Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fear And Loathing In Surrey

A typical weekend in Guildford

Tyler lives in Surrey.

Well, he would, wouldn't he. Surrey is nice and leafy, yet close enough to the fleshpots up the Smoke.

True, Surrey has been described as Britain's biggest carpark, and Surrey housewives are not to everyone's taste. But it's also got more Waitroses than anywhere else outside London, and important National Treasures like Cliff Richard live here.

Unfortunately, it is expensive. And one of those expenses is high council tax. This year Tyler will be contributing £2972.16 to his various local authorities, of which no less than £2178.36 is going to Surrey County Council.

Now, Surrey CC is an entity that knows how to spend money. Last year they got through £1.4bn on so-called Revenue Expenditure, which was nearly £1,300 for every single inhabitant.

But unlike most local authorities, apart from its ringfenced schools grant, Surrey gets very little financial assistance from central government - the inhabitants are deemed too rich. Indeed, under this Labour government the County has received only about one-third as much support per head as the average authority. True, that's a perfectly fair punishment for voting Tory (which is why Labour voting areas should expect heavy retribution over the next decade), but it has made balancing the jolly old books rather tricky.

So some years ago, Surrey CC chiefs decided they needed to cut costs. And to achieve that, they wheeled out a giant mechanised scythe called the Business Delivery Review, or BDR as it was "affectionately" known.

The results were somewhat less than a triumph. In four years, Surrey's "star rating" - awarded by the Audit Commission for service quality and value for money - plunged from four (the top award) to one (the bottom):

Surrey had landed in the bottom 3% of local councils, alongside Haringey (yes, Baby P Haringey), Doncaster (yes, 7 child deaths Doncaster), and Milton Keynes.

How could that possibly have happened? According to the Commission:

"Surrey County Council is not improving adequately. Overall levels of improvement and service provision are variable. Services for vulnerable children and young people do not meet minimum requirements and safeguarding is inadequate."

The impact of this verdict on Surrey CC was huge. The Chief Executive "left". The Leader of the Council was forced to resign. Many of the top managers were exited. Staff morale collapsed. It was a Grade A disaster.

Things got so bad, an emergency Chief Exec was parachuted in by Whitehall. And most unusually, he has just published his findings for all to see (HTP JF).

He reckons he's found an organisation in breakdown. The staff loathe the managers, the managers fear the chief exec, the members hate the officers, and the officers spend their days trying to ignore an Elephant that's somehow crept into the Room. To summarise:

"The difficult position in which the County Council finds itself is fundamentally a failure of leadership, culture and governance in its widest sense...

...the Council is seen as remote... is viewed as superior and arrogant... problems compounded by a significant breakdown in mutual trust and confidence within the Council... widely viewed as lacking vision, direction and strategy and instead operates by a series of often disconnected short-term tactics... driven by events rather than a sense of the Council being in control of its own destiny... very internally focussed, obsessed with itself, with its own processes and bureaucracy... silo mentality... central control-freakery... blame culture and bullying...

The most striking aspect of the management style is how bureaucratic it has become as a result of an obsession with the control of inputs and resources since BDR which is then mistaken for a focus on efficiency. This is perhaps inevitable given the lackof a clear vision and strategy which means there are no clear strategic outcomes to focus on. Documents... are widely viewed as being designed to keep either the Government or various Inspectors happy."


Absolutely, terminally, hopeless!

We clearly need to get out. We need to move right now to a better council - to... I dunno... Barking and Dagenham - according to the Audit Commision, they are a four star council.


Hmm and double hmm.

The thing is, all local councils are bureaucratic. We surely all know that. And they can all appear arrogant and remote. And they all seem to lack vision and direction. That's just the way it is when they're accountable to the commissars in Whitehall rather than to their local taxpayers.

In fact, because it gets so little funding from Whitehall, Surrey CC is probably rather more accountable to its council taxpayers than many other councils.

And how come the Audit Commission rated Surrey as a three star council last year but only one star this? What changed so quickly? Are we saying last year's assessment was wrong? In which case, why should this year's be any righter?

What changed of course was the Baby P case, and the panic knee-jerk reaction in Whitehall. Once Baby P had died... no, once the public reaction to Baby P's awful death had impacted on our national politicos, then the hunt was on for any council that wasn't ticking all the child protection boxes precisely as specified. And Surrey fell into that category.

We've said it before, but let's say it again: these Audit Commission reports aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Just remember that Haringey Council itself was rate three-star even as Baby P was dying.

We're no particular fan of Surrey CC. But the truth is that most residents think it does a perfectly steady middle-of-the-road type job. School results are above the national average, social services seem no worse than elsewhere, and the potholes in the road aren't noticeably bad.

Sure, Council Tax is ridiculously high, but we know that's largely down to our Labour government. Nobody gets too excited about the Council itself one way or the other (although from the remoteness perspective, it might be nice if it moved County Hall into the county, rather than sitting in the London Borough of Kingston).

But the Audit Commission's report is nothing to do with what we think. After all, we're only the Council Tax payers.

What it really comes down to is that, although the average Surrey resident gets a reasonable - if expensive - service from the County Council, the Commissars reckon "vulnerable children" may not. And since "vulnerable children" are this year's hot button, the Commissars are giving that priority over everything else - including value for money (where they actually think Surrey does quite well).

Like we've said from the start, local democracy and localism will never work as long as the Commissars hold the purse strings.

PS The Audit Commission costs us £210m pa and has c2000 employees. It should be drastically downsized. We should strip it of all the "quality improvement" functions it picked up under Labour, and return it back to its original (and cheaper) simple audit functions. Another contribution to George's list.


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