For those looking for a cheerful start to the week The TV series “The Trap: What Happened to our Dreams Of Freedom” (BBC2 Sundays in March) was not it. It did however contain a fascinating insight into the target culture that has pervaded over the last 10 years. Introduced by the government with the intention of freeing up public services from diktat, targets and performance indicators, the programme explained, ended up doing the exact opposite. The problem was, human nature being what it is public servants devised ways of meeting the target without actually achieving the outcome the government wanted. So for example; faced with targets for reducing patients on trolleys, hospitals unscrewed the wheels and called them beds. Government responded by providing guidance, more detailed targets and then measuring performance with more and more detailed performance indicators. A new layer of bureaucracy was born.
What the programme didn’t say is that government is beginning to acknowledge that target and performance indicator culture has gone too far. It has commissioned the “Lifting the Burdens Task Force “ to look into the work placed on local authorities by these targets and indicators. It’s first report published a couple of weeks ago looks at housing and planning and has made recommendations that a large number of indicators and targets are scrapped. BVPI 64 amongst them.
BVPI 64 is the government’s national indicator for empty homes brought back into use by local authorties. And yes some local authorities have devised way of clocking up high returns without really achieving the outcome the government wanted. As some of you may have read Inside Housing reported on this in February. The trick has been to count properties brought into council leasing schemes as brought back into use. Not all of them will have been empty in the sense the government understood, but of course all will have been unoccupied for a few days or perhaps even just overnight as the property changed hands. Crafty eh! Not quite as cynical as unscrewing hospital trolley wheels perhaps, but devious none the less.
In response to tricky reporting, the government introduced two new performance indicators under the CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessment) regime to provide more information on the number of empty homes that are actually empty in each council area. Local authorities quite reasonably complained that it was all getting too much and collating the figures took so long they had no time left to actually deal with the empty homes. Lifting the Burdens Task Force has recommended scrapping one of the CPA indicators too.
Is this good news? Well partly yes, reducing the number of performance indicators is in principle a good idea. But we think the task force has picked the wrong ones to scrap when it comes to empty homes. BVPI 64 is far from perfect and yes it’s open to creative reporting but most local authorities are honest and it still gives a good indication of performance. Every year since its introduction the total number of empty homes in England has dropped. Whilst clearly there are other factors at work, we believe the performance indicator has made a significant contribution to this reduction.
Many local authority empty property officers have reported to us that the only reason they are in post is because there is a national performance indicator measuring what they do. Others have said that the funding for their work is only made available to ensure good performance against BV64. Of course it’s much better if local authorities tackle empty homes because they know it’s important for their community. A number do this very effectively. But others don’t and take their lead from what they are measured on. There is a real danger that scrapping BV64 will be seen as a signal that government is no longer concerned whether local authorities perform in this area, and many will stop. Of course we will never know, because there will be no means of finding out what the local authorities have done.