I confess I don’t often see eye-to-eye with communities secretary Eric Pickles.
As supposed champion of localism, he has done so much to undermine local decision making in the last couple of years. He just doesn’t have a grip on how decisions in Whitehall and at the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol undermine public confidence in the planning system and betray communities who have worked hard to get a local consensus.
But on one matter I am in total agreement with him. He has challenged councils to publish details of how they spend their money.
Shropshire Council has joined in with the majority of councils to publish information on bills above £500 – though the process does not work smoothly. I am still waiting for the financial information for October to December last year – nothing at the moment gets published unless it is chased.
Shropshire Council keeps too many secrets about the way it spends our money. We may not know for thirty years what the council’s Audit Committee thought about the huge consultancy bills officers and the Leader of the Council have run up in the last couple of years. We will not know for months how much the “compromise agreements” signed for the director of places and head of finance and commerce were worth. I doubt we will ever know why so many talented staff have been shown the door at a time when the county needs all the expertise it can get.
This persistent refusal to publish information – and the lackadaisical way it does so – undermines democracy and weakens confidence in Shropshire Council as a competent body to run the county’s affairs.
Excuses are always made for not publishing financial information. But I believe the real reason for hiding information from the public is that so many of the payments will not stand up to pubic scrutiny.
It is very straightforward. This is taxpayers’ money. We are entitled to know how every penny has been spent.
This is a Conservative run council. For decades, the Conservatives have claimed that “only they” can manage public finances well. But we do not know whether they have run the finances in Shropshire well because so much is secret.
That’s I think that Conservative minister Eric Pickles has it just right in demanding that councils across the country abandon “compromise agreements” – where departing staff get a healthy bung of cash in return for signing a pledge of silence.
The Conservatives on Shropshire Council should listen to him.