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O'connell John O'Connell, Research Director of the Taxpayers Alliance, says the transparency requirements on Town Halls should go further

Eric Pickles has announced plans to help councils return to weekly rubbish collections today. Waste collection is the key service that many taxpayers pay for when they hand over their big council tax bills. Councils needlessly waste money in lots of other areas – including self-congratulatory award ceremonies, as our research reveals  – and it’s hard to imagine many would have cut this service first if they weren’t facing the prospect of draconian targets and excessive taxes on landfill.

Fortnightly collections are the result of the EU Landfill Directive rather than spending reductions but today critics have argued that £250 million is a lot of money to stump up for weekly bin collections. It is a lot of money and I wish it didn’t have to be done in this way. I’d prefer to see councils tackling the really egregious budget lines so they could maintain their weekly collections. It would be much better if Eric Pickles didn’t have to compensate for EU-dictated taxes and regulations. But it is fair for taxpayers to feel they deserve weekly collections, given that council tax has doubled over the last decade, and this is the way to make it happen now.

Away from the bins story, the Department for Communities and Local Government also released their Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency this week. It’s likely to get less attention than Pickles’ announcements today, but it’s an important document. When the department consulted on this, the TaxPayers’ Alliance made a key recommendation:

All bodies listed under the Code’s scope – and those the TPA recommends the scope should extend to – should publish a full list of job titles and job descriptions. No salary information or names need to be published alongside this for junior staff; a simple list of jobs and job descriptions is all that is necessary. It is crucial that public bodies let taxpayers know exactly what work they are doing as staff time is often a more significant commitment than payments to suppliers. Job descriptions would allow for a more informed debate over the council’s priorities and the requirement to publish would encourage more care in recruitment and staff allocation.

Pay usually makes up the biggest expenditure for public bodies. Publishing spending over £500 is fantastic, but it covers a smaller proportion of a council’s overall expenditure than wages do. But we don’t necessarily think councils should publish every single salary. More beneficial would be a full list of job titles (no names) and job descriptions, so taxpayers can have an informed debate about their council’s priorities.

The original Code that was consulted on had nothing on HR Transparency, so it was good news to see that the new Code requires:

“An organisational chart of the staff structure of the local authority including salary bands and currently vacant posts.”

That needs to include the details that will allow people to identify the least necessary jobs. I’d much rather see a full list of job titles and job descriptions, with no names and salaries unless they are earning over £58,200, instead of an organisational chart that might be neater but could be less useful for local scrutiny. But this recommendation is great news and we’re pleased that the Department took our suggestion on board. Hopefully local authorities take these practices seriously and show taxpayers how they operate and what they see as their priorities.

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