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Sydney Lenssen Making councils compete fairly

ANALYSIS

Countdown to Best Value - BV - for councils is under way. The Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions is inviting feedback for two more weeks, and by the end of November it will add teeth to the Local Government Act 1999.

On 2 January 2000, CCT (compulsory competitive tendering) will finally go. By the end of March, councils must publish BV performance plans to be vetted by independent auditors before July 2000.

The plans should spell out clearly how and why each authority delivers its local services, and provide a measure - cost, quality and the importance it attaches - to current services. Then the council must say what its stakeholders can expect in the future, which action will achieve what's promised, and when. True start of the best value era is next April, when all authorities including police, fire and social services will have a formal duty to improve performance year on year.

The driving force behind BV is local government minister Hilary Armstrong, backed by a team of keen DETR whizkids. They want to see 'imaginative councils challenging the status quo', responsive customer focused services to high stand- ards, 'local people deciding service levels and delivery' and much more.

Crucial to the BV process is the requirement that councils must review why, if at all, they are providing services and who is best placed to deliver. Hated CCT will go, but Government still wants competition on quality and value for money.

Over the past 18 months, ICE Past President David Green has chaired the ICE's BV taskforce, preparing a working guide for BV in the built environment. Due out early next year, it will be equally applicable to most council services, not only those involving civil engineers.

Green's career was mostly with public authorities and he is now a private consultant. His quick brain encompasses complex issues and cuts through the morass of detail that bedevils council procedures, standing orders and BV legislation.

The taskforce is dominated in numbers and ability to contribute by senior engineers from 40 local authorities, most of whom are increasingly embroiled in the reality of BV in their own offices. Private consultants and contractors make up a third of the group.

Green's vision was that the synergy between public and private sectors should add value and efficiency. Whatever the assumptions previously held about Labour party policies, that vision is still shared by Armstrong's DETR team.

Reality is not so easy. Municipal engineers, even those who have worked in both sectors, fall into three groups. Some deliberately chose public service and by conviction strongly prefer public provision; some are not committed politically - small 'p' - and feel duty bound to foster elected member preferences; and then there are those who simply see BV offering easy means to ensure in house continuity.

Prejudice is institutionalised. I have also met a few who have a genuinely open mind on private versus public sector provision, and relish the enabler role, competitive services, partnerships and co-operation with other councils.

Progress will be slow unless proactive measures, including positive discrimination, are prescribed for competition. Competing won't work if nebulous factors are allowed to tilt any process. 'Take into account appropriate workforce matters in the selection of tenderers and the award of contracts' says the new guidance, and that can mean anything up to 15% on the salary bill in my experience. By their nature, tenders are not transparent. One of the four Cs - challenge, consult, compare and compete - is already looking like a farce.

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