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LGC OPINION - INSPECTORS MUST GET OWN HOUSE IN ORDER

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Best value has received mixed reviews. Most agree there is nothing wrong with a system aimed at raising standards,...
Best value has received mixed reviews. Most agree there is nothing wrong with a system aimed at raising standards, but council staff are uneasy about inexperienced inspectors coming in and passing judgment using a crude star system.
Following an extensive survey into councils' views of best value, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives says there is a 'balance of concern'.
No authority would deny rigorous inspection can be helpful in ensuring effective service delivery. Indeed, denying the right of inspection implies there is something to hide.
But the inspection process must itself stand up to rigorous scrutiny, and so far it has failed to do so.
'The quality of inspectors is in inverse proportion to their arrogance,' is one of many comments by council staff published in the SOLACE review.
Inspectors are accused of being ill-prepared and failing to define the reasons for their judgments. They are criticised for relying on subjective impressions and anecdotal evidence.
Inspectors should assess the effectiveness of a service taking into account the resources available, but too often they recommend increased funding when this can only be achieved by an increase in council tax.
Councillors at Dudley MBC are refusing to be interviewed by inspectors because they insist on covering the same ground each time they visit.
Inspectors there are accused of factual errors, demotivating staff, acting beyond their remit, and being ignorant of local government issues. The cost of inspection it seems, outweighs the benefits of improved service delivery.
These are harsh criticisms and ones which have been put to MPs, the Audit Commission, the Local Government Association and the regional director of best value inspectors.
One of the earliest bust-ups with the inspectorate came in Wales, where a third of councils had their best value performance plans rejected. But the worst of the storm there is now passing.
Steve Thomas, head of corporate policy for the Welsh Local Government Association, says: 'I think we are, at last, singing from the same hymn sheet.
Councils want to see a shift from regulation and inspection to service improvement. But there's a real danger if you take your eye off the ball for a second.'
The Welsh Local Government Association recently carried out a stock-take of all 22 councils and three national parks subject to best value to find out how the regime is working. The best value framework has been criticised for being unrealistic and unreasonable. But the Welsh Assembly has agreed to a review which is to include the WLGA, the Confederation of British Industry and the voluntary sector.
There needs to be an end to the one-size-fits-all approach to best value. The Audit Commission has a long way to go before councils are satisfied, and it achieves the credibility enjoyed by other public service inspectorates.
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