By Jon Hanlon
The Audit Commission has agreed to changes to the best value inspection regime in the wake of a survey of chief executives. The survey* carried out by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives says: 'A number of authorities are reporting early problems with best value inspections.'
Chief executives are concerned about the cost of delivering best value and the quality of inspections as well as 'the way best value has been a de-motivating experience'.
The Audit Commission is remaining silent on the extent of the changes until the SOLACE report is made public, but the commission's director of inspection Wendy Thomson said: 'We have agreed to work with SOLACE on best value from a shared commitment to service improvement.
'There are a number of suggestions in the report we would support. For example, we are already encouraging councils to undertake fewer, more strategic, reviews.'
The society recommends councils be given the opportunity to carry out more reviews of their own services alongside a reduction in the number of best value inspections.
'The Audit Commission could retain the right to assess local authority performance, perhaps on an annual basis,' the report says.
SOLACE director general David Clark said there should be a 'reality check', whereby chief executives from similar councils carry out inspections on each other.
He said: 'We had a lot of criticisms and the Audit Commission was receptive to that. Our view is we are going to work together to resolve these issues. It might be the Audit Commission has got it wrong. It might be that some councils can't take criticism.'
The report says councils demonstrating a capacity for self-improvement should be subjected to fewer inspections, and public service agreements could be used as local indicators of best value performance.
It calls for inspectors' training programmes to be made available to councils.
The report follows recent complaints from Bromsgrove DC and Harlow DC (LGC, 4 May). Denbighshire CC is also complaining to the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Local Government Association about 'unhelpful and misleading' comments in a report of its housing rent service (LGC, 18 May).
* The survey is available on LGCnet.
CHIEF EXECUTIVES' COMMENTS ON BEST VALUE
-'The key issues for me are: the process is not transparent; there is no model or definition of how categories are differentiated, so the process appears arbitrary; the workload is too great for the inspectors to perform effectively; the quality of inspectors is in inverse proportion to their arrogance; there is no conception that an inspector is capable of mistakes.'
-'We were told 'resources are not an issue' in making judgments. In other words the size of council, its establishment and financial situation are irrelevant.'
-'Our experience with the best value inspectors has been appalling. They promised us help and they have been destructive - worse than our auditors, and that is saying something. We are likely to refute their findings. They were disorganised, unimaginative and rather aggressive.'
-'On one of our first year reviews the inspectorate could have gone ahead with the inspection and produced a damning report. That they postponed the inspection to help us get our act together is an accurate reflection of the excellent relationship between this council and the inspectorate.'