Press release

Eric Pickles champions open government with new wave of town hall transparency

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles strengthens the public’s ability to hold local councils to account.

As part of the drive to help cut council waste and increase local accountability, new provisions were announced today (12 December 2013) to strengthen the public’s ability to hold councils to account.

The transparency code for councils introduced by the coalition government was voluntary, but adherence to it will now become mandatory for all councils with gross income or expenditure above £6.5 million.

In addition to existing requirements the statutory code will now also require councils to publish:

  • spending on corporate credit cards
  • greater openness on the money raised from parking charges, allowing residents to ‘go compare’ with neighbouring councils
  • subsidies given to trade unions, including union “facility time”
  • information on councils’ contract and tenders, to make it easier for small and medium firms to bid for work and introduce more competition to lower costs
  • local authorities’ property assets, to help drive better efficiency of the £220 billion town hall estate
  • grants given to voluntary and community groups, to show how councils are backing the Big Society

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said:

Councils need to make sensible savings to help freeze Council Tax and protect frontline services. This new wave of town hall transparency will empower armchair auditors to expose municipal waste - from surplus offices and corporate credit cards to trade union ‘pilgrims’, and help councillors drive down costs. Greater power for local government must go hand in hand with greater local transparency and local accountability.

My own department has cut its corporate credit card spend by three-quarters since we placed it all online and has saved £400,000 a year from cutting trade union facility time. This openness will help drive council savings both big and small - and they all add up.

Further information

Today’s publication of the government’s response to the consultation on the Transparency Code sets out the intention to make it a statutory obligation for councils to also publish the following key information quarterly:

  • expenditure exceeding £500
  • details of transactions on Government Procurement Cards
  • procurement information with a value that exceeds £5,000

In addition, councils must publish the following information annually:

  • details about the land and assets they own
  • details of all grants to voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations
  • their organisation chart
  • time and resources spent on trade union tasks and functions
  • parking revenues and number of controlled parking spaces
  • details of officer salaries over £50,000
  • their constitution
  • the pay multiple (the ratio between the highest paid salary and the median salary of the whole workforce)

Trade union facility time

Trade union facility time will cover the total number of union representatives in the local authority, the number who devote at least 50% of their time to union activity and which unions are represented. We will also require local authorities to combine basic metrics, such as full time equivalent (FTE) numbers for union representatives and average salary costs, to create and publish a simple proxy measure for their spending on unions as a proportion of the total pay bill. We will not require them to produce more robust estimates of spending on unions as the cost of surveying where staff time goes would be prohibitive.

Credit card payments

We will require local authorities to publish all expenditure on a Government Procurement Card (GPC). The GPC framework agreement already stipulates the provision of management information which, we believe, can then readily be collated into a publishable format. We will also recommend that local authorities publish expenditure on other credit cards where the information is already readily available in an electronic format.

Parking data

We will require local authorities to publish details about the number of off/on-street parking spaces. We have reconsidered whether or not it is possible to go further and require publication of information on free parking spaces and feel that, at this time, the complexity of creating a precise definition means this is not viable.

If councils publish their data in open formats with open licences people will be able to use and reuse the data for many different purposes.

DCLG has sponsored guides on publishing local spending data,senior salary information and new contracts.

Local councils must now produce policy statements about staff pay, including senior and lower-paid staff.

The new publicity code for local councils in England provides guidance on the content, style, distribution and cost of local authority publicity. This guidance is currently going through Parliament to become a statutory obligation as part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill.

The government is providing funding to cover the new burdens the proposed new transparency code places on local authorities.

The government wants to ensure that the proposed new transparency code is clear for local authorities to use. Interested partners have until 17 January 2014 to comment on the proposed new transparency code (annex B of the government’s response.)

The government wants to make sure that transparency reaches every part of the public sector. In the New Year, we intend to consult on broadening transparency to companies linked to councils and parishes with gross income or expenditure less than £25,000.

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