Cllr Gavin Webb of Stoke-on-Trent City Council was shot down in flames by his colleagues when he dared to propose that it could be a useful exercise for the TPA to go through the books (free-of-charge!) and suggest where fat might be trimmed. Undeterred by their frosty reception, he continues to push for transparency at the local authority, most recently sending this email to his fellow elected members:
Dear Fellow Councillors
You may recall that since my election in 2007 and on several occasions at past full council meetings I have publicly called for a complete breakdown of the City Council budget so that councillors and members of the public are able to look through it in order to decide areas to cut, improve and indeed stop providing altogether.
My requests have unfortunately been derided by many Members, and indeed, the information I requested has not been forthcoming from our current Resources portfolio holder Councillor Kieran Clarke (who at the full council meeting on 26 February claimed that such information would be difficult to provide), and by his predecessor, Councillor Mike Tappin. You may recall that at this meeting I voted against the Medium Term Financial Strategy and the Corporate Plan as I believed them both to illustrate how the council was doing too much, and that this was perpetuating the nanny state that restricted citizens doing things for themselves.
It is therefore no secret that I believe councillors should have been cutting back on the size of the council, how much it spends, and how much it does for people. It is no secret that I believe that residents should have less reliance on the ‘authorities’ to provide services for them and that they should be doing more for themselves. Unfortunately, many fellow councillors since 2007 have frankly mocked such views.
It appears now that my mindset is now the prevailing paradigm. Indeed it is interesting to note some of the quotes by senior bureaucrats highlighted at the beginning the recent MTFS presentation to council members where . . “Our public debt is hitting Armaggedon levels” (Steve Bundred, Chief Executive Audit Office); “Bloodbath in public finances” (CIPD June 2009); “Councils have a £4bn deficit” (LGA August 2009); and the quote that particularly struck me as being at least two years too late . . . “We are talking about double digit percentage drops. I think possibly 30 or 40% of current resources . . . we are talking about stopping doing things and maybe a rebalancing of those things we expect a private citizen to do and what we expect the public sector to do” (Roger Lathan, CIPFA President March 2009).
When I have given warnings such as these at scrutiny, at full council, and indeed privately with many of you, I’m afraid I haven’t been filled with confidence that fellow council members have the backbone to exercise the cuts needed to bring the public finances back into good order, and in the process, really re-empower residents to have greater control over their own lives and, working with their neighbours, their communities.
Yesterday, I met with Paul Simpson, Director of Central Services to discuss the issue pertaining to the City Council’s budget. It is clear that much needs to be done.
During the meeting I requested, once again, a full breakdown of the City Council’s budget and Paul Simpson has agreed that though it will require a little time to collate it in a format that is clear and understandable, that this is possible. However, he would prefer that if such information was being released that it was available to all members of the council, hence my reason for emailing you.
Would you like a full breakdown of the City Council budget? I don’t mean just headings of specific sections of the council which have been presented to scrutiny in the past by officers, I mean the minutiae right down to how much is being spent on cleaning up dog muck and mowing grass verges – things that perhaps local residents should be more in charge of tackling and owning.
I have also requested in the past, and once again I requested it yesterday at the meeting, that I would also like this information to also be published on the City Council website, stoke.gov.uk, in order that the public is able to see where money is being spent. Of course, this would require there being some differentiation between services paid for using monies raised locally, and those that are paid for using monies obtained by the council from Central Government or some non-elected Quango. There is an opportunity to engage with taxpayers over where their money is to be spent (or not as the case may be). It is after all taxpayers’ money, not the Council’s.
I think we can all agree that it is best if all the facts and figures are presented to us in order that we are all – including the taxpayer – able to make an informed contribution to the debate on where savings must be made. If you agree with having all the facts and figures, please ‘Reply To All’ as Paul Simpson has been copied into this email.
All the best
Gavin Webb, Libertarian Party Councillor for Stoke and Trent Vale
You can read his full blog post on the matter here.
Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that Stoke is one of the worst local offenders for profligate spending and taking questionable decisions with taxpayers cash, so we can only hope that Gavin's worthwhile campaigning starts to erode the brick wall of obstinacy that stands between elected members and the prospect of reviewing how the council runs.