Last July I noted how Labour-run Harrow Council rejected a Conservative proposal for transparency – including spending transparency.
All the heartening therefore to read this interview in The Lawyer with the Council's legal head, Hugh Peart, which indicates a change of heart.
He makes a number of good points. The cost of transparency should be set against the cost to councils of £34 million a year handling Freedom of Information requests. A burden that could be reduced by making more iinformation online.
Peart says that Harrow's website publishes the salaries of heir senior officers (although it only seems to for last year.)
“The default model for most councils is, ’we won’t give anything away unless we have to’. I want to turn the whole edifice on its head. I want us to move away from the defensive position of keeping everything to ourselves and say that everything’s public except for a few obvious areas. I’d like to push the publication scheme to the limit and see our web content grow so that there’s as much on there as possible.”
“The whole planning process takes place in the public domain and they seem to manage fine. A few years ago that would have been anathema.”
However he does believe that progress will rely on Communities Secretary Eric Pickles keeping up the pressure. He says on the requriement to publish procurement spending on items over £500:
“At first people said that it would be impossible to do – that this was going to be the end of the world. The reality now is that we’re doing it and it’s not a problem, yet you would have thought finances would have been the most secretive area for councils.”
“You can expand the publication scheme over time, but without a big bang you can only go so far. Pickles clearly has enough clout to make things happen. As we saw with the finance initiative, people would soon jump into line. The finance initiative lends weight to what’s possible if you’re given a mandate. Two years ago councils would never have put their finances out there.”