Report questions inspectors' ability

Audit Commission inspections should be more tailored to variations in local conditions and capacities, according to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report published this week.

The study analysed the changes that the Audit Commission has made in inspecting local government services since 2001. It found that most local authority officers and members think that the inspection process is fair.

However, many service managers are sceptical about the ability of inspectors, whom they perceive to be non-specialist, to suggest ways of improving services. The research fails to uncover much evidence of tangible improvements resulting from inspections, managers claim.

The researchers shadowed inspections of five English authorities - two unitary authorities, two district councils and a county council. They concluded that the commission has improved its inspection process but argued that there are still challenges to be met. They recommend improving openness and transparency, increasing service user involvement and maintaining a distinction between the regulator's independence and its role in proposing service improvements.

An Audit Commission spokeswoman said: "Many of the findings are out of date. The latest research is from June 2003, but many of the comments predate comprehensive performance assessments (CPAs). The commission has changed its approach since then and there will be further changes next year following a CPA consultation."

The Local Government Association said that inspection is useful as part of a performance management framework, but stressed that improvement depends on local authorities' capacity to change.

Planning Officers Society publicity officer John Silvester commented: "In general inspections are a good thing, but we need a better balance between the energy and resources put in and the benefits achieved."

The Changing Role of Audit Commission Inspection in Local Government can be viewed via

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