Elections 1994: Is Braintree the best council in Great Britain?: One town in Essex is widely considered to have the most efficient local authority in the country. Martin Whitfield reports on how it has achieved its reputation

THE entrance to Causeway House, headquarters of Braintree council in Essex, has been designed like a hotel. Reception straight ahead, functions - council tax, housing, benefits, telephone, cloakrooms - clearly labelled.

And, like the best hotels, service is available 24 hours a day. A night caretaker answers the telephone and calls out emergency workers if necessary.

The commitment to personal service - the council has no answering machines and even the most senior officer is duty bound to pick up an unanswered telephone - is one of the items that has marked out Braintree as a model council. Its name is most commonly mentioned when local government professionals are pressed to identify the 'best' authority. The council is not involved in this year's elections, but it sets the standard for others to aim at.

Braintree won the first quality award sponsored by the PA Consulting Group and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. It was Britain's nomination last year for an international competition organised by the Bertelsmann Foundation of West Germany and came third behind Phoenix, Arizona, and Christchurch, New Zealand, but ahead of all European rivals.

The council has gained the British Standards Institution kitemark for all its key services and the Government's charter mark for housing and planning. It is an 'Investor in People' - a standard set for staff training and development.

Annie Ralph, chief executive, admitted she had a sneaking belief the council's mission and vision statements were a bit of management 'gobbledegook' when she first arrived from Greenwich, south-east London, five months ago. She has since been convinced by the system set up by Charles Daybell, her predecessor, who took early retirement last year to become a consultant.

'If you agree that these are going to be the strategic service standards for each area and you set annual plans and business plans based on these agreements and if everybody can see what you are doing, you can deliver,' she said.

The central point for a democratic and political organisation is reaching some form of agreement. In Braintree - political composition Conservatives 24, Labour 21, Liberal Democrat, 6, Independent 8 - consensus has been reached on service delivery. The council has been 'hung' for more than a decade.

John Gyford, leader of the Labour group, says strong political differences between the parties remain, but they do not damage the commitment to delivery of services.

'I think there is a perception among members that local government needed to respond to what may be seen as an attack or a challenge, depending on your political view, and one way of doing that was developing services of high quality and user-friendly policies,' he said.

Putting the consumer first is also at the centre of the politics of Ron Hawkins, the Conservative group leader. He tells a story of elsewhere: 'I tried to contact another council leader at a quarter to five on a Friday. I got an answer machine message saying the office was closed until Monday morning.

'I found his home number and asked 'what happens if somebody wants a service?' He said they would have to wait. That is not good enough'.

Besides 24-hour access to emergency services, local residents have popular district committees open to the public, a Labour idea willingly embraced by the Conservatives.

The council's area, made up of rural villages and the towns of Braintree, Witham and Halstead, has 100 recycling sites collecting more than double the average volumes of waste per household than the rest of Essex.

Parish councils are involved in street cleaning and sell special plastic bags - soon to be replaced by biodegradable paper - for the collection of large amounts of garden refuse.

Similar initiatives have spread among other service departments and if residents have cause for complaint it will end up on the chief executive's desk. Last month's supply included items such as letters not being answered on time, no temperature control on leisure centre showers and grass not being cut in the graveyard. All will receive a personal reply.

'The complaints system is really important and really useful. It gives an indication of how people are performing. People use it if they know they will get a response,' Ms Ralph said.

However, the council does not just rely on complaints. Opinion polls, customer panels, a suggestion scheme and a 'lookout' reporting mechanism are all means by which the council tries to keep in touch with its service delivery.

Peter Turner, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the four group leaders have a good relationship despite their political differences. 'We respect what the electorate has done,' he said. 'They have elected a balanced council and we have a responsibility to handle that in a mature manner.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE SECRETS OF BRAINTREE'S SUCCESS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Consensus among the political parties - it has been a hung council for more than 10 years Commitment to personal service Training and development of staff Annual targets and business plans Developing services of high quality and user friendly policies (Labour version) Putting the consumer first (Conservative version) 24-hour access to emergency council services District committees open to the public Parish councils are involved in street cleaning Complaints go to chief executive and get a personal reply Opinion polls, customer panels, a suggestion scheme keep council in touch with its service delivery -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)