How good or bad is Oxford City Council?

by Stephen Tall on March 21, 2005

You might think this is a simple question. Let me show you how naïve you are in 10 steps.

    1. The City Council, like all local authorities, is subject to a huge amount of external regulation by the central government-created Audit Commission.
    2. The Commission sets around 150 Best Value Performance Indicators (BVPIs) for local authorities to measure: Oxford, as a district council, has 77 BVPIs to complete this year.
    3. These range from ‘% of top 5% earners employed by the Council that are from ethnic minorities’ to ‘Cleanliness of relevant land and highways’.
    4. These BVPIs are then set against other local authorities’ equivalent measurements according to ‘quartiles’. The best councils’ BVPIs are found in the top quartiles; the worst in the bottom quartiles.
    5. Then, each year, the Council has to produce a Best Value Performance Plan, “detailing current performance levels, actions of the councils, and future performance standards expected.”
    6. In 2004, the Council was subject to the Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA).
    7. The CPA involves an exhaustive three-stage programme: “a self-assessment completed by the Council; an accredited peer challenge to inform the Council’s self-assessment; and a corporate assessment of the council’s overall effectiveness in supporting services to deliver improvements.”
    8. The Commission then graded the Council, on a scale of 1-4, in 10 separate categories, such as ‘Ambition’ and ‘Prioritisation’.
    9. Finally, the Commission rated Oxford City Council as ‘weak’, the fourth lowest out of five possible rankings.
    10. The Council’s aim is to move up the rankings, from ‘weak’ to ‘fair’ to ‘good’, in the next three years when the Commission returns to deliver the next CPA report.

All this leaves those of us who are councillors, regardless of party, with two overlapping, and occasionally contradictory, issues to resolve.

The first is that the Council, if it is not to be branded ‘weak’ again, must improve in those areas defined by the Audit Commission as important. However, these will not always co-incide with our parties’ political priorities.

For example, if the Lib Dems’ amendment to introduce free bus travel for pensioners in this year’s City budget had been passed, the District Auditor might have criticised the Council for failing to prove there was sufficient demand among the public to justify such the expense. Yet this undermines the accountability of locally elected politicians to set their own agenda, and to be voted in or kicked out accordingly.

Secondly, improvements in this or that BVPI will sometimes leave the public feeling out-of-sorts with the Council. An obvious example would be dealing with all non-major planning applications within eight weeks – this inevitably means that many more applications are determined by unelected planning officers, rather than elected councillors. As a result, local people have less chance to have their say about what’s happening in their street. So an improvement in this BVPI might well lead to greater dissatisfaction with the City Council.

Don’t get me wrong: external regulation can have a use. I think the CPA inspection pulled the Council up short, forcing it to take a long, hard look at itself as others would see it – always a worthwhile discipline. In addition, the Government-imposed Best Value process is forcing the Council to work out how its scarce resources are best spent, and to decide whether the results are as anticipated.

Further, I believe the Audit Commission’s judgement on Oxford City Council was fair and accurate. I think that, as a result, the Council has set about making important improvements to the quality of the services it provides in some key areas. Indeed, I was quoted today in the Oxford Mail on just this issue (more negatively than I intended, but I wouldn’t take it back): ‘Council’s improved service “not enough”’ (21st March).

I can also understand why central government has grown frustrated with local councils’ failure to deliver key services to a good enough standard. Doubtless complaints from the public against local authorities account for a fair amount of many MPs’ mail-bags.

However, this quantification and enumeration can go too far, and there is a real danger that the auditing of local councils is reaching a ‘tipping point’ – that all this regulation will strangle improvements, squash local opinion, and stamp on democratic accountability. The danger is you prioritise an area not because you think it will make a genuine difference to the everyday life of an ordinary punter, but in order to tick the box that will get you a gold star from the Audit Commission.

As my boss, Tim Gardam, has written on the subject:

“taken to extremes, the regulator’s relentless quest to fit a number to everything diminishes the confidence to make independent minded, qualitative judgements … that by definition resist attempts to quantify them.”

If local councils are to be held truly accountable, they must have full responsibility for the services they provide. They will, inevitably, make a mess of it sometimes (just as New Labour did with the Dome and pensions). But it is for the voters to punish their mistakes: not the government, and certainly not the Audit Commission.