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Sydney Lenssen Still struggling on the road to municipal enlightenment

At the end of July, John Prescott and Hilary Armstrong issued their White Paper on modernising local government. Town and county halls are already whispering a new mantra: Challenge, compare, consult and compete.

This time next year most public authority engineers as well as those working for them will be infected. By April 2000 councils not already launched on best value procedures will be haunted by it.

Over recent years, compulsory competitive tendering has done more than anything to sour relations between central and local governments. Labour in opposition promised to get rid of compulsion, but now it will only do so in return for local authorities delivering continuously improving - cheaper or better quality - services.

Every service provided is to be challenged. Is it justified? Is it being provided in the most sensible way? Can community needs be met in new ways?

Authorities will then have to compare their performance with others, not only other authorities in bench marking clubs, but also other public, private or voluntary bodies.

Authorities will have a duty to consult. The Government wants the people to have a real say in those services affecting them. If effective communication can be established, then providers should be able to prove that they supply what the community is prepared to pay for.

Last of the four Cs is competition. Government policy wants a competitive economy with a flexible labour market. Local authority employees should be able to transfer to other employers if this is in the public interest or in the quest for best value.

No matter how carefully couched, competition poses the same threat to jobs as CCT. But for the first years, when the Government needs to make best value yield obvious results to the electorate, ministers are unlikely to impose competition on unwilling councils.

The target is to get local authority reform into place for the year starting April 2000, which means legislating during the next parliamentary session. But councils are urged not to wait for legislation and many changes can be started straight away.

The ICE task force on best value in the built environment, which has attracted the efforts of 25 authorities, nine consultants and three contractors, has drafted the structure of a best practice guide which chairman David Green hopes to publish early next year.

On 19 October, a national conference at Great George Street will allow ideas and ambitions to be tossed around.

Enthusiasm for the changes is running high, and the only obvious concerns are how to get on with best value and bench marking, and whether the new procedures can translate idealism into sound practise.

One vital key to success is the pilot programme started in April, in which 40 authorities will pioneer best value procedures over the next two years. The results will be closely monitored by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Warwick Business School.

Some authorities, like Warwickshire County Council and Newham, are reviewing all services, while Southampton City Council has set itself the task of 'improving the quality of life for older people'. Hopes for this worthy but nebulous challenge are that it will show how best value can embrace in-house and other agency services in combination.

Warwick Business School must measure what is gained over the two year trial and identify which approaches to best value seem to work well and could form models for other authorities to adopt. Note the reluctance to instruct or order. Best value is all about flexibility at this stage.

What is being attempted is worthwhile, certainly ambitious, but by no means easy. If this drive to modernise local government fails, it could cost the next general election.

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