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The long march to freedoms...
The long march to freedoms

Last week's comment column (LGC, 29 November) seemed to sum up well the feeling that someone, somewhere, cannot quite let go.

But let's not forget that the Local Government Bill is good news for us. It is, at long last, a statement that rejects the notion that one size fits all. Though we will not all be happy with our final comprehensive performance assessment scores, at least the government has accepted that councils can excel and has given us a path to greater freedom.

I write a week before the final CPA scores are published. I still don't have a finalised report to share with leading councillors, but I'm told I should be dragooning the organisation to plan for improvement and communicate our CPA result, at the same time as preparing our public service agreement and writing next year's best-value performance plan and our community strategy. This year has been a long march for many, hopefully to freedom.

But there is a twist - even among the 20 or so councils classed as excellent, only an über-league will be allowed the full freedoms in respect of education. That is a real shame and a missed opportunity to put a spring in our step.

Chris Duffield

Chief Executive, Bexley LBC

Delays damage us all

The Audit Commission report on rent arrears and housing benefit (LGC, 29 November) confirms that housing association tenants suffer the worst delays in processing housing benefit claims.

This report confirms our own anecdotal evidence that housing association tenants are too often victims of housing benefit bureaucracy. The Audit Commission has joined the regulator in calling for firmer action on arrears but, unfortunately, the experience of some associations is that they often have to initiate court procedures before claims are processed.

We welcome the Audit Commission's call for a single housing benefit system that would apply equally to councils and housing associations. No association wants to go to court to release benefits, and most avoid action where possible.

As the Audit Commission report acknowledges, it is possible to improve arrears by offering early tenant support

and working more closely with housing benefit services.

But that effort is too often frustrated by the statutory procedures that the government has introduced to control demand on the benefit budget.

We want a fairer, more efficient system that does not discriminate against housing association tenants, ensures benefit is processed promptly and lets associations get on with providing high-quality homes and any support services that tenants need.

Howard John,

Director, Welsh Federation of Housing Associations

On target on bed-blocking

The extra£100m announced by secretary of state for health Alan Milburn this week, will help London councils tackle delays in discharging older people from hospital.

It will enable them to plan ahead with greater confidence, knowing they have the funding behind them to improve services.

The Association of London Government is monitoring delayed discharges in London. London councils look set to meet the government target of 550 delayed discharge cases in hospitals by April 2003. In August this year, 750 older people were waiting to be discharged into suitable care. By October this figure had reduced to 650.

The ALG, with its partners in the private and voluntary sector, is continuing to work with hospitals to reduce delayed discharge and waiting lists.

Councillor Stephen Burke (Lab)

Chair of the health and social dare panel, Association of London Government

Protection for PPP staff

The agreement between the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Trades Union Congress to end the two-tier workforce in future public private partnership contracts (LGC, 29 November) is a good deal for public sector workers faced with PPP and represents significant progress in the STUC's campaign to ensure fair employment practice throughout the public sector in Scotland.

We continue to have concerns about PPP as a funding mechanism. However, as long as it remains an option, it is our responsibility to fully protect affected workers. This is what the agreement does.

This agreement exceeds anything elsewhere in the UK and is a tangible product of both devolution and the STUC's memorandum of understanding with the Scottish Executive. It provides guarantees for around 3,000 workers who stand to be affected by the forthcoming schools PPP programme.

It is only the first step. We will work with the Executive to see the highest standards of employment practice apply to all staff who provide public services.

Grahame Smith,

Deputy general secretary, STUC

A cannibal's holiday

According to lasts week's LGC (LGC, 29 November), the LGA is putting together a specialist team of negotiators to help the Employers' Organisation bargain with the FBU, while an independent pay commission has been set up to help the Employers' Organisation resolve pay problems for other council staff.

I turned to the Employers' Organisation's proposed code of conduct and accountability for staff in magistrates' courts . . . in the hope of curing my insomnia. The section on how to deal with those who refuse to meet these standards proposes that penalties for misconduct should include demotion, with full pay protection and disciplinary transfer, all expenses paid and more.

For those seeking to raise standards in public life, this offers all the attractions of a cannibal's self-catering holiday. Given recent events, less charitable people than me might question whether it would take more than the combined efforts of the UK's drug squad sniffer dogs to find any substance in the proposition that the Employers' Organisation itself is among the modernising opinion formers.

Dennis Roberts

Chief executive, Nation Internet

You were wrong about us

I refer to your article on the best value inspection on housing management at Barnsley (LGC 10 November 2002).

You stated the service was facing a bleak future and the inspectors judged prospects for improvement to be uncertain. The article was inaccurate

and unfair. It is true that the service was given one star, but you omitted positive findings, including top quartile performance in a number of areas, strong strategic vision and integration, a robust business plan and productive relationships with partners.

On the second judgment, the inspectors found our prospects for improvement were excellent, not uncertain as you suggest. They commented on the strength of the improvement plan, the commitment of councillors, tenants and staff to best value, strong leadership and a clear vision from senior councillors and managers and genuine partnership with tenants.

They found clear evidence of ability to improve and successfully manage change.

We are in no way complacent in Barnsley and recognise our weaknesses and are determined to address them. This is hardly a service facing a bleak future.

A Reeves

Executive director, housing and property services, Barnsley MBC

Learn emergency law

The government's Civil Contingencies Secretariat is formulating legislation to replace the existing law on emergency planning, which is rooted in a different era.

The existing legislation, from 1948, will be replaced by the Civil Contingencies Bill. Local Authority Radiation Network's conference on Tuesday at Islington's Business Design Centre will look at the implications of this for local government.

Discussion will centre on the impact of legislative changes and the role of the council. The implications of an attack for councils will be discussed along with preparedness and public information regulations.

Tony Reynolds

LARNet officer

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