Some councils charge firms a fee every time they put up a hoarding in a street. Cowboys, of course, don’t tell the council and don’t pay. Under the best value rules, this has to stop – but will councils apply them?

Local authorities are invested with substantial powers to issue licences or consents in connection with a wide range of activities. In this regard, they also have a fairly wide discretion to impose charges to cover administrative costs.

The exercise of these powers is now, of course, subject to the overriding duty of best value that came into force on 1 April 2000 by virtue of the Local Government Act 1999. This requires local authorities to evaluate all their services to ensure that they still need to provide them; and, if they do, that they are provided economically, efficiently and effectively.

But it seems that the duty of best value has not, as yet, permeated all local authorities. My informants are Tom Moss and Ian Edwards of Luxcrete, which is a small contracting business that specialises in the renewal and repair of pavement lights. Luxcrete – like many other contractors – often has to have uninterrupted use of parts of the public highway so as to carry out works on adjoining premises. In Luxcrete’s case, the works are usually short-term, rarely lasting more than two weeks.

Anybody who alters or repairs the outside of a building in a street must, before starting work, erect a hoarding or fence to the satisfaction of the local authority. This obligation is imposed by section 172 of the Highways Act 1980. Under section 169 of the same act, a licence is required to erect a structure on the highway. I should also add that the local authority may consent to waive the requirement for a hoarding.

Furthermore, in connection with works in the street, local authorities are given wide powers under the Local Authorities (Transport Charges) Regulations 1998 to impose charges – which often provide them with their very own gold mine.

Now here is the rub. Luxcrete carries out much of its work in central London, part of which is Westminster City Council’s patch. Unlike councils that streamline their procedures (by issuing annual licences, for example), Westminster insists on a hoarding licence whenever a pavement light needs repair or renewal. The application for the licence must be accompanied by the not insubstantial fee levied by the council. The application can take as long as six weeks to process. In the mean time, Luxcrete has to hang around, apologising to impatient clients.

Into this vacuum gallop the cowboys who do not bother about licences or charges and who, unlike Luxcrete, do not have trained operatives. They do not worry about standards of work or safety because they know that Westminster, like many other councils, does not possess the resources to deal with them.

In this context, is Westminster council in breach of its statutory duty to operate best value? The answer must be yes if the consequence of the council’s policy is to promote the cowboy fraternity. In fact, if I were a cowboy, I would be the one getting best value.

Luxcrete carries out much of its work on Westminster council’s patch. The council insists on a hoarding licence whenever a pavement light needs repair or renewal

My advice to Westminster is to reassess its procedures for licensing and charging regimes which, in any event, it should have done by

1 April when drawing up its best value performance plan. Under the best value regime, procedures should be simple and cost-effective for all parties. Is it really necessary to insist on licences for small works of limited duration?

If so, what about an annual licence? This could incorporate a notification procedure (perhaps using e-mail) stating when the works are about to start and an agreed specification for the fencing or hoarding to be erected. This should also reduce charges levied by the council – and help to get rid of the cowboys.

My advice to Luxcrete – if Westminster does not change its ways – is to complain to the district auditor, who ensures that local authorities are putting best value into practice.

In fact, local authorities should be reviewing their licensing arrangements and charging regimes as part of the effort to discourage the cowboy operators. Reputable contractors will always be at a disadvantage in complying with bureaucratic procedures and paying onerous charges unless councils are prepared to spend time and money dealing with the cowboys. There is enough red-tape emanating from central government without councils piling on the agony.

The best value regime now provides an opportunity for councils to take up the cudgels against the cowboys with gusto. This can be justified within both the broad and narrow aspects of best value. The broader approach to best value requires local authorities to have greater regard to the needs and aspirations of their respective communities and to be more accountable to them. Any measures adopted by local authorities to scupper the activities of cowboys will, of course, have the full support of those they represent.

Neither can it be “economical, efficient or effective” for councils to administer licensing and charging regimes without ensuring that everybody subject to such regimes is made to comply. This should, of course, seek to balance the cost of administering the rules with the costs of enforcement. But Luxcrete’s point is that safety is the key issue here; whatever happens, this must be assured.

Neither should we forget that best value represents a massive cultural change. It will take some councils longer than others to bring about such change.