Weaker Councils Urged To Close Performance Gap

Struggling councils risk being left behind as top performers continue to improve at a greater rate, a government watchdog warned today. While overall local authority standards in England are improving, the Audit Commission warned that lower-performing councils would need to “accelerate the pace of improvement” to prevent the gap between high and low performance widening further over time.

{mosimage}Each year the commission measures how well councils are performing across a range of services – from bins to housing benefits – and awards an overall rating of between nought and four stars. This year’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) praised councils for improvement in areas such as recycling and adult social care, but identified problems with housing provision and a declining number of libraries and sporting facilities.

The report, published today, showed that 79% of single tier and county councils in England have achieved three and four-star ratings, a 9% improvement on 2005 results. The overall performance of councils continues to improve, with 77% of single tier and county councils improving strongly or improving well, compared to 75% in 2005. For the first time since the CPA began in 2002, there are no councils in the bottom or no-star category.

Thirty-two councils have moved up at least one star rating, while North-east Lincolnshire, which was the only council to achieve a no-star rating last year, has demonstrated rapid improvement and moved up two star categories together with Havering and Waltham Forest. London and the north-east of England are the two areas which contain the highest number of four-star councils, while the West Midlands has two one-star councils and only three that have achieved four-stars.

But while the overall picture is one of improvement, seven councils (Devon, Lambeth, Rutland, Leeds, Stoke-on-Trent, Leicester and Surrey) have moved down one star and five councils (Stoke-on-Trent, Rutland, Sandwell, Bristol and Lambeth) have achieved only one star.

The chairman of the Audit Commission, Michael O’Higgins, said that while most councils were “rising to the challenge” of providing better services, other needed to “pull out all the stops”.

“Once again councils have demonstrated a desire and an ability to deliver better services for local people. CPA – The Harder Test was introduced to raise the bar for councils, and the 2006 results show that they continue to rise to the challenge.

“CPA has proved that it is possible for councils in all parts of the country, facing many different challenges, to make substantial improvements year on year. Implicit in this news is a clear challenge to the small number of councils at the lower end of the scale that they really must pull out all the stops to emulate the achievements of their peers.”

Lord Bruce-Lockhart, the chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA), said: “Councils’ commitment to driving up standards is going from strength to strength and performance continues to improve albeit with strained resources. The Audit Commission has reported that councils are delivering an ever better deal for taxpayers and they already have the best track record on efficiency savings in the public sector.

“However, we must not be complacent. All councils must match the best and the best will raise our game again. There is no hiding place for poor performers.”

The CPA results are collated from a range of assessments carried out by the Audit Commission, an independent watchdog, and incorporate data from other inspectorates including the education watchdog Ofsted and the Commission for Social Care Inspection.

The CPA awards an overall rating by looking at a range of council services including its use of resources; work with children and young people; adult social care arrangements; payment and collection of benefits; cultural services; environment services; housing services; and corporate capacity to improve services.

First the first time, this year’s report also includes council-specific data from a national user satisfaction survey, and has rated the performance of the 15 local authorities that provide fire and rescue services, all of which have been found to be performing at or above minimum requirements.

Overall, councils have shown improvement in their environmental services, in particular recycling, with all councils achieving at least two out of four stars in this area and 84% performing in the top two categories for environment.

Performance for social care has also continued to improve, according to the report. Seventy-nine per cent of councils are performing in the top two categories for social care (adults), with no councils below the minimum requirement.

However, when it comes to housing services, the proportion of councils performing below minimum requirements is greater than in any other service assessment area. While 37 councils have improved their housing service assessment, 17 local authorities have shown a reduction of one of more stars in their score since last year, and three councils (Herefordshire, Manchester and Rutland) are performing below the minimum requirements for housing services.

Councils have also shown a decline in the delivery of cultural services, such as sporting facilities, libraries and clubs. The 12% drop in the number of councils performing in the top two categories in the delivery of cultural services shows the greatest reduction in scores. Only 56% of councils are performing in the top two categories in 2006 compared to 68% in 2005, the report shows.

This year is the second year that council performance has been measured against ‘the harder test’ – tougher measures that were introduced in 2005 to give councils a more challenging framework and encourage year-on-year improvement.

Under ‘the harder test’, councils receive an overall performance rating from nought to four stars, but are also given a “direction of travel” label (improving strongly; improving well; improving adequately; not improving adequately or not improving), which rates each council’s overall improvement.

Sir Simon Milton, the chairman of the LGA’s improvement board, said: “Central government cannot ignore this fantastic achievement and must realise that working with partners at the local level to deliver better local services for people is key to what residents expect and deserve.

“Councils are changing services for the better and now is the time for government to deliver on its promise and devolve more freedom and discretion to the local level.”