Quality streets

Is the worst council in Britain about to be sorted out? Paul Gosling looks at the revolution that's just beginning in Hackney

Hackney is probably the worst council in Britain. It is the slowest to re-let council homes; it is one of the worst in handling council tax benefit applications; it is one of the slowest to collect council tax and rent; and it is one of the most expensive to run. It also has some of the lowest-performing schools in Britain.

Recent scandals at Hackney are some of the worst that have hit local government in recent years. There is the Mark Trotter affair: a leading Labour Party member and council social worker turned out to be a serial child abuser who eventually died of Aids. For years, some council staff ran a "keys for cash" fraud: council homes were left "unlet" while housing officers rented them out for personal gain.

Then there was the internecine conflict between Hackney's chief officers, only matched by the open warfare which split in two its majority Labour group. One of several outstanding inquiries is dealing with racism allegations. Complaints of nepotism by councillors are legion.

If there were a case study on how not to run a council, it might look very much like Hackney over recent years. You might expect that the Labour Government's commitment to send in "hit squads" to sort out the worst councils would make its first stop at Hackney.

Is it, then, a coincidence that one week after the new government was elected, Hackney announced a complete overhaul of its internal structure? The council says the timing was fortuitous, and that it has spent the last two years getting ready to put an end to what even it admits are bad services.

The east London borough will re-launch in September as if it were a new authority, with a new structure and a new team of chief officers, who will have performance targets far in excess of what the citizens of the borough have been used to.

"The big cultural challenge is that an incremental approach of doing slightly better than last year is not good enough," says Tony Elliston, chief executive of Hackney, who gained a reputation of being tough and uncompromising as head of the revolutionised Brent council in north- west London.

"New Hackney" will focus on service standards above all. Performance goals were set in place last week by politicians (there is no overall control - the two largest groups are an official Labour group and an independent Labour group). In the short term the objectives include more than halving the time it takes to let an empty home, and making major improvements in handling housing benefit claims, collecting council tax and rents, and in street lighting.

In the longer term, the council also intends local schools to get much better, "but that takes longer to turn round, and our ability to influence it is not so great under Local Management of Schools," Mr Elliston says.

Hackney's internal structure will change completely, based on the corporate management model adopted by Kirklees in West Yorkshire. Decades of departmentalism are to be broken down by replacing the six departmental directors with four executive directors, who must ensure the authority's strategy is implemented across departments.

Fourteen assistant directors are to be replaced by nine service directors. The service directors will act as commissioners rather than line managers, to underline the purchaser/provider split introduced by compulsory competitive tendering (CCT).

"There is confusion at the moment about who is the client and who is the provider, and the needs of the provider always take priority over the needs of the client," complains Tony Elliston. "We will be splitting the commissioning role from the provider role.

"Most authorities have responded to CCT in a very defensive way. They have tried to keep services in-house, rather than try to improve services. Our basic services are failing. People have to start with a blank sheet of paper."

It may take some time before new legislation can be enacted to allow the Government to intervene in failing councils. John Prescott, Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, is likely to be happier using persuasion, and Hackney has just made his job a lot easier.

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