Labour plans `hit teams' for errant councils

NICHOLAS SCHOON

A Labour government would give itself powers to send "hit teams" to take over local council services, the party's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, said yesterday.

The secretary of state would appoint a management team when services were failing, extremely costly or being run corruptly. Before they moved into a town hall the council would be given time and advice to help sort out its problems.

Asked which councils might have needed these teams in recent years, Mr Dobson immediately mentioned Liverpool and Lambeth in London - both mostly under Labour control through the past decade. Labour in power would offer "prompt and effective action to end the scandals", he said.

But the overall thrust of Labour's new policy statement for local government, Renewing Democracy, Rebuilding Communities, is to give councils more power and freedom.

They would no longer be forced to put services out for compulsory competitive tender - a requirement which has enabled firms to take over much of the work done by council employees.

Mr Dobson said many staff transferring to the private sector had seen a severe worsening of pay and conditions. Any savings in council spending accruing from cheaper services was outweighed by the extra benefits claimed by ex-council employees, who also paid less tax.

The uniform business rate, set by central government, would be abolished, with councils deciding the level locally. But there would be some central government control to ensure that business rates did not rocket.

Launching the document at a Westminster press conference yesterday, Mr Dobson also pledged an end to the capping regime under which government plays the decisive role in deciding councils' total budgets and the level of council tax.

Under Labour, councils would have much more freedom to choose the level of council tax. Capping powers would be reserved to crack down on the spending of the most profligate and inefficient town halls.

Each year every council would have to announce the standards of service it was aiming for, how much they would cost to provide and how it had performed over the past 12 months on the previous year's targets.

"We intend to make sure that councils provide year-on-year improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and value for money," Mr Dobson said.

The performance indicators for all councils which the Audit Commission has begun publishing would be used to check whether councillors were setting themselves reasonably ambitious targets and running services efficiently. There would be national minimum standards.

The most controversial part of this approach is that councils which did well in meeting and improving their standards of service would receive extra grants from central government.

Publishing performance figures would also expose those councils which were failing badly - and if they failed to improve their services then management teams could eventually be dispatched to take over.

Mr Dobson said he would not have sent a "hit team" into Walsall, the Labour-run council which hit the headlines with its radical plan to devolve power to neighbourhood committees. He was concerned not with the council's efficiency and services "but about the speed and possibly the extent of their decentralisation proposals".

The document, passed by Labour's National Executive Committee, is expected to be ratified by next week's party conference. Other proposals include annual council elections for one-third of seats and a voting registration drive to get 2 million missing people back on the electoral register.

Labour also suggests extra council tax bands at the upper end of the scale, which would mean people in the most expensive homes paying more.

Leading article, page 16

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