Worst councils show signs of improvement

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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

Many of the worst councils in England and Wales improved their performance last year, the Audit Commission said yesterday as it produced the second annual set of indicators of local authority performance.

But average performers on the whole did not improve, suggesting there are limits to the value of league tables of council performance.

The figures provide a comparison between councils and for some services provide a comparison for the first time of how well a council did in 1994-95 compared to the previous year. Northampton, for example, slashed 11 weeks off the time it took on average to re-let a council house, turning it from the worst-performing district in the country to an average one.

Hackney equalled that. But its 11-week reduction still left it with the worst performance of any council in England and Wales. The London borough takes six months on average to re-let its empty homes.

Middlesbrough slashed its rent arrears, moving from having a quarter of its tenants more than 13 weeks behind - the worst district performance last year - to around 10 per cent.

And Selby, in Yorkshire, moved from a little lower than average last year to the bottom place.

Some good performers also slipped. Liverpool saw its record for preparing draft statements of special educational needs on time slip from 95 per cent, the best rate in the country last year, to 43 per cent, a steep decline.

Councils will face hard questions over the findings. Conservatives were delighted that Labour-controlled Manchester was the highest spender per head outside London. It had one of the worst council tax collection records, the worst record for planning applications, recycled less household waste than the year before and had the second- worst record outside London of tenants more than 13 weeks in arrears. Manchester was below average in the time it took to re-let council houses and performed abysmally in preparing special educational needs statements.

Labour was pleased that Westminster and Wandsworth, the two Tory flagships, proved to be average-to-good rather than outstanding performers, with Westminster recording high costs for some services.

Last year's tables may have contributed to improvements by the worst councils, the commission believes. "People do not like seeing themselves at the bottom," Andrew Foster, the controller of the Audit Commission, said yesterday. The public "didn't want excuses" about poor services. "They want to know what is going to happen to improve them"

Local authorities which perform around the average ought to be more ambitious, he said. "Small differences in performance can produce big results." A 1-per-cent improvement in collecting the council tax can provide 40,000 hours of home help in a metropolitan authority. Some councils use the indicators to set targets for themselves - an approach the others should adopt, Mr Foster added.

Roger Freeman, Minister for Public Service, said the figures meant "local government has nowhere to hide" if it is inefficient. Frank Dobson, Labour's local government spokesman, confirmed Labour would continue the indicators if it wins power, "beefing up" the Audit Commission's powers to intervene where councils fail to improve services.

David Rendel, the Liberal Democrats' local government spokesman, said he was "particularly pleased" the councils which recycled most waste were controlled by his party.

n Local Authority Performance Indicators, Volumes 1 and 2, Audit Commission, HMSO. pounds 7 and pounds 10

Changes in council performance 1993/4 - 1994/5