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EDITIONS
Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 16:30 GMT
Council ratings 'too rushed'
Whitehall, central London
Whitehall could be next under the spotlight

This assessment of council performance is being described by the Audit Commission as the most rigorous yet.

There have been council league tables before, but this is the first time the commission has judged each council's overall performance.

Priority has been given to how they deliver in the crucial areas of education and social services.

No council can reach the excellent category, even if it's high-scoring on everything else, without achieving at least a three out of four for its education service.

Neither council disagrees with the principles of assessment, but they dispute the measurements used

This throws up some interesting comparisons.

Lambeth, for instance, a council with a long history of poor performance, still manages a three for its schools.

This is on a par with most of the authorities judged excellent, such as places like Derbyshire, Kent and Westminster.

Lambeth's social services rate a two out of four - by no means the worst.

New freedoms

But the south London borough is let down by its poor performance in areas like the environment and how it processes housing benefit.

And crucially, it gets a low score on its ability to improve.

Under that heading, the inspectors have looked at nine different factors, including ambition, priorities, and what improvements have already been achieved.

Some councils argue this gives past performance too much weight, ignoring more recent improvements.

Rubbish collectors
Councils were marked on a range of services
The Audit Commission says "excellent" councils are so good they compare favourably with successful companies and even the best government departments.

For these councils, there'll be new freedoms from central control and bureaucracy.

Less of their money will be "ring-fenced" so they'll be able to spend it how they choose.

They'll also be spared the onerous task of producing up to 100 plans each year for government departments, and they'll enjoy complete freedom from council tax capping.

Tax payers 'disgruntled'

The 13 councils at the bottom of the list will be offered help to draw up a recovery plan.

But if they don't co-operate or show no signs of improvement, they could face services being taken over by so-called hit-squads.

In practice, this can vary from a chief executive of a more successful council being parachuted in to turn the authority round, to the involvement of the private sector.

In Hackney, for instance, the entire schools system has been passed to an independent non-profit making trust.

Councils would dearly love government departments to come under the same scrutiny

In any event, there'll be no rebates for disgruntled council tax payers who live in poor council areas - the best they can hope for is a gradual improvement in services.

But what of the inspection process itself? Understandably, some councils are angry with their ranking in the tables.

Salford is consulting lawyers about seeking a judicial review of its "weak" rating.

It says the commission had ranked it "fair", but downgraded it at the last minute.

Categories 'too broad'

Torbay Council even tried to halt the publication of the tables after discovering it would be in the bottom 13.

Neither council disagrees with the principles of assessment, but they dispute the measurements used.

The think tank Local Government Information Unit has some sympathy with this view.

It believes the whole process was rushed through and that the ranking categories are too broad and crude.

A local library
Some authorities complained the ratings were unfair
However the Audit Commission is confident its systems are legally robust.

It says it went out of its way to be fair to councils, changing some scores where the councils provided convincing evidence to do so.

It believes the tables are a powerful tool for improving public services.

Now the man behind the whole assessment process has been asked to turn his eye on Whitehall.

Councils would dearly love government departments to come under the same scrutiny.

The Sir Humphreys may already be quaking in their boots.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John Andrew
"Councils were judged on their ability to make improvements"
The BBC's Kevin Bocquet reports from Wigan
"Hull has now been labelled one of the worst performing councils in England"
James Strachan, chairman of the Audit Commission
"This is the most comprehensive analysis that has ever been done"

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09 Dec 02 | Education
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