Concern grows over 'political' reviews

20 June 2001
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21 June 2001 | David Arminas

Best-value reviews are in danger of being driven by ideology and not the quality of local authority purchasing, according to one of the UK's biggest councils.

Peter Sanford, a best-value policy adviser at Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council who wrote its contract and procurement guidelines, has accused the Audit Commission's Best Value Inspection Service of having an political agenda.

"There appears to be a view that if a council service is failing, then the inspectors simply advocate outsourcing rather than a major review," he said.

Even though Dudley scored highly for its waste management review, Sanford is unconvinced about the commission's work. "In my view, they have people who don't know the practical issues of running a tender."

Sanford's concerns about the quality of best-value inspectors are echoed by a growing number of council chief executives and purchasers. Birmingham City Council has already hit back at the "unlikely to improve" verdict in its report.

The commission says it is well-versed in purchasing issues. Inspections normally have two inspectors, Wendy Thomson, its director of inspection, told SM. "Our policy is to have one with specialist knowledge and the other with generalist knowledge," she said.

Brighton and Hove Council, with a population of 250,000 and a purchasing budget of £100 million, should receive its best-value report by the end of this month. "We weren't overly convinced that the inspectors were that well qualified, but one had some purchasing background," said Mike Allen, a senior performance and planning consultant with the council. "We looked on the positive side."

Dave Wheller, chairman of the Society of Purchasing Officers in Local Government and head of corporate procurement and direct services at Essex County Council, acknowledged the question marks over some inspectors' experience, but cautioned that the commission hadn't done many purchasing reviews and its service was on a learning curve.

It needed to establish a common yardstick against which all local government procurement must be measured, said Steve Gilbey, head of county supplies and contract services at Hertfordshire County Council. One big problem for the inspectors was having to travel to authorities with wildly different budgets, "such as with ours at £330 million and then to a district council that may have a total budget of £20 million".

Dudley, with a population of 312,000, is waiting for a final commission report on its property management service.


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