Undefeated champs?

PICKLES – with a surname like that, no need for first names – has decided to chop the Audit Commission. A £50 million saving. Private companies will instead be hired to scrutinise the books of local authorities. A couple of well known firms who tend to colonise this area of work in regional government will be rubbing their hands at that.

Before its demise, the Audit Commission would get a quote in local papers up and down the country each year when it  handed out star ratings to Town Halls after its brief inspections. Their scores set up a bit of rivalry in local government circles. Those who did well generated envy in those still, in the eyes of AC inspectors at least, in need of improvement. In theory, high scores also helped councils attract the best staff and have less combative relations with central government. So while anybody outside of the Town Hall thought it was all a bit small potatoes, the chart-makers inside felt it was rather more important.

And four stars were flauntable. Two years ago Camden Council cracked four stars in every department – an achievement  unmatched in the history of the Commission’s inspections.

In May 2008, I wrote in the Camden New Journal:

“Stop rubbing your eyes, when it comes to the local authority league tables Camden, it was revealed on Tuesday, is ahead of all the rest. Top of the heap. A-number one. In the eyes of inspectors from the government-appointed Audit Commission, the Town Hall is not just the best council in the country but effectively its best council ever.

It may seem like a bold boast but never before have inspectors been so generous with their marks, doling out the maximum four stars in every discipline following a two-week inspection just before Christmas. It’s like a figure skater seeing the judges unveil a rack of straight sixes.”

Fancy that? If you read on of course… not everybody agreed that Camden was so special. And these top inspection scores seemed to count for little when Camden’s electorate voted for a change of power at the Town Hall in this year’s local elections.

Still, if the AC is gone – and Camden Council scored the highest marks in the history of the informal local authority championship it unwittingly set up, does that mean the game ends with Camden undefeated?



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2 replies

  1. It is worth remembering that a distinguished member of the Audit Commission was Roy Shaw who was recruited for his experience and expertise on local government which was such that he served for an extra term because no suitable replacement could be found.

    Nick

  2. Good point Nick.

    Camden was one of the highest rated council in 2006 as well, the previousw administration put a lot of effort in to getting the top mark, although I’ve always suspected that with regards to the ‘final two’ to be considered for the top marks (Westminster and Camden) that Camden was always going to be the more poplular choice – as it were.

    Re: Audit Commission – is it any surprise that at a time when government are cutting programmes they subjectively dub ‘wasteful’ and, more generally, are taking money away from base budgets that they also take away the means by which local authority performance can be compared – so we have a sense of which ones are good and which ones are bad (in the worse case, which ones are terrible?)

    Targets can be ‘gamed’, so that’s why you need tough independent audit to arrest this. What you will have instead is large private firms auditing the same authorities they are also selling consultancy services to (at a colective price of well more thna £50m!). The confluence between audit and service-sales collapsed in the US after Enron, and indeed the banking crisis. Why do the Tories and Lib Dems think that’s such a swell idea?

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