Hilary Benn has opposed the Coalition Government’s transparency measure to ensure all local authorities publish expenditure over £500. On a visit to Labour workers in Derby, the shadow Leader of the House of Commons backed Nottingham City Council’s refusal to let local taxpayers see where it spends their money. In doing so he opposed the Government’s transparency drive to publish council spending online. Nottingham remains the only council in the country not to do so. The issue was raised twice today during Prime Minister’s Questions as Labour leader Ed Miliband refused to state whether he supports Hilary Benn and Nottingham Council, or transparent public spending.
Responding to the attack on transparency, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:
“Hilary Benn is totally wrong to block the light being shone on town hall spending. When households are seeing their own budgets tighten, it is only right that councils are open with the public about where they are spending their council tax.
“Labour-run Nottingham City Council should open their books to public scrutiny. Hilary Benn must understand that being responsible with the finances is one of the first duties of government. We need to know where Ed Miliband stands and whether he backs his Shadow Cabinet colleague or transparency in public spending.”
Hilary Benn said·
"Transparency's a good thing. But Nottingham says that's going to cost money and when times are tight and tough, it's a question of priorities. If it's a choice of that or cutting something else that really has an impact on the people you represent, I can understand why the council has taken the decision it has." ·
Conservative run Trafford Council are saving time and money already by putting information online as this has dramatically slashed the number of individual requests for information.
Nottingham City Council uses its website to blame the Government for the necessary reduction in its budget. Council Deputy Leader Graham Chapman said: ‘We have done all we can to try to support the most vulnerable but unfortunately even they in some cases will feel the potentially devastating effects of these Government-imposed cuts’. The council has announced the loss of 370 posts and services that the council has opted to cut include library and education welfare services (Nottingham City Council website, 14 January 2011). The council has also trebled the price of caring for the elderly in their own homes (Sunday Times, 23 January 2011).
However, Nottingham will continue to receive among the highest annual funding per head for 2011-12 in the country, at £595 (DCLG press release, 13 December 2010). Unlike almost every other council, Nottingham missed the deadline to publish online their expenses over £500 – denying public scrutiny of the way it spends taxpayers’ money. Council leader Jon Collins has dismissed the transparency drive, claiming ‘we have much better things to be doing’ (Nottingham Evening Post, 22 January 2011). Nottingham were also one of the few councils which refused to respond to the Taxpayers’ Alliance revealing their number of ‘non jobs’ (Taxpayersalliance.com, 12 October 2010).
Examples of waste:
- Taxpayer money spent removing conkers from a tree. Nottingham City Council used taxpayers’ money – while refusing to disclose how much – to hire a cherry-picker and labour to have the conkers removed from a chestnut tree due to a supposed ‘health and safety’ risk on a school route. This was against local wishes and provoked angry protests, as one resident commented: ‘This is absolutely pathetic’. Another added: ‘This madness must stop. This is why our council tax is so high’ (Daily Mail, 4 October 2010).
- Almost £200,000 spent on signs to raise town morale. Between 2007 and 2011, Nottingham is spending £185,000 on a ‘Proud of Nottingham’ publicity campaign that could otherwise have funded several jobs at the council during that period (Whatdotheyknow.com, FOI Request answered, 5 May 2010).
- Almost £600,000 spent on free newspaper. Nottingham spent £577,979 on a free newspaper, Nottingham Arrow, in 2008-09, to produce and deliver just ten editions (Whatdotheyknow.com, FOI Request answered, 20 January 2010).
Also, the council postures about the need to help local people, but was recently criticised for increasing car parking charges by treble the rate of inflation. Scott Knowles, deputy chief executive of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce, said: ‘It is important that any moves to increase revenue and reduce city centre traffic congestion are balanced against the implications on retailers, the leisure sector and the visitor economy. A 10 per cent increase is well above the rate of inflation at a time when we need to be encouraging people to come into Nottingham to spend money’ (thisisnottinghamshire.co.uk, 13 November 2010).
Nottinghamshire County Council on the other hand is pushing transparency and back-office cuts:
- Nottinghamshire County Council is holding a Big Budget Conversation that will let people tell the council how they think it should save £150m over the next three years. It has been designed to
help people understand the challenges faced by the council and the tough decisions to be made. The council is also hoping to find out which services the public would be prepared to do for themselves. The council says it can save £17m by saving on administration and other cost-cutting work but all services are being reviewed to see if they can be provided differently.
- Nottinghamshire County Council has also formed a successful partnership with a Nottinghamshire based Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) building contractor, Robert Woodhead Ltd, to manage a programme of construction work. By establishing an environment of trust permits the project teams to work together to exceed expectations; bringing their projects within budget, without compromising the quality of the buildings, and enabling significant savings of 3% to be passed on to the Client rather than retained by the contractor.