01 November 2001 | Robin Parker
Welsh local authorities are planning to cut down Audit Commission value-for-money inspections in a radical shake-up.
Joint proposals from the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) say the best value process, which will cover an estimated £3-£4 billion of services by 2005, should be rebranded the Wales Programme for Improvement.
They say the proposals will help to cut red tape, but critics say it could give councils the means to avoid making sensitive policy decisions.
The move comes after the annual report of the Audit Commission revealed that procurement has been the subject of nearly one third of reviews in the past year in England and Wales. Two thirds of reviews were branded poor or fair and more than a third unlikely to improve.
Audit Commission reviews rank services put forward by local authorities, which have no influence over inspection levels. Under the Welsh ideas, however, local authorities would set external inspection levels themselves.
More rigorous risk-assessment and self-diagnosis would replace some of the work traditionally carried out externally. Auditors would assist once a need was identified rather than duplicating internal work or imposing recommendations.
Procurement strategies would be part of the self-assessment and consultation with peers in other authorities would replace some commission inspections.
John Codd, deputy presiding officer at the WLGA, told SM: "Traditionally, authorities have been loath to share information. They've needed a sea change in their outlook - this is addressed by the self-assessment requirement, which will virtually allow them to compare like with like."
But Adrian Hobson, a cabinet member of Rhondda Taff County Borough Council, said best value should continue to force authorities to confront their problem areas.
"The process is complex and bureaucratic, but it is robust enough to ensure authorities have all the options," he said. "The new programme will have to ensure that it does not allow authorities to opt out of sensitive decisions - such as which services to outsource - and take the easy way out."
The Welsh Assembly will produce guidelines on the revised inspection process and will consult authorities in December. A formal programme will be published in April next year.