In the wake of the latest Audit Commission study of local authorities, Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale explains why Birmingham City Council continues to be ranked along with the country's poorer performing local authorities.
The Audit Commission always prefers to kick people in the teeth gently.
So when inspectors said they were pleased that the performance of Birmingham City Council had improved since 2005 in several key areas, it was a matter of damning with faint praise.
Birmingham is improving, albeit slowly. Unfortunately, most other local authorities in the West Midlands and across the country are powering ahead in leaps and bounds leaving Birmingham struggling to play catch-up.
So while Birmingham's social services, once written off as among the worst in the country, are improving, the quality of schools is good and housing has improved significantly, other councils are doing much, much better.
Birmingham managed to retain its two-star rating in its Comprehensive Performance Assessment, a decision that will probably come as some relief to the council's Conservative-Liberal Democrat leadership which, after a testy inspection period last October, when commission inspectors were accused of "negative and aggressive" questioning, feared the ultimate humiliation of relegation to a one-star authority.
But the brutal truth, according to the Audit Commission's scoring system, is that two stars out of a maximum four indicates a council performing only at "minimum requirements". In 2005, the CPA concluded that Birmingham was improving well. The 2006 CPA, published today, notes that the council is improving adequately.
The difference between improving well and improving adequately may seem an arcane point to some, but in the criteria used by the Audit Commission it amounts to a distinct reversal of fortune.
The commission has four direction of travel categories:n Improving strongly, for the best councilsn Improving welln Improving adequatelyn Not improving adequately or not improving
To put matters into perspective, a record 79 per cent of councils across the country achieved three or four star status during the 2006 CPA inspection. Birmingham remains anchored near the local government basement as one of the 21 per cent of councils in the two and one star zones.
As far as direction of travel is concerned, 77 per cent of councils are improving strongly or well. Birmingham is not one of these.
In the West Midlands, the picture is even gloomier for Birmingham.
Telford & Wrekin retains its four-star status and is improving well; Shropshire has four stars and is improving strongly; Worcestershire keeps four stars and is improving well; Coventry is promoted to three stars and is improving well; Dudley and Solihull have three stars and are improving well; Wolverhampton has three stars and is improving adequately; Walsall and Warwickshire have three stars and their direction of travel is still under review.
Only Staffordshire joins Birmingham with two stars and is improving adequately.
Propping up the bottom are Sandwell, with one star but improving adequately, and Stoke, with one star not improving adequately.
Council leaders in Birmingham argue that it is more realistic to judge Birmingham against the country's largest cities. On that basis, Birmingham performs marginally better.
Sheffield has four stars and is improving well; Leeds and Newcastle have three stars, with direction of travel subject to review; Manchester has three stars and is improving adequately; Liverpool and Nottingham have two stars and are improving adequately; Bristol has one star, with direction of travel subject to review.
Closer examination of Birmingham's CAP score shows that the huge challenges surrounding social services and housing continue to hold the council back. Adult social services scores two stars which, under the commission's rules, prevents the council from winning promotion to three-star status.
Councils must demonstrate "consistently strong performance across each element of the CPA" to achieve a higher star categorisation.
Only one department, the unit handing out council tax and housing benefit, was judged to be four star. The culture department, responsible for library and leisure services, was reduced from three stars to two stars.
The corporate assessment, which is part of the CPA and looks at leadership, was published earlier this month and concluded that Birmingham City Council was "a long way from achieving its stated goal of excellence".
There was no clear view about what excellent service meant in practice and the council was not providing effective community leadership, the commission found.
The line taken by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition continues to be to blame slow CPA progress on the poor state of services inherited in June 2004 after 20 years of Labour rule. When the coalition came to power, social services, housing and the council as a whole were without any stars at all and classified as poor.
Turning Britain's largest authority around is bound to take time, according to council leader Mike Whitby. He believes much has been achieved already and that the direction of travel is right.
The Audit Commission accepts that progress has been made, but cautions that improvement is not consistent. Services for children and young people have good prospects for improvement, but further work is required in social care for adults. Housing services have improved, but not across the board.
Crime is reducing, the streets are cleaner, but progress in community outcomes such as improving health has been slow.
The CPA assessment on direction of travel for Birmingham reads: "The council is delivering its current plans, particularly to improve previously failing services, but needs to clarify how longer-term aims will be delivered. It has the capacity to deliver its priorities and is developing staff through organisational development."
In its CPA national analysis for 2006, the commission talks about common traits among three and four star councils and those improving strongly: "Strong and effective leadership and governance alongside performance and financial management arrangements are key characteristics to deliver sustained and demonstrable improvement where they are most needed."
Addressing Birmingham directly, the commission said: "The council has not been able to provide the leadership needed to take forward the corporate approach needed in such a diverse city."