Local journalism often gets accused of letting councils off the hook by being more interested in filling pages rather than hold the powers that be to account.
When I challenge the people who make these claims, it often turns out their accusation is as lazy as the journalism they think they are deploring.
Often, those making the claims simply don’t understand how hard it can be to hold councils to account. Awkward press officers, politicians with think they have a natural gift for media management, opaque decision-making processes and a begrudging approach to FOI all make life quite hard.
And that’s before you factor in consultants being paid by the council to deliver reports then threatening legal action the company they are paying to write a report if they release the report.
That’s the bizarre situation the Liverpool Echo reported yesterday when it disclosed Liverpool City Council bought one of the famous Three Graces buildings with the intention of turning into a grand cruise liner ticket hall … only to find out how expensive it would be to do the conversion.
The ECHO can reveal that the council only received a consultants’ report showing the “astronomical” price tag after it had gone ahead with buying the building.
The council is so far refusing to release the Royal HaskoningDHV report on the basis that the Dutch-based consulting firm has refused for it to be made public.
The company has declined to confirm the council’s view, saying it can’t discuss work done for clients.
However, the ECHO has seen numerous reports it has done for other councils that have been published.
According to a Freedom of Information response to the ECHO from the council, Royal HaskoningDHV could take legal action against the council if it released the report.
It says: “The City Council can confirm that Royal HaskoningDHV have indicated that they wish the report not be made available to the public.”
The council does intend to make the report public at the end of the month, however. All of which makes for a bit of confusion – Why would a company not want something released under FOI which the council is planning to release later this month?
And why would a council announce a plan to create a grand terminal building for ships without first doing the study to see if was feasible?
Lib Dem leader Richard Kemp said the feasibility of the grand scheme should have been checked before pressing ahead with taking on the building.
Cllr Kemp said: “Buying this building without checking if it was feasible to pull it off is like somebody buying a house without having the survey done.
“It’s now about 100% certain it won’t be being used as a ticket hall when we were told that’s what it was going to be.
“If they’re not doing that, then it’s just another office block.”
With 173 comments and counting, I think this story is a great example of the great work many newsrooms still do trying to hold authorities to account against the odds … and how readers are quick to react to the stories we expose.