The advance of the internet has meant a golden age of transparency around the world. More and more information is available. All the time more people can see it more quickly and more easily. As it gets cheaper to make it available, the excuse for refusing to do so gets harder. Yet not all politicians regard being held to account as an unalloyed blessing – not least when it comes to the public being aware of how they are spending our money.
Visit the transparency section of your council’s website and you should be able to see payments by your council of over £500, councillor allowances, the pay levels for senior bureaucrats, the number of full time union officials with their salaries paid by the Council taxpayer, a list of council owned assets, details of Section 106 funds, the number of council homes worth over a million pounds, details of parking revenue, council contracts as well as much else.
Yet Labour regards suggestions that the public should be informed of such matters as a gross impertinence.
Mayor Jules Pipe, the Chairman of London Councils, said:
“London boroughs have suffered huge cuts in their funding over recent years despite taking on many new responsibilities that have either been underfunded or not funded at all.
“Asking them to publish vast quantities of data – with no apparent purpose other than for the convenience of the government – would add yet further burdens.
“Data must be published for a specific reason, with good reason and evidence for doing so – not simply for its own sake.”
Part of the next stage of the transparency revolution should be that the 32 London boroughs tell their council taxpayers how much they spend on membership subs to London Councils. In the case of my local authority, Hammersmith and Fulham, it comes to £315,000 this year. Yet there is no discernable benefit for the residents I represent from handing over this huge some to a wasteful and bureaucratic talking shop. Doubtless Mayor Pipe would feel there would be no “good reason” or “apparent purpose” for alerting Londoners to their money being wasted.
In fact, the proposed strengthening of the local authority transparency code is eminently reasonable. There are various technical changes to make the data more intelligible. It will make it easier for those wishing to buy surplus council-owned land and buildings to identify what is available. It will make it easier for smaller firms to bid for council contracts by forcing greater openness about procurement rules. It will ensure that more details are disclosed so that where there are excessive parking charges this can be exposed.
All this is scrutiny that well-run councils should welcome. Far from being a “burden” it is information that they will already hold and in making it available they can gain opportunities to provide better value for money. They can ensure better asset management and the widest competition to tender to provide their services.
What has Mayor Pipe got to hide from the armchair auditors and bedside bloggers of Hackney?