Audit Commission runs the rule over Las

The Audit Commission inspectors, who rate the performance of local authorities under the Best Value regime, report on the strengths and weaknesses of operations ranging from street cleansing through waste management to environmental services. LAWE looks at how the Best Value scheme can help to improve performance and service delivery

Slough Borough Council came in for some of the toughest criticism in the waste sector from the Audit Commission, which rated the authority’s waste services as “no star” out of a possible three star.

However, the inspection team considered that “there are excellent prospects for improvement.”

Jane Wreford, Director, Southern Region, Audit Commission, said: “Slough Borough has recognised that the delivery of the waste services has been poor in recent years and has decided to combine all of its waste and street scene services into a new integrated contract. This will be provided by a private sector partner from November 2002.”

She added: “The council has given careful thought to the improved standards it wants to achieve for waste management and street scene services in Slough. It has also responded very positively to recommendations made by the Audit Commission following our initial inspection of the service in late 2001.

“The new contract will have payments linked to performance standards to achieve these targets, and should thereby ensure that the quality of the service improves.”

Poor prospects

Another authority coming in for severe criticism by the Commission is Teesdale District Council whose refuse collection and vehicle management services are described as “fair” but having “poor prospects for improvement.”

The council service rated only one star says the Audit Commission, “because, although most local people are satisfied with the service, only four per cent is recycled and refuse collection is expensive compared with other local councils.”

Pat Thynne, Commissioning Inspector, said: “The council has not consulted with local people about how to improve services, and its improvement plan does not include clear targets or focus on the needs of customers.

“The council must work more closely with local people to ensure they are aware of new initiatives such as the kerbside wheeled bin collection system, as well as wider concerns such as the Government’s recycling targets. It must also develop and publish clear service standards and improve the cost effectiveness of the services.”

While the inspection report highlights some strengths, such as the recent adoption of a waste management plan for Teesdale that supports the countrywide strategy for dealing with waste, it also points to many shortcomings in the services.

These include:

  • there are no service standards which local residents can use to measure service performance
  • local communities have not been consulted on the waste management plan, which does not clearly address local issues. The service does not place enough emphasis on waste minimisation

  • the size, range and age of the vehicle fleet compromise the cost effectiveness of vehicle maintenance

Service improvements

The inspectors made several recommendations to help the service improve, including:

  • as a matter of urgency, ensure local people know about the new kerbside wheeled bin collection system. They should also be made aware of the council’s responsibilities in relation to meeting recycling and waste minimisation targets.
  • as a matter or urgency, develop a project plan for putting in place the new refuse collection system, ensuring that local people have their say about how this is done. Set challenging, but achievable, targets for each stage in the process
  • improve value for money and cost effectiveness with the aim of matching the performance of the top performing councils

Street and amenity cleansing

The Audit Commission Best Value inspection team reported that the Street and Amenity Cleansing Service provided by Fylde Borough Council was “good and will probably improve.”

The service rated two stars because it had some very positive features, including very clean streets and verges in rural areas and a fast response to flytipping and abandoned vehicles. The beach was generally clean.

Jo Webb, Lead Inspector, Northern Region Best Value Inspection Service, said: “The council now has a comprehensive improvement plan in place, including a commitment to seeking competitive tenders for the service in two years’ time if the targets in the plan have not been achieved.

“Strategies for waste management, dealing with litter and managing the beach will all be finalised soon. In addition there is a strong commitment to improve from the new Chief Executive, the Chair of the Environment Committee and the staff.”

Environmental services

The Audit Commission reviewed the environmental services provided by Babergh District Council which were rated as “good” and having “promising prospects for further improvement”. The inspection team gave the service two stars because “generally good levels of performance are being achieved at low cost.”

Residents expressed high levels of satisfaction with refuse collection, recycling and street cleaning.

Edwina Child, Commissioning Inspector, Central Region Audit Commission Inspection Service, said: “Our inspection confirmed that the council provides good refuse collection, street cleaning, pest control, environmental health and other environmental services. This is achieved at comparatively low cost.

“However,” the inspector added, “our findings show that the council needs to improve contract monitoring and also to communicate better with residents. A major challenge is that a very high level of domestic waste is produced in the district. Effort needs to be focused on waste minimisation.”

Key strengths highlighted in the inspection report are:

  • generally good levels of performance (for example, in recycling, street cleaning, reliability of refuse collection and inspection of food premises) are being achieved at low cost
  • the council works well in partnership with neighbouring authorities and other organisations to achieve its aims and national priorities
  • the council implements the principles of good enforcement in environmental health

In order the help the service improve, the inspectors made a number of recommendations, including:

  • continue to develop communications and educational activities which will ensure that key environmental messages get across to the public
  • ensure that services are being delivered in the best way possible and further develop partnerships with contractors to ensure delivery of the improvement plan and continuous enhancement of services for users.
  • set clear targets for the next five years for all aspects of the service to ensure that performance matches that of the top 25% of similar councils

The recommendations for improvement reflect a key role for the Audit Commission as the Government has placed a duty of Best Value on councils requiring them to improve local services over the next five years. Councils have to report annually on their performance (Best Value Performance Plans) and review all of their services over the next five years in order to identify and achieve continual improvements in local services.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie