Pickles strips away pointless town hall red tape targets

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Councils will no longer have to work thousands of man hours or waste millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money reporting back to Government as …

Councils will no longer have to work thousands of man hours or waste millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money reporting back to Government as part of a new era of transparency and public accountability, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles announced today.

Today Mr Pickles has written to council leaders to tell them that he has instructed the Audit Commission and five other local inspectorates to stop costly top-down reports officially known as the Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAA).

The Government is committed to ‘shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past’ by replacing the heavy burden of Whitehall oversight with greater public transparency and accountability so councils can focus on frontline services. Independent research put the average annual cost of reporting back to government at £1.8m.

For example Leicestershire councils found they had 90 full time staff collecting and processing more than 3,000 individual data items for central government at a cost of £3.7m a year. They also faced 83 different inspections every year.

Ministers believe ending CAA will save the Audit Commission £10 million and cut significant inspection costs for councils. In 2006 the National Audit Office estimated the overall cost of monitoring local government at £2 billion a year.

Mr Pickles has called for greater transparency and openness to be the default setting for how councils do their business. They should publish all information on the quality of council services online so an army of armchair auditors can make sure services are meeting local needs. This will root out wild overspending, expensive mistakes and unnecessary waste saving the public millions.

Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles said:

In the face of the nation’s £156bn deficit, Central Government needs to stop the costly top-down monitoring that is engulfing councils and start trusting them to do what is right locally.

Today I have instructed Town Hall watchdogs to stop tying the hands of council workers with unnecessary red tape and paperwork.

It is much more important for the public to know what their councils are doing than having thousands of hush-hush, unseen papers being sent back and forth between Whitehall bureaucrats and the Town Hall.

We are already pushing power as far away from Whitehall as we can and calling on councils to throw open their books to create much more cost effective and efficient local public services.

Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark added:

Too much power has been sucked out of communities and into Westminster eroding trust in politics, and sapping responsibility and initiative with stifling bureaucracy. Transparency can make councils look to the public they serve, not to Whitehall. We need to have safeguards against things going wrong, but it is vital for democracy that we reverse the years of increasing state control and give power and responsibility back to people, communities and councils.” 

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said:

Up and down the country there are thousands of town hall workers who want to make a real difference in their communities. But for far too long too many of them have been tied up in needless bureaucracy which has prevented them from focusing on important work they want to do and their communities need.

Today’s announcement is great news for communities. It will help to free up workers to focus on the issues that communities really care about - whether tackling housing waiting lists, improving rubbish and recycling collections or helping the most vulnerable. And with public finances this is a shot in the arm for councils at exactly the right time.

The Secretary of State is aware that scrapping CAA will not remove all red-tape burdens so he has asked Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation, to lead on further reducing the Whitehall burden across the board. Vital inspection where public welfare is at risk, such as of children’s social services, will remain to protect the vulnerable.

David Parsons, Leader of Leicestershire County Council and Chair of the Local Government Association’s Improvement Board, said:

In Leicester and Leicestershire we measured the cost of data returns and inspection to local agencies to be over £7m. Presumably this is at least matched by the amount national agencies spend dealing with these returns and undertaking these inspections.

Coalition policy recognises that the inspection and reporting regimes have two major unintended effects - to change the focus of local agencies from their citizens towards meeting central Government’s demands, and also, inhibiting local agencies in working together on locally agreed priorities, rather than those of their sponsoring Government Department.

The reduction of the data and inspection burden and its refocusing on localities is very welcome.

Notes to Editors

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s foreword to the Coalition: our programme for government, states: “Our government will be a much smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.”

  1. The Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) is delivered jointly by the Audit Commission and five other local government inspectorates: Ofsted, Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorate of Probation, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Ending the CAA process would not affect inspectorate’s statutory powers to carry out inspections at their discretion such as when councils are failing.

  2. Councils are being encouraged to throw open their files and alongside spending info publish a wide range of data online in an open and standardised format including:

  • information on senior salaries, names and job descriptions
  • councillor allowances and expenses; minutes and papers of council meetings
  • job vacancies that will enable people to see why council wage bills are so high and how many of the positions are for key local services
  • frontline service data - including rubbish and recycling collections, council tax collection rates and details of planning and licensing applications
  • data such as food hygiene reports for food outlets - information which is routinely collected and of interest to residents, but not currently shared in an easily accessible format.

More detail can be found at:

  1. Research for the Total Place pilots has found that across Leicestershire’s councils, PCT, fire, police and probation services, there are 90 full time staff, at an annual cost of £3.7 million, having to collect and process data for central government, reporting on more than 3,000 individual data items. They are also subjected to 83 different inspections every year, costing £2.2 million in dedicated staff costs and a further £1.4 million in other staff time.

  2. PricewaterhouseCoopers report “Mapping the Performance Landscape”, commissioned by this Department and published in July 2006, estimated that the costs of reporting performance information to central Government was of the order of £2.6 million. This estimate is based on a study of four local authorities.

  3. There will be no reduction to the £29bn general grant that local government receives every year meaning that they have the flexibility they need to protect the frontline. Government has already removed the ringfencing for £1.2bn so councils are free to focus on delivering essential services.


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