Criticised councils turn over a new leaf

Councils criticised for their poor record in providing services have improved remarkably over the past year, according to the Audit Commission's annual local-authority performance indicators.

Figures suggest nothing works better in improving performance than publicity resulting from finishing bottom of the commission's league tables. The commission, the Government's spending watchdog, says, for example, that the 15 authorities which took longest to re-let empty council homes when the commission first produced performance figures three years ago have improved performance by 30 per cent and now take an average of 9.6 weeks to re-let homes, rather than 13.5 weeks.

Similarly, the worst authorities collected only 81 per cent of council tax due and now the average for the bad performers is 86 per cent. The commission highlights the fact that, while overall performance is improving, there are still large differences in performance between similar authorities. While manymanage to complete all or nearly all their land searches, for people buying houses in the local area, within 10 working days, some barely manage to complete any. Newham, in east London, does only 14 per cent in the allotted time, while neighbouring Waltham Forest manages 98.7 per cent.

No authority emerges as the best or worst, but it is possible to discern successful authorities within each group. The tables highlight Liverpool and Manchester as authorities not giving value for money, while Birmingham, Knowsley and Croydon all do well.

With so few councils now controlled by Tories, comparisons of the parties' performance are difficult. But Labour seized on Westminster, a Tory flagship council, saying it spends pounds 56.48 a head on refuse collection and disposal, compared with neighbouring Labour Camden's pounds 22.46.

The Local Performance Indicators, 1995/6, volume 1 and 2; pounds 15 each, Audit Commission.

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