Goodbye CCT, but good riddance?

When the Government announced the demise of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) and its replacement, Best Value, there was hardly a damp eye in the House.

So why, within days of the announcements of the suspension of CCT, could voices be heard from these same quarters pleading that the new Government should not "throw out the baby with the bathwater".

Local authorities had no regrets that they would no longer have to compete on what were widely regarded as very unfair terms. They would not miss the rules on "anti-competitive behaviour", which were apparently designed to force the transfer of work to the private sector rather than to secure genuine value-for-money.

Contractors had previously expressed their dissatisfaction at a system that gave them low added value and highly regulated contracts wrested from a reluctant client.

Civil servants can hardly have enjoyed trying to enforce a set of largely unintelligible regulations that put them directly in the firing line between local authorities and contractors. Nor are they likely to mind no longer being on the receiving end of constant demands from ministers to devise ways to tighten the screws yet further on the local authorities.

There is also clear evidence from the Department of the Environment's own research that the rigid nature of CCT imposed considerable preparation costs on local authorities.

As CCT was extended to more services and to smaller authorities, many councils stood little chance of recovering these costs from lower tender prices, especially as the private sector recognised that there was really no profit to be made from such contracts. Indeed, the rigidities of CCT, so much at odds with procurement practice in the private sector, visibly failed to guarantee best value-for-money for local authorities. On all these grounds, CCT is certainly unlamented.

Labour's new Best Value regime, the details of which have yet to be finalised, promises to be much more flexible, allowing authorities to be more responsive to both internal and external service-users' needs. It will certainly save the unnecessary costs of the CCT tendering process, unless a service is palpably failing.

Being plan-led, Best Value offers an escape from the tyranny of the annual rate of return. It should encourage the coordination of diverse services to address Professor John Stewart's "Wicked Issues" that cross a number of disciplines, as opposed to the "service-by-service, contract-by-contract" approach encouraged by CCT.

But, at the same time, CCT appears to have either accompanied or engendered a revolution in the way that local authorities account for central and direct services. No longer can service-users be required to take the internal service, irrespective of quality or cost. Instead, the processes of service specification and quality assurance mean that the service-user knows in advance the standards of service that they can expect.

The devolution of spending budgets to the service-user means that if the service is not up to scratch there is a readily available remedy. And the development of time-costing systems allowed a more rational allocation of scarce financial resources.

These improvements have created a valuable tension within each local authority to ensure that available resources are concentrated on the provision of services to the public.

The replacement of CCT with the Best Value regime will come as a welcome relief to local authorities, which can now look to contractors as partners rather than competitors, to contractors, which will no longer be reluctantly asked to tender for some contracts that promised more bother than profit, and to civil servants, who need no longer play the role of enforcer.

Best Value promises to produce a regime that secures real value-for-money for councils and for their citizens.

But if the new regime is to produce an enduring settlement, it must try to incorporate the better elements of CCT, rather than simply reacting to its all too obvious excesses.