FOI: Tracking how those big-money grants get spent is perhaps more important than ever

Cranes across Liverpool during the last spending boom.

With a general election within sight, it’s perhaps no surprise that after four years of belt-tightening, the Government big-money spending announcements have begun again. Away from the headline-grabbing HS3 plan to put a  super-fast railway line between Manchester and Leeds, the Government has been busy announcing big-money grants to promote growth in the local economy. This round of grants alone works out at billions of pounds across the country – so it’s a safe bet details of these grants will begin springing up in election materials, both for the Government parties and also for those local councils who have sought to get the money. But how well will the money be spent?  Keeping track of government money from big grants has never been easy for journalists, even if you do get to cut through the PR waffle. Many big grants under the previous government went via Regional Development Agencies, which only became subject to FOI shortly before they were closed down. Many more grants and funding bids went to local councils – SRB, ERDF, housing pathfinder being three which spring to mind – which made accountability on spending a bit easier, even if the money was pushed through mini local quangoes, as councils are covered by FOI. But with money so scarce in the public sector these days, accountability on spending is more important than ever. This article from hyperlocal site wrexham.com  is a good example of that. In January, Wrexham Council won £10.5m from the Welsh Government to spend on creating jobs, tackling poverty, increasing housing supply and improving community facilities. Wrexham.com used FOI, some six months after the grant was announced to great excitement, to ask how it had been spent so far.  The site now has a breakdown of how exactly the money will be spent. While there’s no sensational story of mis-spending or largesse in the spreadsheet the council supplied Wrexham.com, there is a lot of information which has enabled Wrexham.com to provide an analysis for readers. And given there was already a debate raging on Wrexham.com’s reader forum about the use of the grant, that makes this article a great example of using FOI to keep readers informed, and in turn help them make informed judgements on how well the council was doing. For journalists seeking to keep an eye on the Growth fund money in their area, it could be a little harder. Details of the Growth Deals per region are tucked away here on the ever-growing gov.uk website, but there’s nothing to suggest the LEPs who will administer the money are accountable under FOI. Indeed, some LEPs are less accountable than others. While Greater Manchester’s LEP does publish agendas for its meetings, Lancashire’s does not. This may be because Manchester’s LEP is run by a cross-council organisation which already existed and understands the importance of accountability, whereas Lancashire’s is a totally new creation which just hasn’t got round to it yet. Either way, if accountability to the public (and by extension, journalists) is as important to government as the likes of communities secretary Eric Pickles like to tell us it is,  having bodies set up to receive millions of pounds of Government inward investment without a proper commitment to FOI is an issue. There is a one chink of light, however. The Growth deal bids outline how money will be spent within council areas within the LEP. It’s fair to assume that most of the projects will actually be run by local councils, especially the infrastructure ones. Councils are fully in scope of FOI and they would appear to be the way into this one. As Wrexham.com’s coverage of a £10m grant shows, there’s a lot to be found in the detail which is of interest to readers … and keeping track of how money is spent is perhaps one of the most important tasks for journalists covering politics and regional affairs in the months ahead of an election.

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