oneplace screenNothing like a happy hypocrite. Despite whole-heartedly concurring with the council’s decision to do minimal work for the assessment I’m still chuffed to see that Wandsworth is an excellent council according to the Audit Commission.

What has been interesting, though, since the council’s announcement are the number of people who – privately and publicly – have backed the council. As far as I know none have gone as far as well and H&F have, in saying that we will offer the minimum co-operation with the review process, but it’s clear that there is a lot of disquiet out there and the process will have to change if it isn’t to be discredited.

If you are interested you can find Wandsworth’s assessment on the oneplace website (although the second link, at the time of writing, wasn’t working).

I was surprised that the weekend announcement that Wandsworth, joined by Hammersmith and Fulham, would be limiting their involvement with the Comprehensive Area Assessment didn’t get more coverage.

On reflection, it was only a surprise because of who I am and what I do. I’m a councillor, so am aware of the amount of work these things involve, and also (and this is also a declaration of interest) do some – very limited – work for the Audit Commission as a ‘Lead Support Peer’ . This, to me, was a big thing. But not to anyone else, it turns out.

The lack of coverage probably shows why it was the right thing to do. For years we’ve been working hard to do well in these assessments, but when it comes down to it no-one really cares. It reminds me of the lesson I learnt years ago (to which I’ve referred before) that it’s terribly easy to think that you are involved in the most important thing in the world when, in fact, you never are.

This isn’t to say that the Comprehensive Area Assessment and its predecessors weren’t useful and didn’t serve a purpose. The really bad, and often mad, councils that littered the country hardly exist anymore. This, in no small part, is down to the rigour of a national inspection regime. To condemn it as a box-ticking exercise (as I have in the title, though I never claimed consistency) betrays a lack of understanding of what it has achieved elsewhere. Assessments can be incredibly positive things, helping an organisation or individual improve. I’ve seen this happen too many times to believe assessment per se is a bad thing.

But while they helped the really poor councils improve to a more acceptable standard, they did nothing for the high performing councils. And this is where Wandsworth has suffered. For years we were promised that high performing councils would get more freedoms, but few were forthcoming, and none were that meaningful. Instead we found ourselves going through the processes of completing self-assessments, providing evidence, being interviewed, hosting the assessment teams and general scurrying about. And it had a huge cost.

The council’s press release suggest they cost the local tax-payer around £200,000. I’m not going to quibble that figure. I have been an advocate for withdrawing from these assessments for a few years now, largely after seeing how much time senior officers were spending pleasing external assessors rather than local residents. It seemed that for at least a quarter of any year I had another priority forced on me – “The Assessment”. It didn’t matter what I felt was important, or what demands we faced from residents, somewhere and somehow we had to service the needs of the assessment. To me, having to dedicate officer time for an annual review rather than serving local residents to get nothing in return is a price not worth paying.

And most residents didn’t care that we were a four star authority (I would guess most would assume the top score was actually five), instead they cared that we emptied the bins, removed graffiti promptly, fixed our roads, looked after the young and the old, maintained our parks or any of the other services Wandsworth performs excellently on a daily basis.

The problem with the assessments for a high performing borough was that instead of being something that helped us improve, it became something that got in the way. Instead of helping us meet the priorities of residents, we were meeting the priorities of assessment teams. And instead of bringing us more freedom, it tied us down year after year.

Perhaps we took too long, but I think we’ve come to the right decision.

I mentioned Wandsworth’s great results in the Audit Commission’s place survey in a post last week.

Over the weekend a short article by the council Leader, Edward Lister, appeared on the ConservativeHome website. (I’ve included the whole article at the end of this post.)

Obviously, I’m not going to disagree with his article – he’s basically my boss, and I’m not that stupid – but I would go further. Towards the end of the article Edward says:

…we should show above all that we are in tune with what people want in their lives – and relate this to a new understanding of what the public sector is for.

David Cameron will be elected with a mandate for radical change, and should use it. The UK has seen an unremitting tide of centralisation over the past 12 years and it’s time for it to be reversed.

Now many will point to the Thatcher government as centralising, but it tended to prescribe rather than control – councils were required to work in certain ways or prevented from undertaking certain actions – but in many ways it made little difference; it was remarkable, for example, how many Direct Service Organisations ‘won’ compulsory competitive tenders in old Labour authorities.

The Blair and Brown centralisation has been much more directive while wearing the clothes of localism. Labour’s new localism may have involved delegating powers, but it would come with an array of targets and quotas that meant local government was little more than an agency of central government and often given extra duties without sufficient extra resources.

The Conservative government needs to push power as close to the people as it can be. We currently have a state in which power is wielded in Whitehall, leaving people dependent on, and dismissive of, a remote and disinterested ‘state’.

If people are to have faith in politics again, then politics needs to mean something. The easiest and best way is to empower local councils so their decisions, reflecting the will of their communities, can show what real politics is about – effecting positive change.

And Wandsworth has been more of an exception than the rule in this. The Conservative council has a clear mission to provide quality services with low tax, and has been incredibly successful in delivering this. But in the majority of councils where everything is driven by central targets and Whitehall diktat and it’s easy to see why people take the view that it doesn’t matter who you vote for.

To be sure, it would be a brave decision for the Cameron government to give real power back to local councils. It doesn’t just mean, in some cases, giving power to Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, it also means giving councils freedom to do things differently and sometimes make mistakes. But that would also be part of creating political accountability at a local level. Having real power exercised locally will mean that people will start to see how important their vote really is, and that it can make a difference.

The full ConservativeHome article:

Cllr Edward Lister: Lessons from Wandsworth for David Cameron

There’s lessons for David Cameron in this week’s survey results on people’s attitudes to their local authority and the place where they live.

In Wandsworth’s case the Government’s Place Survey gave us approval ratings to die for – top in the country on value for money (73 per cent) and top again for satisfaction with the council (75 per cent).

In London average satisfaction scores fell – down to 49 per cent. So what is Wandsworth doing that is different?

Well we do have the clear advantage of the UK’s lowest council tax – but that’s only one component. When residents are judging us on value for money they are influenced by their overriding perception of what the authority is about.

How was I treated last time I dealt with the town hall? Does the council share my concerns on quality of life issues? And how does it look after the local area?

The Wandsworth formula has been finely tuned over the years. Through a rigorous process of scrutiny and challenge that stretches into every corner of municipal activity we make sure we get the last pound of value from every service.

And like any sound business we don’t just do this once – it is a constant process of review which keeps asking why things are done the way are – and whether they could be done differently.

Wandsworth has a young and fast-changing population. Most people are here because they want to be here. It’s our job to identify with the aspirations of our residents and protect the character and quality of the place where they have chosen to live.

A Cameron government will have its work cut out getting the public finances in order – it will have to move very quickly to demonstrate that it knows how to get real value from all that hard earned taxpayers’ money.

Cutting waste and insisting on value for money from public services will be a popular strategy to start with. But it needs to go deeper if it is to generate and sustain voters’ trust in the longer term.

As Conservatives we should show above all that we are in tune with what people want in their lives – and relate this to a new understanding of what the public sector is for.

It’s about saying to the public ‘we are there for you’ – and meaning it.

The Audit Commission‘s place survey was published the other day and makes good reading for Wandsworth, especially as they reflect public opinion rather than the results of an external assessors checklist. Basically, it’s what you think of Wandsworth.

Of course, the temptation is just to highlight what you might think are the ‘top two’: value for money and quality services. In both Wandsworth came top in the country – more people in Wandsworth think the “council provides value for money” and were “very or fairly satisfied with how [the] council runs things” than in any other authority.

But there were a number of other good results. For example, by my reckoning we came fifth on parks and open spaces – impressive when you consider we are an inner London borough. And overall 85% of people think Wandsworth is a good place to live.

There were the odd results. 37.9% of people feel they can influence decisions in the area, but only 13.8% of people have been involved in decision making recently. It would be interesting to see if we can tease out more information to explain why the first figure is so low and why there’s such a difference between it and the second figure.

And there are, of course, results that show there is work that needs to be done. Wearing my community safety hat I was astounded that only 11% feel they would know what to do if there were a major incident. When you consider the government’s nationwide resilience campaign and the strong emergency planning we have locally along with the disproportionate fear of a major incident in Wandsworth (the latest survey showed around half the Wandsworth population feared a major terrorist attack within the borough) it’s very surprising that number is so low.

But these shouldn’t detract from those top two. The primary function of a council is to provide quality services to its residents, so it’s great to be told by residents that they think we are number one for service and value.

It was great to have confirmation that the audit commission have, once again, given Wandsworth’s services a top rating of 4* as an authority – the seventh successive year our services have been given the highest rating.

It gets even better that we’re still assessed as ‘improving strongly’ and that we’ve got top marks for ‘use of resources’ (essentially, we’re good value for money).

But when you add to all that our position as the UK’s lowest council tax it proves that we’re not idly boasting when we say we’re number one for service and value.

You can read more in the press release on the council’s website.

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