Local Government Guide: Are you being well-served by your council?

Ahead of the 6 May elections, Paul Lashmar and Richard Oliver identify the local heroes and villains
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The Independent Online
AN exclusive survey by the Independent on Sunday reveals that South Tyneside, an urban area with pockets of severe deprivation that include Jarrow, once a symbol for unemployment and poverty, has the best council services in England.

Using 22 performance indicators, we give an overall view of the quality of council services, ahead of the 6 May local elections.The fact that an old-fashioned Labour council can beat all the authorities in the leafy shires may be surprising, but South Tyneside has a proven track record of providing high quality services.

What is less surprising is that Tower Hamlets and Lambeth are rated the country's worst councils. Tower Hamlets was also voted the most depressing place to live in a Joseph Rowntree "geography of misery" survey last year.

Technically, South Tyneside was surpassed by the City of London, but this council is anomalous, providing fewer services, and cannot be compared with other local authorities. Sandwell, a Labour stronghold in Birmingham, is third from bottom. The level of social deprivation in Sandwell is strikingly similar to South Tyneside, and demonstrates the wide variations of performance between apparently similar councils. Sandwell performs badly in education and social services.

The Sandwell council leader, Tarsem King, challenged our figures. He said: "Our analysis places us 76th out of 96 metropolitan, London boroughs and unitaries - far from the position that the IoS is suggesting. We aim to be higher, but believe that our overall performance is creditable for a borough like Sandwell, which has some of the highest social and economic deprivation levels outside inner London."

In the Government's school league tables, published in February, Sandwell came 147th out of 150 local education authorities. One of its primary schools, Burnt Tree in Tividale, was the worst of all 14,600 listed.

The worst-performing district councils are the socially mixed urban suburb of Slough and rural Selby, south of York. Bottom of the county council tables are Kent and Berkshire.

Until now, local residents' views of council performance have been largely subjective, based on the quality of the services they have contact with.

For five years, the Government has required councils to publish performance indicators. These show how good each council is at providing key services, from care of the elderly and education, to how quickly they answer the phone or reply to complaints.

Peter Chowney, a former Audit Commission consultant, now working in the private sector, said: "Performance indicators can't tell you everything about how well your local council is doing, but they do give a good overall picture." Councils should use the information to find out what they are doing wrong and to put it right, he said.

Our survey is drawn from the Audit Commission's survey, published last week, of all the PI results for England for 1997/1998. We selected a range of indicators, across a representative spread of key services. In the case of unitary councils, which provide all services and include both borough and metropolitan councils, we use the 22 most comparable indicators. County and district councils split services between them, so we use 19 and 10 PIs respectively. The league table is based on rankings, not scores.

The variations are astonishing. Only one of the 135 councils dealing with children with special needs produces statements of their special requirements within the statutory time limit of 18 weeks. So why can Kingston upon Thames deliver all its statements for special-needs children in the statutory period, while Tameside can manage only 1 per cent? A spokesperson for Tameside's education department said: "In the financial year 1997- 98 we were catching up on a backlog of statements which has made an impact on the performance measure.

"We have analysed the problem, have set new targets and are already making improvements."

The charity Mencap says the figures reveal "more heartache" for families waiting long periods to hear where a child with special needs will go to school.

Westminster council topped the library-visits league, with nearly 13 visits per head. Its assistant director of libraries, David Ruse, explains: "Our libraries are mainly located in places people find easy to get to and are open long hours."

Local people will gradually become familiar with council performance in the same way parents have with school league tables. Council indicators will increasingly be used to make voting judgements and inform decisions about where to live.

There are some adverse lessons, too. If you want to avoid paying council tax, Hackney has been a good bet. Some councils have managed to collect almost all council tax due, but Hackney managed just 78.7 per cent. It is so embarrassed that it has turned to the private sector.

A spokesman told us: "Council tax collection was unacceptably low and this is why we entered into a pioneering partnership with the private sector under which we outsourced to ITNet."

In that case, Londoners can try Haringey, which managed only 82.3 per cent.

Audit Commission: Local Authority performance indicators 97/98. Council Services Compendium for England. Website: www.audit-commission.gov.uk