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Local government's enthusiasm about the abolition of CCT has waned significantly in light of the tough talk on best...
Local government's enthusiasm about the abolition of CCT has waned significantly in light of the tough talk on best value.

The ubiquitous 'carrot and stick' metaphor used repeatedly to illustrate the balance between sanctions for the worst councils and beacon status for the best seems to have metamorphosed into a crude, nine-tailed whip.

Though positive about best value's emphasis on quality, consultation and service users, and keen to cast off the shackles of compulsory competition, councils are nervous about what powers the Audit Commission's new best value inspectorate will possess. They are nervous about the criteria used to define failure and nervous about the potential underclass that could be generated by a split between beacon councils and those which are deemed less illuminating.

Local government minister Hilary Armstrong is universally recognised as a friend (if a somewhat stern one) of councils. But it is widely acknowledged that many in the Cabinet are not as well disposed to councils and would quite like an excuse to strip away some local government powers.

The Local Government Association, aware that its leverage in the government's reforms depends on it playing a constructive part and helping to drive forward modernisation, has tried to address this uneasy interface.

In splitting the Local Government Management Board in two, it initially planned to establish one arm's-length body for training and development and one for employers. But in the light of the emerging policy, it shifted the game-plan to build a self-help resource into its proposed training body.

The Improvement and Development Agency, as it is called, is still about raising council standards, but its remit has widened to embrace councils as a whole rather than solely focusing on staff and members' needs.

It is hard not to see the new body as a protective buffer between councils and the government, helping them to help themselves before civil servants march in to do it for them. No-one is predicting an easy time for the agency.

It must sell itself to councils, some of which disagreed with the way the LGMB was divided. It must convince ministers and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions it has both the skills and drive to tackle reforms and is not a defensive tactic to stave off modernisation. And it needs a genuine welcome from councils - not just the go-ahead, but the problematic ones as well - to show it can really deliver.

The person chosen to lead the new agency is pivotal. Enter Mel Usher, chief executive of South Somerset DC.

'Seventy-two hours since I've been appointed and the phones haven't stopped ringing. I've been invited to speak at six conferences already. The interest is tremendous,' said a somewhat bemused Mr Usher last week.

Some onlookers, when his appointment was announced, queried whether South Somerset would have instilled in its chief executive the necessary political skills. The agency will be managed mainly by a board of LGA members, with private sector, academic and union seats. And he will need to win the respect and backing of all types of councils.

His background includes posts at Blackburn, Wigan, West Lancashire, Islington and Tower Hamlets - more than enough to dispel the 'sleepy hollow' image.

More importantly, Mr Usher has been championing self-assessment for councils and was the architect of the Improvement Project, which is about to be launched in pilot councils next month under the joint auspices of the DETR and LGA, with input from consultant Deloitte & Touche.

It started with a chat to Ms Armstrong at a function in the early summer about the challenges facing councils. He put a short paper together proposing that local government get involved in self-assessment and peer review initiatives and 'hawked it around' the LGA, Audit Commission, LGMB and DETR.

Manchester City Council deputy chief executive Patricia Coleman was moving into her secondment to the DETR and helped develop the concepts further.

Though the project dovetailed neatly with the LGA's rejigged plans for the improvement agency, the timing was coincidental, Mr Usher says.

He steps into post early next year. In the meantime he will be talking to members and LGMB staff about the shape of the IDA. The structure is still uncertain and LGMB officers still have concerns about their jobs.

'There's a danger in all of this of undervaluing the work they've done to date. I want to create something that's exciting, that people want to come and work for,' Mr Usher says. Getting staff fully on board, he admits, is another public relations job in store for him as director.

He is not as nonchalant about best value legislation as many. Although Ms Armstrong has urged councils to get on with best value whether there is legislation announced this year or not, Mr Usher says it needs to be in the Queen's Speech.

'What message will it send if it's not included? There may be other things they can do but it won't go far enough. If the government can't get it into legislation it doesn't have the same priority - we need it in the statute books.'

Without best value, the momentum for the agency's improvement drive will certainly be diminished. Mr Usher's plans are crystallising into a brand new post-LGMB entity. He is keen to investigate giving the agency a greater regional presence and to bring in a more commercial focus, recognising that breaking the dependence on top-sliced revenue support grant would be a good thing.

At the end of the day it's about results, not politics or personality, Mr Usher believes.

'The agency is about more than the performance of its director. I don't think whoever got the job could match the expectations of the DETR, LGA, central government and all the individual local authorities. It will be quite a tightrope.'

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