17 December 2004
Two-thirds of councils are now 'excellent' or 'good' after 52 surged up the rankings when the Audit Commission published its Comprehensive Performance Assessments on December 16.
The third set of tables for England's 150 top-tier authorities also reveal a pronounced upward trend among those in the lower categories: 21 of the 28 deemed 'poor' or 'weak' last year have moved up.
There are now 41 'excellent' authorities, up from 26 in 2003; 60 are 'good', up from 56; 33 are 'fair', down from 40; and 15 are 'weak', down from 18. Kingston upon Hull council has the dubious distinction of being the sole occupant of the 'poor' category, compared with ten last year.
Five authorities jumped two categories this year. Coventry and North Tyneside have gone from 'poor' to 'fair'; Bromley and Islington have risen from 'weak' to 'good'; and South Tyneside has gone from 'fair' to 'excellent'.
Just two councils were demoted. Ealing has dropped from 'fair' to 'weak' after getting a zero-star rating for its social services in November. The Isles of Scilly has done likewise.
There are now three English regions – East Midlands, the Northeast and the Southeast – without any 'poor' or 'weak' authorities.
Steve Bundred, the Audit Commission's chief executive, told Public Finance that the success story revealed in this year's results was in no small measure due to the CPA inspection regime itself. 'A number of authorities got a shock when they were inspected for the first time in 2002. What I think we are witnessing this year is the real impact of the CPA on their activities.'
Commission chair James Strachan congratulated councils and said the results were a vindication of the organisation's policy of strategic regulation.
'The commission will respond by reducing the level and frequency of inspections in future. It is what we mean by maximising the impact of inspection while minimising the burden.'
But the Local Government Association went further, demanding an overhaul of the inspection regime. Simon Milton, chair of its improvement panel, said the emphasis should instead be on high performers sharing their knowledge with others. 'Local government is providing good-quality services to local people, albeit often in circumstances of strained resources,' he said.
'Those councils receiving the highest accolades are well-placed to share their good practice, and those needing extra help must continue to receive the support and challenge they need.'
Local government minister Nick Raynsford said he was 'delighted' with the CPA results.
But he warned against complacency and promised that the revised CPA methodology, due to be introduced in 2005, would 'sharpen' the challenge the inspection regime posed to councils. Value for money and authorities' use of resources are set to take centre stage under the new framework.
'Councils must constantly strive to deliver better services, and the new framework will push the best to get better and the rest to follow,' Raynsford said.
'But service improvements will not be measured in a vacuum. Local people expect their councils to provide better services but, quite rightly, they don't expect these improvements to be accompanied by higher council tax rises.'