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Columnist of the Year Sydney Lenssen Defining best value

Mytown's local swimming pool was market tested two years ago, and although the in-house team won, the staff had to agree a cut in wages, 10% for the lowest paid up to 15% for the manager.

As a regular swimmer I had been critical of the cleanliness of the facilities and often wondered if the chattering staff would have spent so much time ignoring the customers if it had been a private health club. But pay cuts are serious and I sympathised with the manager. He was sanguine: 'If I was working for the new private company which runs the next borough's swimming pool, my take-home pay would be another 15% lower with longer hours.'

Mytown is 50 years old and beginning to be proud again of its network of cycle paths, entirely separate from road traffic. That concept was abandoned about 20 years ago, partly because they were strewn with broken glass and cyclists avoided them. As the town grew, cars and bicycles shared roads.

Five years ago the town started installing road humps and chicanes, and these have reduced speeding and road casualties. Now in the last year the humps and islands have had special cyclist channels cut through, carefully marked with white bicycle pictures. Pedestrians crossing the road now trip up and down kerbs and humps while dodging cars and bikes from all directions.

Meanwhile Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and local government minister Hilary Armstrong have launched their ambitious plans to modernise local government by issuing the consultation paper Improving local services through best value.

Best value, the paper says, is not just about economy and efficiency but also the quality and effectiveness of local services, and targets need to be set and performance checked. Authorities should ask why any particular service is provided at all. Although there is no presumption that services must be privatised, ministers see no reason why they should automatically be supplied in-house: 'What matters is what works.'

Competition is seen as an important management tool and a test of best value, but not an end in itself or sufficient to demonstrate best value. The paper suggests that the Audit Commission will check the integrity and comparability of performance, and authorities will be beaten with a big stick if they fail to achieve steady improvements.

The consultation paper is on the Internet at http://www., and its seven chapters are worth reading because they will radically affect the future way of working for many civil engineers. They reek of idealism, but the principles are surely welcome to every political persuasion.

Mytown's two tiny examples show how subjective any judgment on best value or community needs and priorities can be.

Last year's ICE president David Green spent most of his career with local authorities and was consulted by Conservative ministers before the election when the CCT plans had gone awry. He was consulted again by Hilary Armstrong when talk turned to best value and public/private partnerships. Instead of taking life easy now as past president, he has picked up the challenge to deliver a best practice guide showing how engineers can produce best value in the built environment.

Last week at Great George Street, a 40-strong group of public sector and private consulting engineers pledged help to produce the guide, if possible within the year, certainly in time for the forthcoming legislation. The task force aims to identify and compare examples of best practice and trial various options where possible.

Not everyone involved is yet convinced that harnessing the combined skills of public and private sector engineers is a worthy objective. But all want to replace the confrontation, fear and frustration of CCT. If the ICE task force can succeed in finding a realistic way to convert idealistic theory into workable practice, then it will deserve the gratitude of government, Mytown and every community.

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