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Flexible interpretation ...
Flexible interpretation

You seem to have misinterpreted some of my remarks in your news story 'Freedoms given to the poorest few' (LGC, 4 April).

The ODPM is not giving poorly performing councils 'their own set of freedoms and flexibilities' like those granted to 'excellent' councils.

The ODPM is, however, working to support poorly performing councils. This support is all about constructive engagement. None of this is new policy - in fact it was outlined in the local government white paper of 2001.

The white paper clearly sets out that engagement may include a temporary easing of some regulatory requirements as part of an overall plan. And we are working to ensure the government's work in those councils is more effectively co-ordinated. This is certainly a type of flexibility - but it is a directed approach monitored by central government. This is not the same as the freedoms and flexibilities we have given to 'excellent' councils.

John Haward

Interim director of local government practice, ODPM

Bill questions

The prospect of local government reorganisation has been well flagged up by Jones and Stewart in 'You can have any structure you like - as long as it's reorganised' (LGC, 28 March).

A minister in the House of Lords debate on the innocuously termed Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was adamant the 'second order effect' of regions having their own government would be single-tier local government.

Dismantling counties and creating small education and social services authorities is not welcome. It is no secret that during the last bout of reorganisation, senior education department officials saw the reorganisation as a hindrance to the task of working with local government to improve the quality of education. I doubt whether their views have changed.

I hope you will continue to use LGC to explain the implications of this bill.

John Fowler

Former deputy head of education,

Local Government Association

Some home truths

I do not think it is h elpful for us to air our differences in public, but I must respond to the letter from leader of the North West Regional Assembly Derek Boden (Lab) (LGC, 28 March).

The idea the county council misrepresented the code of conduct to our cabinet is far from true. The cabinet and other members of the council were well aware of the legal position and also aware of further activities by assembly members and staff in furtherance, not just of a referendum, but of a 'yes' vote.

The only offer from the NWRA to publish an article from Lancashire in soundings came in response to a request from me having seen two copies of the publication only carrying one view. Having submitted an article, I withdrew it having been told the NWRA wanted to both edit it and comment upon it. I think I was perfectly justified.

Lancashire's position remains clear. We are in favour of regional government but not that which is currently on offer. This is not about self-preservation but providing the best for the people of Lancashire.

hazel harding (lab)

Leader, Lancashire CC

Uncertain prospects

I read with interest Kerry Lorimer's news story 'Raynsford to call in tax rise cases' (LGC, 28 March). A major reason for the rises in council tax this year is uncertainty about the future.

For example, London has lost in the region of £360m from the move to the new grant distribution methodology and while the government has guaranteed a cash grant increase of 3.5% to education and social service authorities next year, they have provided no certainty for the following two years.

While the government has committed itself to giving councils greater freedom, there are concerns about the introduction of punitive measures in the future.

Press reports that ministers are threatening to dust off their capping powers in the light of the increases can only act as a pressure for councils to increase their council tax baseline in anticipation of greater constraint in the future.

There is no easy solution to the problem. One is sue is the trust between central and local government, this has been notoriously hard to build and easy to destroy.

But another is predictability for future years. By giving a commitment to maintaining the minimum entitlement at its existing level for the next two years the government could remove one element that could contribute to council tax inflation in 2004-05 in areas that have lost from the changes bought about by the formula review.

Stephen Fitzgerald

Local government finance consultant

Warning signs

Glyn Evans' article suggests there is a worrying degree of complacency regarding sloppy e-mail service in the public sector (LGC, 28 March). That one-third of e-mails go unanswered simply is not good enough - councils should be 100% responsive from the outset. As Mr Evans rightly points out, we expect no less from the private sector.

There are councils out there that are not only matching but leapfrogging the private sector in terms of quality of online services. Unfortunately their successes have been undermined by the lethargy of other councils.

The latest Society of IT Management report, Better connected 2003 is the wake-up call councils need. Councils must take up the challenge.

Darren Saunders

Enterprise channel manager, Topcall UK

Housing horrors

The key issue facing council housing in Wales is not comparison with England (LGC, 4 April). It is that Welsh housing services should and could be better. Comparisons within Wales, let alone without it, confirm this beyond doubt.

All the key players need to collaborate, from within their respective roles, on how to bring about the necessary transformation as quickly and effectively as possible, for that is what the people of Wales deserve.

The Audit Commission in Wales is keen to work with the authorities, the Welsh Local Government Association and the Welsh Assembly to help make that happen.

Clive Grace

Director general, Audit Commission in Wales

Not there yet

In 'View from the top', Bill Ogle y (LGC, 4 April) suggests the true benchmark of excellence for a council will be met when everyone who contacts it concludes it is excellent. He adds that 'at present that is very far from the truth'.

Watford residents - victims of some truly dire traffic management initiatives - would heartily endorse that conclusion. We are now informed that another bout of traffic chaos will engulf the roads around Watford station for several months. Optimists might conclude that any change there must be an improvement. Based on past experience realists will expect chaos to ensue in further disaster.

David Adams

Director, Dunnett, Shaw & Partners

Grass houses and scones

Toulmin Smith, with his usual eye for matters strategic, correctly spotted the mistaken spelling of Nick Raynsford's name on my slides at the Improvement & Development Agency/ODPM sponsored conference on Walsall's recovery (LGC, 28 March).

No doubt by now he will have also applied his forensic eye for detail to the rest of the same edition of LGC. If he has, he will have noted not only LGC 's misspelling of Annie Shepperd's name

in your report on the same conference,

but a real howler in 'View from the top'.

The piece penned by Peter Rogers of Westminster City Council was graced

with a picture of Mark Sanders from Bury.

In order to avoid suggestions of the stones and glass houses variety, perhaps Toulmin might be asked to proof read LGC before it goes to press in future.

Michael Frater

Chief executive, Telford & Wrekin Council

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