County excellent, districts not so

DISTRICT councils across Suffolk have been told to improve after an Audit Commission investigation found major deficiencies in the way they are providing services to the public.

By Graham Dines

DISTRICT councils across Suffolk have been told to improve after an Audit Commission investigation found major deficiencies in the way they are providing services to the public.

Their performance is in stark contrast to the county council, which is one of several counties in England to be branded "excellent" after a detailed inspection by Commission staff.

Suffolk was promoted from last year's good rating to excellent mainly on the strength of improvements to social care, while Essex county council receives a good rating for the third successive year. Districts in Essex were handed their rating reports in the summer.


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One Suffolk district authority – Waveney – was branded weak, while Mid Suffolk, Forest Heath and Suffolk Coastal only managed a `fair' rating from Commission inspectors.

The top performing councils Babergh and St Edmundsbury joined previously audited Ipswich as good, which is still below the coveted award of `excellent' handed out to councils considered to offer exceptional service.

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Suffolk joins Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire county councils and the Essex unitary council of Thurrock as councils given an excellent rating in the East of England.

Suffolk was jubilant. Council leader Bryony Rudkin said to achieve the top rating "we had to demonstrate we are totally committed and have the plans and capacity to make real improvements to the quality of people's lives in Suffolk. This recognition is a tribute to everyone who works for the authority."

Chief Executive Mike More added: "Successful teams don't stop once they put the cup in the trophy cabinet. There is always more to do."

Suffolk Coastal district admitted its deflation at being rated only fair. Council leader Ray Herring said: "I am disappointed the report has not given recognition to the hard work of employees and councillors.

."This council has introduced major changes over the past two years, partly because of the Government but also because we knew we had to modernise all aspects of the way we work to remain an effective organisation for our residents.

"Our major challenge has been to address the enormous financial pressures caused by the lack of adequate Government funding and ever increasing demands."

Counties and unitary authorities below the excellent rating are audited annually while districts are inspected in batches every other year in an exercise known as comprehensive performance assessment (CPA), undertaken by the Audit Commission.

James Strachan, the Commission's Chairman, said the audit "provides a powerful tool to make services better. The findings published today will provide the basis for future improvement plans. The Commission will help by focusing its attention where it is necessary and most productive."

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SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL

Rated excellent

Commended for:

Significant improvements to most services, particularly children's. 62% of performance indicators showed improvement. Progress in improving its corporate ability generally impressive. Performance overall among top 25% of councils. Educational attainment remains high. Library services improved. Waste management performance strong.

Where improvements are needed:

Maintenance of roads and footpaths. Local people expressed a reduced level of satisfaction with the council's services.

ESSEX COUNTY COUNCIL

Rated good

Commended for:

Good and improving value for money. Progress made in older people's services. Recycling increased from 23 to 25%. The council continued to improve performance overall with 54% of performance indicators improving.

Where improvements are needed:

The council missed the majority of its targets in 2003/04. Maintenance of roads declined and the reduction in accidents below average compared with other councils in 2003/04. The council is going through a number of changes including some senior management appointments – while changes are taking place, the council needs to ensure that the focus on service delivery continues.

BABERGH

Rated `good'

Commended for:

Strong political and managerial leadership and sound financial management. Improvements made to housing, waste minimisation and recycling services. Major environmental improvements in Sudbury and Great Cornard. Residents' high satisfaction with the council.

Where improvements are needed:

Rigorous service standards needed for all council departments to benefit residents and enable council to drive up improvements. Council's plans aspirational and lack clear milestones by which to measure progress.

FOREST HEATH

Rated fair

Commended for:

Waste services and the high number of homes achieving 1decent homes' standard. Improved response times to planning applications. Environment enhancements in town centres, particularly Brandon.

Where improvements are needed:

Poor track record of delivering affordable housing. Performance management not used to improve all services and councillors fail to effectively challenge service performance.

MID SUFFOLK

Rated fair

Commended for:

Environmental management and council tax collection; significant improvement in recycling, regeneration, and on-line delivery. Listens to young people, especially on provision of sports, leisure and arts. Tenants satisfied with housing benefit service

Where improvements are needed:

Service quality varies considerably and performances weak in affordable housing, housing management and planning control. Council not clear on its priorities; resources stretched. Weaknesses in financial and staffing capacity and some management systems such as performance measurement.

ST EDMUNDSBURY

Rated good

Commended for:

Recycling, waste collection, planning. Working well with partners to provide housing needs for residents. Major regeneration plans for Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill. Manages budget well.

Where improvements are needed:

Street cleaning and the time taken to process benefits claims. Residents must be told what standards of service they should expect.

SUFFOLK COASTAL

Rated fair

Commended for:

Increasing efficiency and value for money. Investing in new ways of working with public, private voluntary partners. Balancing economic growth with environmental protection.

Where improvements are needed:

Long term priorities indecision. Failed to engage effectively with service users and its rural communities. No sufficient impact on managing better performance on speed of planning decisions, increasing supply and range of affordable housing, and helping communities minimise waste.

WAVENEY

Rates weak

Commended for:

Regenerating Lowestoft town centre, market towns, and deprived area

Significant improvements in recycling domestic waste.

Where improvements are needed:

Too many objectives, many of which not sufficiently specific. Overall financial position weak; a poor understanding of how effective it is in delivering value for money. Benefits service takes too long to process claims. Performance management arrangements poor, which is a significant barrier to progress.

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