives.

'Instead, it's all been placed in the lap of councils,' he says.

Daphne Bagshawe (Con), deputy leader of 'weak' East Sussex CC, says the

forum has so far proved a useful tool for giving local government as a whole a strong voice in the debate over freedoms and flexibilities.

'I've been impressed with the way councils have held together and argued for the good of local government as a whole instead of feathering their own nests,' she says.

'I'm quite grateful to the councils who are participating in the forum for the way they have underlined imperfections in the whole structure of the process and shown that the freedoms they have been given are insignificant compared to the huge achievements councils have made to get to that point.'

The forum is next scheduled to meet in October, with future meetings planned in February and June 2004. The pace of progress is not fast, but the stakes are sufficiently high to ensure any progress that might be made will be keenly monitored across local government.

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