Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 336-339)




  336. Welcome to the Committee. Does anybody want to make an introductory statement, or are you happy to continue with questions?
  (Mr Rogers) I would like to make a statement. We welcome the opportunity to work with the Government in effective partnership delivery, and in the short time that is available I should like to voice three concerns that we have. The first is in relation to the powers to charge and trade. While we welcome them, we would like to see them extended into the Bill so that they are defined in the Bill and given to all authorities and taken away only for those authorities that do not deserve them. We would also like to that these powers are not limited, so that if there is a discretionary service provided, the level of charges can also be discretionary. The second area is in relation to BIDs where we believe there are several key issues. The first is that it is important to involve property owners in the evolvement of BIDs, and certainly in the Westminster context that will be vital. Secondly, any services should be additional to those provided by local authorities, particularly those in a situation where 90 per cent of business rates in Westminster already goes out of the City. Thirdly, we believe that resident involvement is vital in that as well. The third area is the question of Comprehensive Performance Assessment, where we believe the process is flawed, ill-judged and rushed, and may well lead to damaging consequences for local authorities.


  337. Taking Westminster first, you say in your evidence that the Secretary of State will be given new and wide-ranging powers in the Bill. Can you explain that remark?
  (Mr Rogers) Some of the powers that were reserved to the Secretary of State impinge on what I regard as the statutory duty of a chief finance officer in a local authority under section 151, the powers for example to set minimum levels of reserve, and also to look at the level of balances associated with that. That is a normal function of a well-run local authority, and in my view it also recognises part of the auditor's role to validate the process that goes with that. There are other examples cited in various bits of the legislation. Another one is the power to cap charges through the discretionary services element. Again, it seems illogical to us that if there is a discretionary service that can be provided, that that level of charging should not be justified through market forces so that people either buy the service or do not. Those are the sorts of issues that arise. There are also several instances under the Capital Control Regulations where various pieces of definition have not yet been detailed and are subject to regulation. Again, that is prescribed as a reserve power through the Secretary of State.

  338. Throwing the question open, it is not very long ago that we had the White Paper, when the Government was claiming that it was going to fundamentally change the relationship between central and local government, and it held it up as a milestone on the way towards achieving that. It said that there would be a lot more trust for local authorities to get on and do things and deliver services to the people they represent. Do you think that that set of aspirations has been lived up to in the draft Bill?
  (Mr Rogers) No, I do not, and I think it is largely as a result of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment. The judgments are driven largely through the balance between national rather than local priorities. The categories that are being determined, are being driven largely by social services and education, not by the plethora of services that are provided for the local community. The freedoms will only be given to a small number of local authorities, not the majority of local authorities, and in my view that reeks of a parent/child relationship, where freedoms are dished out wen you have proved you deserve them, rather than there being trust between local and central government, with a real desire to improve in the short term at a much quicker rate.
  (Mr Nolan) Coventry has no objection to inspection or indeed intraspection. We have been looking at our own flaws: some things we do well and some things we do badly. We did have the feeling when the CPA came—and we have gone through the process now—an extremely good officer had to spend three months working on this when he could have occupied his time much more effectively—that it was rather like the Ten Commandments: you could keep nine of them, but if you buried your granny under the patio, you were doomed to everlasting damnation. As an example, in the last couple of weeks when this was going on, Coventry was trying to protect jobs, and still is, at Marconi; and Massey Ferguson had closed and we were trying to staff there. We have a very diverse, multicultural community, with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Kashmiri. We were talking to them to try and take the tensions out following what had happened on the Asian sub-continent. At the same time we had the young second generation Irish theatre group that was performing in Cork, doing a marvellous play. None of that would be taken into account, as far as we can see—the fact that our community leadership is strong and is expected to be strong. We have the feeling that whatever else the CPA is, comprehensive it is not; and there is this awful feeling that the situation is pre-judged even before anybody arrives on the scene; and yet we have spent literally months going through what we do, item by item.

Sir Paul Beresford

  339. Have you an estimate of the costs of that inspection at this stage?
  (Mr Nolan) Not at this moment.
  (Mr Rogers) I can give you some figures for Westminster, but I am talking entirely from memory. In the first year of Best Value we recorded all of our staff time associated with Best Value inspections, and it cost us a million pounds. The benefits that accrued from those inspections could be measured in tens of thousands. The timescale involved with CPA, on a conservative estimate, is probably a month of local authority paralysis while it is compiling and justifying evidence before the inspection. That is largely to fit the straightjacket in terms of how we produce evidence, which, again, is largely based on the existing inspection data when the results come through the CPA process. In my view, it would be perfectly feasible for the existing inspectors to come to a judgment using their own inspection data, to decide those authorities where intervention was merited or where support was needed, without putting the vast majority of authorities to the unnecessary burden.

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