Local authority league table statistics cut back by half: The Audit Commission yesterday produced the final list of performance indicators that councils will be required to publish in late 1994 under the Citizen's Charter. Nicholas Timmins reports

Click to follow
ONCE upon a time, it all looked so simple. Local authorities' performance varies widely. Citizens have next to no information on how well their council does compared to others. Politicians of all hues want to lambast each other for providing costly, inefficient, or no services. Answer: Publish masses of information on how local government performs and get the Audit Commission, the local government watchdog, to list it all in league tables.

The outcome, revealed yesterday, is a more modest proposal than that framed by the commission just three months ago. Instead of 134 indicators covering 40 local government services - with data from how many 'dog's mess disposal points' a council has, to how quickly 999 calls are answered - the deluge of statistics has become a mere flood. For the first year's publication in December 1994 it is down to 77 indicators covering a dozen services, though still involving, nationally, many thousands of statistics.

The commission's report yesterday reads like a yelp of pain. Its initial consultation brought in 500 written responses, a pile 2.5m (8ft) high. Many attacked the way the Government has legislated for the task. But 'even on issues over which the commission has influence, there was no consensus', the commission records. Consumer groups wanted more indicators, faster, but councils wanted fewer. There were worries over the cost, and councils were wary of national comparisons - fearing the indicators would impose national standards and distort services. They were quick to point out, for example, that an authority which responded to elderly residents' wish for a microwave and a deep freeze rather than meals on wheels would score badly on home helps.

Many argued the figures might measure quantity, but what about quality? Tenants wanted repairs done properly as much as quickly.

Above all, there was deep suspicion of league tables - the only object of the exercise if William Waldegrave's latest Citizen's Charter White Paper is anything to go by. Bin-emptying in widely scattered rural areas is bound to cost more than down a suburban terrace, councils point out.

The commission's answer has been to cut the subjects covered and to mainly use existing statistics. To avoid the charge of imposing national standards, for many services it is asking councils what their own targets are, and then asking how close to them they got.

Peter Wilkinson, a senior manager at the Audit Commission, says it has recognised that 'choosing spending priorities is a key part of local democracy'. But it will still allow comparisons. If one authority, for example, requires its police to answer major incidents in four hours, when all the rest set and achieve 15 minutes, 'people will be able to ask whether that's reasonable'.

It is promising 'wide consultation' on the best way of publishing the figures and of grouping authorities, plus a handbook on how to interpret the numbers. It will also, with an unstated nod towards warring politicians, 'seek to minimise' the potential danger in how the figures can be used.

This decidedly more subtle approach than the crude and confrontational line taken by the Government over the education league tables has won it friends. Even the National Consumer Council believes the commission has got it broadly right. 'This is a sea change in what people can find out about council services,' David Leabetter of the NCC said. 'That's why it is so important; but also why it is so difficult. There are no years of experience to build on.' The commission's decision to go for 'a small victory in the first year, and build on it' made sense.