Fifty years ago this month, Mrs Thatcher’s maiden speech introduced a Private Members’ Bill which would ultimately make councils open up their meetings to the press and public. As she argued at the time, “the public has the right, in the first instance, to know what its elected representatives are doing”. That principle is still absolutely true. Today, when the new Government is giving unprecedented power and freedom to councils, it’s more important than ever that local residents are able to keep tabs on what their town hall is up to. The best councils already recognise this, and are embracing a new era of openness and accountability as a way of promoting community involvement, reducing spending and improving services.
I am very keen that all councils follow suit, and have been pushing a whole series of reforms which will open up local councils to greater democratic scrutiny. For example, we’ve encouraged all councils to put their spending online, including details of senior pay and perks. We’re saying that all pay packages over £100,000 should be subject to a vote by the full council; not sewn up behind closed doors. And we are tightening up the rules on council publicity, so that taxpayers’ money cannot be wasted on town hall Pravdas – the likes of Labour’s Greenwich Time and East End Life – which have been unfairly putting the squeeze on independent local papers.
Labour hate transparency as it exposes the waste and inefficiency of the state.
Responding to the suggestion that elected local councillors vote on senior pay, Labour’s Mayor of Lewisham dismissed it as “simply unnecessary” and “top-down interference”. Labour-run Bradford dragged its feet on opening its books since it would be “embarrassing” if different firms were “able to sell to the council more cheaply”. And Labour-run Nottingham are still refusing to publish their spending online on grounds that “we have much better things to be doing”.
Labour are analogue politicians in a digital age. New technology – particularly social media – means new opportunities to scrutinise councils; while the growing interest in citizen journalism and blogging means more people wanting to hold their council to account. It’s important that we keep pace with these new developments. So it’s disappointing that some council officers seem stuck in the analogue age: with some banning videoing, tweeting or liveblogging. One councillor was even suspended after uploading clips from the council’s own public livestream onto youtube. Meanwhile, another council decided that only accredited journalists would be allowed to tweet from council meetings. When councils make these sorts of petty decisions, at best they look foolish and out of touch; at worst they look like they have something to hide.
But smart councils are embracing all opportunities to become more transparent. For example, reacting to feedback from local residents, Conservative-run Windsor and Maidenhead recently decided to allow members of the public to video local meetings. This week, I wrote to councils encouraging them to follow suit, opening up public discussions to all forms of multimedia. Citizen journalists have as much right as anyone to attend and to share their views, and council ‘monitoring officers’ shouldn’t hide behind bogus concerns about ‘data protection’ or ‘human rights’.
Margaret Thatcher brought in the right for people to attend council meetings. My department is building on that legacy by allowing people to ‘virtually’ attend meetings from the comfort of their own homes, and create an army of armchair auditors to go through the books. Greater accountability and transparency will be a shot in the arm for local democracy, and embracing new technology could revolutionise local government just as it is revolutionising every other aspect of our lives.
Summing up in support of Margaret Thatcher in that February 1960 debate, the then MP for Ashford – the late and great Bill Deedes – proclaimed:
“I believe that the danger that local government will be exposed is very much less than the danger that local government will be ignored. We need merely to look at the figures of voting and the results in some of our local elections to realise that today local government does not everywhere attract the public interest that it should. If we are to bring home to the public the value of local government and of the work of those who serve for nothing in local government, and the debt which they owe on that account, then… the more open are council proceedings and the more access the public are given to them and the decisions taken, the better will be the health of local government and the better, in the long run, will it be for all who serve in local government.”
Fifty years on, those words still ring true.