Having never been a member of the Conservative Party, I’m not sure how I ended up on the mailing list from Conservative Party HQ.

When the latest missive from London arrived today, it was marked up as being from Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, aka slayer of council newspapers and self-styled champion of transparency.

In his letter, he says that:

We are ushering in a new era of transparency, where every aspect of council business is open to democratic scrutiny and an army of armchair auditors can shine a spotlight on waste and unnecessary cost to help protect frontline services.

He doesn’t actually make any mention of the call to allow hyperlocal bloggers to report from council meetings – perhaps because, behind the announcement there isn’t really that much which changes – as I said last week, it doesn’t matter if you have 1,000 people reporting on a council  meeting, if the decisions are still being made elsewhere you aren’t increasing transparency.

Instead, Pickles focuses on the demand that all councils publish details of all spending over £500. All bar one, Nottingham, have done this. Nottingham’s argument is that it is too expensive to do so.

City council leader Jon Collins said:

“Publishing all spending over £500 won’t save any money, it will only waste officer time. There is no legal requirement to publish this information.

“If there was, then of course we would do so. Until there is, we have much better things to be doing than going along with Eric Pickles’ playing to the tabloid gallery.

“Not least working out how we’re going to deal with the savage cuts that he is forcing upon the people of Nottingham, cuts which it increasingly seems few others in the Government even understand. I thought Eric Pickles was against waste, not in favour.”

Pickles has already responded by saying they will make it the law to comply with the spending order his department issued last year. But for now, it seems, he is opting to try and shame Nottingham into action. Back to his letter from today:

I recently called on every council in the country to publish all of their spending data over £500 online – and only Labour-run Nottingham are yet to deliver, with their Labour leader arrogantly saying ‘we have much better things to be doing’. What have they got to hide?

I think Harry Hill might say “Fight” at this point. Joking aside, while it’s good to see a government minister pushing so hard for transparency to happen, I think there is a danger in over-egging the impact spending data will have:

Not only will transparency allow you to see where your money goes and what it delivers, throwing open the council books will also unlock the door to new businesses and encourage greater innovation and entrepreneurship.

When the new Government is giving unprecedented power and freedom to councils, it’s more important than ever that local residents can keep tabs on what their town hall is up to. We’re bringing the full glare of the public’s eye onto spending. I invite you to scrutinise where your money goes and help us make sure it is spent on the right priorities. It’s time to put the council receipts at your fingertips.

The reality is somewhat different. Many councils are listing literally nothing more than the name of the organisation they are paying and the amount they have paid. That is a long way removed from saying ‘here everyone, look at our receipts.’

Other councils say which department spent the money – this makes it possible to determine whether a taxi account is for disabled children or for councillors going on a day out – and, in the odd case, I’ve heard of councils which say what the spending was on.

That’s the level of detail which needs to be provided if, as Pickles suggests, we are to become armchair auditors.

Currently, if I, as a reporter, wanted to find out how much my local councils paid for grit, could I work it out any more easily than when the spending was kept under wraps? Maybe – but only if I knew the name of the grit supplier and was sure the grit supplier only ever supplied grit to councils, and nothing else.

So what Pickles is describing isn’t actually going to be the reality. The fact he says he could turn to the law to make Nottingham produce its spending data says it all – surely he’d have been better off creating the law and creating the rules on what should be published. Yes, that would have led to a delay in getting the data, but it would have perhaps been a more useful set of data.

Look at Freedom of Information – it took five years to arrive, but at least there’s a law to back it up, a law which prevents the likes of Chester and Cheshire West from charging because they want to. At the moment, all Pickles can do is try to shame a council into doing more. And any reporter who has tried to shame a council into action will know it’s never the easiest nut to crack.


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