Council makes huge improvement

THEY have been known to strike fear into the most hardened of officials, and Fenland District Council has had its share of mildly indifferent or critical inspections. But the latest, by the Audit Commission, the body responsible for ensuring public money

THEY have been known to strike fear into the most hardened of officials, and Fenland District Council has had its share of mildly indifferent or critical inspections.

But the latest, by the Audit Commission, the body responsible for ensuring public money is spent wisely, charts Fenland's remarkable achievements and progress in recent years. JOHN ELWORTHY reflects on the commission's conclusions on a council with a net budget of £14million, 744 staff, and which looks after a population of 83,000.

HUGE improvements in waste management, street cleaning and grounds maintenance have changed the face of Fenland, says the Audit Commission.

Its environment inspection concludes that massive investment has reaped dividends and "is making a real impact on the overall quality of the Fenland environment". It's a far cry from 2001 when a quality of life survey in Fenland discovered dissatisfaction over inadequate street and toilet cleaning, lack of coordination of environmental services, unemptied litter bins and poor grounds maintenance.

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Andy Perrin, senior manager for the commission, says the 'three bin' waste and recycling collection has increased the rate of recycling from 21 per cent in 2004/5 to an impressive 35 per cent in 2005/6. The figure is well ahead of the Government's target and is well on the way to achieving the statutory standard of 46 per cent by 2007/8. Indeed on the day the report was published, councillors heard in June recycling rates reached a new high of 57 per cent, with an average rate for April/May and June of 53 per cent.

But it is not only recycling that has helped Fenland Council achieve the commission's 'good' two star rating (it uses a zero to three stars rating). Improved street cleaning, parks and open spaces are now maintained to a much higher standard and the 'rapid response' team are all helping to deliver improvements.

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The report says that Fenland Council needs to do more to demonstrate how effective it has been and there is also criticism of enforcement policies and "a lack of robustness in the approach to ensuring bvalue for money, including through procurement processes". However, these are only a handful of negatives in what councillors will consider to be a ringing endorsement of their policies.

"Streets have got cleaner and grounds maintenance is resulting in noticeable improvements," says the commission. And the introduction of onestop shops and a telephone contact centre have made services much more accessible to the public.

The commission says Fenland has listened and learned from its customers and helped inform the design of recycling services and the 'Customer First' project. And it noted that issues dealt with by frontline staff were not routinely captured on the comments, compliments and complaints system.

But when it came to electronic access to the council, services had changed dramatically. In 2004/5 only 54 per cent of services capable of being delivered electronically were possible which put Fenland in the worst performing 25 per cent of councils nationally. Fast forward just a year and unaudited data indicates the council now delivers 99.85 per cent of information electronically.

The commission spotlights other improvements including:

- Street cleaning staff up from six to 21 with regular litter picking in villages

- 'Rapid Response' call-outs where 2,010 and of the 2,068 calls made between January and November last year, nearly all were dealt with within 24 hours

- Seventy new litter bins and dog waste bins

- Front line staff involvement in choice of mechanical street sweepers and refuse vehicles

- Abandoned vehicles whereby 100 per cent of those confirmed as definitely abandoned are removed within 24 hours, with the council named as one of the best authorities for tackling this issue

- Major improvements to the street scene in Wisbech and Chatteris, and in March, where an eight hectare extension to West End Park is under way. The commission says Fenland's wind turbine policy (15 in place and permission agreed for a further 12) has kept the district abreast of its commitment to sustainability. The turbines will produce enough electricity for all four market towns.

Even the council's contractors have stopped use of all chemicals (pesticide and herbicides) in some parks and a vehicle fleet which runs on bio-diesel has contributed to "setting a clear example on environmentally sustainable practices".

The council's leadership is praised for setting "a culture of openness and transparency as illustrated by chief executive briefings and walkabouts" with staff supported to perform to their best.

Now comes the challenge of bedding down initiatives of recent years. The test will come, concludes the commission, when Fenland Council carries out a value-for-money review of its customer contact and advice centres, since at the moment "they are unable to fully measure value-for-money from the

£1.8million investment in 'Customer First' in its first year".

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