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Why we shouldn't write off CAA just yet

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Doubts over the feasibility of the comprehensive area assessment (CAA) have been around pretty much since its conception. “Nice idea, but it’ll never work,” council chief executives and leaders lamented.

Our news that the Audit Commission is to make a last-ditch attempt to sell the regime to what might be an incoming Conservative government, and that alternative inspection models are being lined up to replace it, further illustrates what a tight corner Steve Bundred’s outfit is in.

With Conservative leader David Cameron having already pledged to ditch CAA if the party is elected to office, senior local government Tories are confident they can hammer in the final nails – and think they can dispatch the coffin within the first year of a Cameron government.

This bullish attitude is not entirely without merit. But with the effects of the recession and soaring national debt to contend with, Mr Cameron might feel decisions about the local government inspection regime – hardly the sexiest subject at the best of times – can wait.

And, say, for argument’s sake, it is allowed a year’s grace and the baying mob turns its attentions elsewhere, CAA could yet flourish.

One way to enhance the chances of this happening would be for the commission to prove to ministers that the CAA has a civic value beyond that of its predecessor, the comprehensive performance assessment (CPA).

Ask a sample of residents if they know how many stars their council has, and you’d likely get a series of blank expressions.

But if the commission can successfully selloneplace, the website that will hold and present all the information gathered through CAA to citizens, ministers might be more reluctant to swing the axe.

Publicised in the right way, oneplace could become the go-to site for people looking for information about public services in their area; for parents to make decisions about their child’s schooling; or for housebuyers scoping out potential new neighbourhoods.

Ministers were apparently impressed by the watchdog’s August report about how councils were coping with the recession, which was compiled largely with information gathered by CAA inspectors.

Now the commission should build on this and show CAA can provide a valuable civic function as well as evaluating public authorities’ performance.

CPA was received with more than a little ambivalence back in 2002 but the commission stuck to its guns and was largely vindicated with the sector now happy to salute its achievements.

Guaranteeing the survival of its more sophisticated successor will, however, prove a far stiffer test.

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