Lewisham Council: The Verdict

Yesterday's debate about Brockley's Chattering Classes went in all kinds of unexpected directions - we're still trying to decide whether the resulting argument supported or undermined our original theory about the nature of Brockley's chatter.

One of the issues raised was whether the Council delivers a good and cost effective service. Well, according to the Audit Commission, whose job it is to assess these things, Lewisham fares pretty well. In the last report, dated October 2007, it scores 4 overall, which means that it is "well above minimum requirements – performing strongly." Now admittedly, this is in comparison with other Councils, which means that it may not be the strongest benchmark to set it against, but the key findings of the report are:

"The Council is performing strongly. It is working for and delivering real improvements for Lewisham. It is with its partners extremely ambitious in creating and seizing opportunities to improve life chances for its young people and regenerate its diverse area, many parts of which are deprived but well-placed to develop. Its ambition to make Lewisham the most liveable and sustainable community in the most successful city in Europe is based on an exceptionally good understanding of its communities and their potential. Over the last five years the Council has prioritised clearly and delivered successfully improvements that are central to its vision, particularly the attainment of young people and the condition of streets and open spaces. Better transport links to London's commercial centres are fostering well-targeted regeneration. Strong partnerships deliver more than the sum of their parts including some world-class integrated facilities for local people. Some lower-priority services currently perform only adequately, but improvements are mostly in hand.

"The Council has achieved well against its key priorities over the last five years including important and continuing gains in school attendance, pupil attainment and the prospects of young people leaving care, in better-maintained and outstandingly clean streets and parks, measurably reduced deprivation overall and better energy use. Regeneration is building on the unique characters of communities, making good use of new transport links which have been achieved through active lobbying and starting to exploit the possibilities of the London Olympics. Remaining challenges, on which the Council is strongly focused, include securing an ambitious Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme to support its plans for education development, improving social housing through a complex stock transfer, and major regeneration proposals for its town centres and Thames frontage. These are things of real significance in improving the lives and life chances of local people.

"There are a few weaknesses in areas that are less central to the Mayor and Council's goal of a step-change in the Borough's fortunes. Early slowness in determining options for the housing stock has made the Council behind on Decent Homes Standards (DHS). Complaints in housing are not followed through well and tenants are dissatisfied and unsettled. Homelessness is still problematic. Relationships with voluntary organisations need more development. Older people have been a lower priority and although strategy is progressing, services to support healthy lifestyles for people over 50 are not well coordinated."

Full report here


J said...

People will always moan about where taxes go and what they want to and don't want to "pay" for. E.g. defence, foreign aid, subsidies, EU or UN dues, etc. This relates to the total or local tax burden.

The reality is unless you are a multi millionaire the odds are you won't pay enough tax to cover your costs to the state, education, health, infrastructure, etc.

The second reality is that whoever is elected has little control of the macro budget, they can tinker around the edges, but the majority is fixed.

Having said that, what I would like to see is more "community structural funds" i.e. pots of money allocated to building local infrastructure, (social or built environment). My dream idea would be structural funds applied as endowments so the infrastructure built becomes self sustaining. (But even the EU isn't that advanced)

Examples of what I would like include:
- Youth activity centres
- Youth training schemes
- returning workers training schemes
- (free) small business education
- Brockley Road tidied up with benches and plants
- Derelict plots of green land redeveloped into usable space and (free) open air sports facilities.
- Forcible repossession of derelict shops which are subleased at peppercorn rents to fledgling business established by locals
- (free) council creches
- microfinance (i.e. small interest free loans) for local startups

I'll stop ranting now...................

Amanda said...

Wow, a kindred spirit...

Brockley Nick said...

@Jon S I think that's an interesting idea, I certainly would certainly like to see Councils attempt to do less, but focus on improving the efficiency of these "core services". The tricky bit is deciding what's "core", but the Chief Exec should be willing to take tough decisions. Personally, my priority would be to focus on infrastructure, anti-social behaviour and environment. Create a Borough where private and social enterprises can flourish and communities can feel proud of. For example, I think sorting out the high street would do far more to encourage sustainable local businesses than microfinance support.

J said...

@ Nick,

I can see your point but my view is microfinance is a loan that costs very little (e.g. 10 x £5,000 loans per anum) and can make a huge difference. For me, someone who wants microfinance would have to present a business case and it would be linked to necessary training before the business opens, possible mentoring and performance reviews.

I see it as a double bonus, improving the local area and High St whilst also providing local social development.

Brockley Nick said...

Sure, I am not saying that it's not a good idea. But is making loans and providing business advice what the Council is really good at? There is always an opportunity cost of doing anything, not just in terms of money but in terms of staff time and strategic focus.
Personally, I'd rather they spent time working out how to crack the problem of mountains of commercial rubbish bins crowding Brockley's streets than deciding which micro businesses are the most worthy of funding. My guess is that it would result in a load of hopeless cases getting funding.

There are other sources of low-cost funding and business for start-ups, which are better placed to provide that kind of support.

J said...

Fair do's, it depends on the scope of what Lewisham Council should do. Maybe they can pool together with other local councils to create a shared services centre, or the London Mayor can set microfinance with borough quotas.

Anonymous said...

The 4 star rating is actually quite a big deal. Lewisham is one of only 8 London Councils with this rating...

Anonymous said...

I don't know about macho budgets but since 2002 Lewisham has a directly elected mayor on a salary of about £70,000 and cabinet members on £30,000 a year.

In recent years the council's responsibilities for such areas as housing and eduction has been reduced. The council did have over 30,000 properties on its books, it now has less than 20,000 and those are now managed by a arms length company.

Funding now goes straight to schools, a secondary school has already been transferred away from the council, there are plans to improve a primary school by divorcing it from the LEA. The originally planned community secondary school will now go out to private tender. A new special needs school may also go the same way.

Street lighting is a subject of a PFI scheme managed by a private company.

Therefore I assume there are far fewer housing and direct labour staff employed by the council.

As a consequence central goverment has/will reduce the grants/benefits/funding the council recieves thus reducing the council's income. This in turn has led the Mayor to ask/tell officers to reduce spending, which he in turn presents as efficencies.

In 2004 the mayor appointed a champion for the elderly, yet in 2007 the audit commission states, "Older people have been a lower priority."

We have a group of quite well paid individuals who are demanding people on lower incomes should make efficenciency savings while they themselves have had their own responsibilties significantly reduced while maintaing the financial benefits they have become accustomed to receiving.

Anonymous said...

There is actually a number of initiatives to help start up companies, sponsored by the government.


Details links about grants etc... available for start ups.

The real finance gap is normally between 100k and 500k where there is really not alot on offer to help businesses expand. Not sure what benefits a shared service centre will give, surely then it becomes a national scheme like the one linked above?

Anonymous said...

@anon. This is exactly what i was saying on the chattering classes thread (before it got side tracked).

Everything is outsourced nowadays. The council have very little responsibility as outside providers perform the work. The councils responsiblity is in making sure the provider sticks to the contract which, of course, is never black or white and down to legal interpretation.

In the not to distant future, court judges are probably going to be outsourced to a private firm (in terms of recruitment, training etc..) I wonder how that will affect things.

Andrew Brown said...

Er, I don't recall being on £30k when I was in the cabinet, it was more like £10k for being a councillor and £8 for the additional responsibilities. Not a small amount for sure, but it did let me spend 2 days a week on council business as well as all the evening and weekend commitments that elected office entails. Whether I provided value for money is better judged by others.

However, what our anonymous poster didn't mention is that the amount that councillors and the mayor are paid is set by an independent committee who have looked at the job descriptions, the amount of time put in and decided that this is fair renumeration for their time.

Anonymous said...

Whatever the payments made to members of Lewisham Cabinet, from 2002 they have significantly reduced their responsibilities regarding housing and eduction by handing ownership or management over to outside bodies.

When the Mayor demands value for money from council staff I think it is fair ask if the Mayor provides good value. When Lewisham's Mayor was being paid £71,543pa the Mayor of Manchester City was being paid £48,000. Is there evidence schools, housing etc are 50% better than Manchester?

Re the independent renumeration panel, I get suspicious of the word 'independent' if the body they are reporting to selects and pays who is on the panel.

I believe Ward assemblies are to be introduced I'm not sure how they will operate but maybe they will be able to implement some of the ideas of jon s?

Andrew Brown said...

Unless I'm mistaken the Mayor of Manchester City isn't an executive role. That might explain the difference in their salaries.

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