How does your council measure up?

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Gateshead, on the south bank of the River Tyne, is the most efficient council in England according to an exclusive survey for the Independent on Sunday.

Gateshead, on the south bank of the River Tyne, is the most efficient council in England according to an exclusive survey for the Independent on Sunday.

Nearby Sunderland is second, while neighbouring South Tyneside comes in third to complete a remarkable threesome for the North-east. Their success may finally dispel the region's reputation for corruption and inefficiency - one that has stuck since the Poulson scandals of the 1970s.

The clean sweep for Tyneside is a notable achievement given that they are not wealthy "leafy suburb" councils and are, in part, areas of high unemployment and deprivation.

The worst performing council is the London borough of Hackney, closely followed by Lambeth, also in London, and Liverpool.

The Independent on Sunday's league table is based on the way councils deliver a wide range of services and is a useful guide to voters going to the polls in the local council elections on 4 May. The figures themselves are compiled annually by the Audit Commission, the local government watchdog.

Peter Chowney a former audit commissioner and now freelance consultant said: "While there may be local circumstances that contribute to poor performance in a particular council, there are big differences between similar, neighbouring councils.

"Why, for example, does Wyre Forest come out top of the district councils, but neighbouring Bromsgrove come 156th? Why does East Lindsey in Lincolnshire come fifth, but West Lindsey come 184th? Councils that perform badly compared with their neighbours should ask themselves if special local circumstances have led to this, or whether they really are just inefficient."

The Government requires councils to compile and publish a large number of "performance indicators". These reveal how good each council is in delivering key services, from looking after the elderly through to how quickly they answer the phone and reply to complaints.

Peter Chowney said: "The survey shows the relative performance of councils compared with each other. What is really interesting is that urban, inner city councils can, and in many cases do, out-perform councils in suburban and rural areas. And it explodes the myth that councils in poorer areas cannot perform well."

The variations between similar councils remain frightening. Be careful of where you eat out in Hillingdon as the council's performance at checking out restaurants and cafés for hygiene risks is appalling. It manages to inspect just over 10 per cent of high-risk premises due for a visit. Many councils manage 100 per cent.

Moving children in care from home to home is considered bad practice. One indicator shows the percentage of children moved three times or more in a year. Rutland has the worst figure, with 57 per cent of looked-after children in this category. But it defends itself by pointing out that as a very small authority it deals with a small number of children.

"These figures were affected by two children who were difficult to place. They were asylum seeker children of Muslim background. We placed them with Muslim families but that was not successful and we have had to move them around," said Keith Franklin, the council's director of Social Services and Housing.

Children with special educational needs are entitled to "statements", the formal descriptions of their requirements, within 18 weeks of their first assessment. But only a small minority of unitary and county councils - five out of 135 - was able to meet this target. Why then can Oldham deliver all its special needs statements within this time-frame, while Stoke-on-Trent can manage only 2 per cent? A spokesman for Stoke council said that that the low percentage was generated by "a significant problem in the computing system". But the council could not give an accurate figure.

Stoke-on-Trent also came bottom for the number of visits to its libraries, with fewer than three visits per year per head of population. Westminster council topped the library visits league, with nearly 13 visits per head.

The figures show that many local authorities are taking the environment more seriously than in the past. Councils which dispose of waste have doubled their recycling rate over the past four years. The star performer in this respect remains Castle Morpeth in Northumberland which recycles 36.6 percent of household waste, up from 31.9 per cent two years ago. Forest Heath in Suffolk recycles a creditable 25 per cent. In London, the best performer is Richmond on Thames with 17.5 per cent.

It has been a good year for Gateshead, the site of Antony Gormley's dominating sculpture, Angel of the North. The town has been just been awarded the second largest ever lottery grant to build a £42m concert venue, designed by Lord Foster. And its world- class stadium has been chosen to host this year's athletics European Cup Final.

Audit Commission: Local Authority Performance Indicators 98/99, Council Services Compendium for England. Website: www. audit-commission.gov.uk

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