Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Local Government Association Chair Baroness Eaton joined forces today to urge all councils to publish details of all spending over £500 in full and online as part of wider action to bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability.
The call for greater disclosure on spending is just one of a series of sweeping measures detailed in a letter being sent to councils by the Secretary of State today. He makes clear that transparency and openness should be the default setting for the way councils do business, and calls on local government to move at speed to adopt this new approach.
The letter sets out proposals for a move to open local government. Councils are being encouraged to throw open their files and publish, alongside spending data, information on salaries, job titles, allowances and expenses, minutes of meetings and more.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said:
Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government. Local people should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their hard earned cash is being spent and decisions made on their behalf. They can only do that effectively if they have the information they need at their fingertips.
The public should be able to see where their money goes and what it delivers. The swift and simple changes we are calling for today will unleash an army of armchair auditors and quite rightly make those charged with doling out the pennies stop and think twice about whether they are getting value for money.
Throwing open the council books will open the door to new businesses and encourage greater innovation and entrepreneurism. Organisations that might have been effectively locked out before, including voluntary sector and small business, will be in a much stronger position to pitch for contracts and bring new ideas and solutions to the table.
By September councils will be expected to make details of spending on all goods and services - from car hire to consultancy fees from storage to software costs - that fall above the £500 threshold available for the public to see and scrutinise. All councils should be doing this as a matter of course by the start of next year, as well as publishing invitations to tender and final contracts on projects over £500.
Financial disclosure will act as a trigger enabling local taxpayers to see how councils are using public money, shine a spotlight on waste, establish greater accountability and efficiency, open up new markets and improve access for small and local business and the voluntary sector.
But making spending data public is just the tip of the iceberg. Building on excellent work already under way in some councils, the route map sets down a plan of action that will see a wealth of data being made available online including:
- local government salaries - government will consult on greater disclosure of senior staff salaries by name and job descriptions
- councillor allowances and expenses - greater clarity on councillors’ costs
- council minutes and papers - consistent publication of what is being discussed and what has been decided
- job vacancies - showing local people what kind of jobs are contributing to the wage bill, driving down advertising costs and allowing comparison of pay ranges
- frontline service data - including rubbish and recycling rates, council tax collection rates and details of major planned projects
- licensing applications and decisions - giving residents more clarity on what was happening in their area and an early opportunity to raise concerns or objections
- planning applications and decisions - making sure residents have online access to information about planning applications that could affect them and the look and feel of their area, and making it easier for them to influence emerging development ideas
- food hygiene reports for food outlets - 1 example of information which is routinely collected and of interest to residents, but not currently shared in an easily accessible format
Some of this information is already in the public domain but not always in a format that makes it easy to be republished, re-used or mashed up by outside groups, without charge or copyright hindrance. A key part of the change will be getting information in the public domain in a standardised format.
The Local Government Association will work closely with its member councils to help them deliver on this agenda.
Baroness Eaton, Chairman of the Local Government Association said:
Local government is absolutely committed to the highest standards of transparency. Councils have been leading the way in giving taxpayers real, detailed and vital information about how their money is spent. All public bodies must be scrutinised for the spending decisions they make, and the Local Government Association will work with councils to pioneer an approach of openness and accountability.
The changes being outlined today reflect changes being made in central government to reveal previously hidden details of Whitehall spending and information.
The government is committed to bringing about a radical devolution of power to local government including freedom from central control, greater flexibility over spending and less red tape. The changes will put councils in the driving seat when it comes to meeting the needs of residents but greater powers must be accompanied with greater accountability.
The move to greater accountability is set against changes to significantly cut the inspection burden. The abolition of the bureaucratic and over burdensome Comprehensive Area Assessment regime will save councils up to £39 million a year, which is equivalent to 151,000 working days.
The government is looking to progress this agenda quickly and has set out a timetable for change:
- initial guidelines about how to publish payments over £500 will be produced by developers, and published online at www.data.gov.uk for comment and debate
- this will be followed by guidelines on how to publish contracts and invitations to tender over £500
- in September draft codes of practice on payments over £500 and contracts/invitations to tender over £500, informed by the online discussions, will be published for formal consultation
- final codes of practice will be published in November, so all authorities are able to publish in January 2011
The broader push on transparency will be an iterative process, driven by the local government and developer sector within the framework set out by government. The route to more transparency and open local government will include work on: types of information and data to be published; standardisation of information and data; types of bodies publishing information and data; proposals for the ‘Right to Government data’ Bill; reduction in top down assessment and inspection so that citizens take on that role; proposals for greater local accountability; proposals for simplified approach in accessing data.
The measures being set out today build on previous action taken to increase accountability and transparency in local government including:
- The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960: this opened up meetings to the public, allowing members of the public and press to attend meetings of certain public bodies
- Local Government Act 1972: the requirement for councillors to make declarations of interest; also access to agendas documents and reports Sec.100 (b)
- Local Government Planning and Land Act 1980: S.96 provides for registers of land holdings held under that act to be made available; the aim of the register is to list land holdings of local government bodies which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, are being under-utilised and make that list available to the public
- The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985: an Act to provide for greater public access to local authority meetings reports and documents subject to specified confidentiality provisions; to give local authorities duties to publish certain information; and for related purposes
- Local Government Housing Act 1989, The Local Authorities (Members’ Allowances) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 1991 (as amended): the regulations place certain duties on local authorities in connection with publishing the recommendations made by their independent remuneration panel, their scheme of allowances and the actual allowances paid to any member in any given year
- Local Government Finance Act 1992: allows rights of members of the public to obtain information with respect to local domestic rating lists
- Freedom of Information Act 2000: allows access to information held by public authorities
- Local Government Act 2000: makes provision for access to information held by local authority executives e.g. leaders, elected mayors
A number of public sector bodies have already wholeheartedly embraced the transparency agenda. Making use of existing information and simple technology has led to greater openness which in turn is helping to weed out and cut down waste and increase efficiency. Local people and organisations are already using the information out there to create applications and strengthen the links between the citizen and the council. For more information see the case studies attached below.