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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 88)(HC 305) on Special Grant for Activities Undertaken by Beacon Councils

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 12 November 2001

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 88) (HC 305) on Special Grant for Activities Undertaken by Beacon Councils

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 88) (HC 305) on special grant for activities undertaken by beacon councils.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 81) (HC 276) on 2001-02 special grant for gypsy sites refurbishment.

Dr. Whitehead: It is a pleasure, Mr. Benton, to serve under your chairmanship.

Special grant report No. 88 allows the distribution of £1.7 million to beacon councils. Those councils are now well into a programme of roadshows, open days and other events from which all local authorities can learn. The events give the authorities the opportunity to improve the services they offer to local people. The special grant is the Government's contribution to their costs.

The effective provision of quality services, whether they are provided centrally or locally, is a priority. We should be proud of the many examples of excellence in service delivery in local government. The sharing of that excellence is a key to raising standards in service delivery throughout local government, and it is a vital element in the pursuit of best value. The beacon scheme celebrates excellence in local government; above all, it enables learning and allows examples of excellent practice to be shared more widely for the benefit of people throughout the country.

Each year, local authorities are invited to apply to become beacon councils under one of several specific themes. The themes vary from year to year, but they are always things that matter to local people. The eleven themes for round 2 are: accessible services; competitiveness and enterprise; foster care; independent living for older people; local health strategies; maintaining a quality environment; raising attainment of education; regenerating through culture, sport and tourism; tackling vehicle crime; tackling youth drug misuse; and town centre regeneration.

To be awarded beacon council status, applicant councils must be able to show excellence in the service theme for which they apply. They must also show good general performance in all their services, and they must have plans for the effective dissemination of best practice. The programme of dissemination events is co-ordinated by the Improvement and Development Agency; the work began in April. Showcase events for each theme and subsequent open days are hosted individually by authorities for the first two rounds of the beacon scheme. The events have been attended by almost every English council, which gives a clear indication that local authorities are keen to be involved in the scheme and to learn from the best.

Beacon status is awarded not only for excellence but for the ability to communicate that excellence to others. As well as events co-ordinated by the IDeA, beacon councils are providing other ways to learn. Secondment, work-shadowing and networking opportunities, one-to-one visits and site visits, websites and printed documents are among the ways that beacon councils are disseminating information.

Of course, none of that dissemination could take place without the councils' willingness to dedicate some of their resources to carrying out their duty as beacons. Although the recognition and respect that beacons receive from their peers is valuable, we intend also to give direct support to beacon councils to offset the costs incurred as a result of their status. We promised £1.7 million to the beacon councils in this round, and the special grant report indicates the method by which we hope to deliver that promise.

The grant will be a major contribution to the costs involved in being a beacon council. Those costs include the expansion of websites, the provision of publicity materials, travel and subsistence for staff. Beacon councils have opportunities to raise income through open days and consultancy to contribute towards meeting the costs involved in disseminating the excellence for which beacon council status is awarded.

The reports set out the way in which, beginning in the second year of the scheme, we plan to distribute the £1.7 million among the 43 successful bids from 39 councils. Some of the language in the reports looks a little technical, but the purpose is straightforward. Councils apply for special grant by submitting to the Government a formal dissemination plan setting out what they will do to share their good practice—the events they will hold, the publicity materials they will produce, the websites they will develop—and the costs and income involved.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Will the Minister confirm that 179 applications were received from 123 councils for the current year, but that only those of the 49 councils listed in the reports as eligible for grant have been successful? Have only 49 out of 179 applications have been successful?

Dr. Whitehead: Yes, it is true that in every year of the scheme substantially larger numbers have applied for beacon status than have been granted it. Hon. Members will understand that that is in line with the nature of the programme: designation is not automatic, but is based on excellence and the ability to disseminate it to other local authorities.

All the rounds, including the third round that is now getting under way, have different but substantial themes. Councils to which beacon status is awarded will have demonstrated the excellence of their proposal and the way in which it reflects a theme. Several themes will, therefore, be represented, although local authority applications will not be divided neatly among the themes. Therefore, a substantial number of councils will apply, but, for the reasons that I have outlined, some will not obtain beacon status.

Mr. Moss: Is it also true that the Minister's Department turned down applications from councils that the advisory panel proposed for beacon status? The independent panel is saying, ``Yes, this council is doing everything right,'' but the Government are turning round and saying, ``No, that's not good enough.''

Dr. Whitehead: It is true that the advisory panel makes proposals, but the eventual choice does not rest entirely with it precisely because it is an advisory panel. Some suggested candidates for beacon status will, therefore, not reach the pages of the special grant reports. Furthermore, it is necessary to secure a certain distribution of beacon councils geographically and in terms of the headings for that year's round. Therefore, a final choice must be made about which councils will make the final cut and obtain beacon council status. That is not to say that councils that do not do so are inferior or less worthy—indeed, several local authorities that did not gain beacon status in round 1 submitted proposals for slightly different areas and obtained beacon status in round 2.

Mr. Moss: Is there not a fundamental flaw? Councils, especially bigger ones, may submit applications on behalf of one or more of their departments. Those departments may do something spectacular, and under normal circumstances would sail through and obtain beacon status, but because other departments in the council did badly, the application might be turned down. I have in mind the case of Brent council. Surely councils would not bother to apply in future, because no council in the country has every department worthy of beacon status in its own right.

Dr. Whitehead: There are reasons why any council's application succeeds or not. In some circumstances, the result of work undertaken by departments of councils has impinged on the granting of beacon status. To tackle the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question, I emphasise the fact that a council's not being perfect in all departments does not preclude it from gaining beacon status for the activity for which a proposal is made. Several local authorities with difficulties in some departments obtained beacon status because of the excellence of the proposals made, the excellence of work in the relevant department, and the fact that the council was capable of disseminating that standard of work to other local authorities.

Mr. Moss: Can the Minister give an example of such a council?

Dr. Whitehead: It would be invidious to name names. However, several local authorities—City of Bradford metropolitan district council, Coventry city council, Stevenage borough council and Tameside metropolitan borough council—held beacon status in round 1 for the purpose of community safety in local shopping areas and the prevention of town centre crime and disorder. That is not to say that all those councils are excellent at everything that they do. Similarly, for the purpose of helping to raise standards by tackling school failure, North Tyneside borough council, Suffolk county council, the London borough of Camden and Blackburn with Darwen borough council obtained beacon status. Again, those authorities are not excellent in all aspects of their work.

The excellence of applications and of the particular function carried out by the local authority are recognised for beacon status. Most importantly, a key factor in awarding beacon status is the ability of the local authority to inform and assist other local authorities by disseminating the results of that excellence to them.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Should my hon. Friend not emphasise the point that a council cannot simply have an excellent service in one department and suck resources from others into that one excellent aspect of its performance? Instead, a council is required to have at least a competent or good performance across the range of its functions before it can have beacon status in one or two.

 
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