Some good news yesterday. The Audit Commission has announced the results of the latest Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) of Local Authorities. Yet again Darlington is assessed a 4-star Council. A result in marked contrast to nearby Redcar and Cleveland, where the new Labour administration has plunged the authority to two stars from the four held when the Lib Dems held power in alliance with the Conservatives.
Our result is a testament to the staff of the Council who work very hard to provide decent services and keep the Council at this high level.
Unfortunately, the CPA does not tell the whole story. In fact, CPA is being abolished as of the end of this month, to be replaced by something better. Being graded “Excellent” in a flawed process is better than being graded “Poor.” But the process is indeed flawed, and we shouldn’t get carried away.
The CPA is, as the title suggests, quite a comprehensive way of assessing services. But the way that it does so is very much to do with performance statistics, which can mean the targeting of resources to meet targets and tick boxes rather than to respond to what citizens on the street actually want. It’s a flaw which has long been evident yet never been properly corrected.
I wonder if the Commission would have the same view if they lived here and had to deal with the problems ward councillors deal with every day: litter un-swept, graffiti un-cleaned, and roads and pavements un-repaired? I doubt it. The people who work for Street Scene are not to blame. When we report problems, in general, they could not be more helpful and cheerful, and the problems usually get sorted out. But a better service would mean these problems wouldn't arise in the first place. These problems aren’t to do with bad staff, they're to do with lack of resources and not listening to local people. And CPA doesn’t have anything to say about that.
CPA does not concern itself with customer satisfaction. It relys on tri-annual surveys rather than mystery shopping or the experience of Councillors. The process has also been far too heavily weighted to national priorities at the expense of local ones, and has put adherence to government wish lists ahead of proper local scrutiny.
These weaknesses are evident. For a Council to be declared “excellent” just a week after it cuts services and raises taxes is crazy. Everyone knows about the overspends and delays on major vanity projects. And we have the highest primary school pupil-teacher ratio in the region, by far. I could go on...
There is nothing about this in the congratulatory press releases released by the Council yesterday.
Everyone is pleased that targets have been hit and the veneer of “excellent” assured. I live in Darlington and I love it. I am a proud and strong supporter of local government and what it can do. The more Councils that can describe themselves as excellent, the better. But it would be better still if they actually were excellent!
The reality is that things are far from excellent, and that even this pretend excellence of CPA will not be maintained if staff cuts continue, if local priorities continue to be ignored, and if services continue to be cut.