The TPA has long been campaigning for disclosure of public spending to be the norm, rather than the exception. The Freedom of Information Act is extremely useful, but it still relies on getting lucky with shots in the dark, and it's an arduous process at times. We have been applying pressure, particularly with the Council Spending Uncovered campaign and the Town Hall Rich List, to get councils - as a starting point - to automatically publish what they spend. I'm pleased to report that the pressure is working.
Last week the Conservatives published a new policy paper on local government, which included proposals
Requiring councils to publish detailed information online on expenditure by local councils – including the pay and perks of senior staff, and issuing new guidance to stop ‘rewards for failure’ to sacked town hall staff.
This was good news - they want senior staff's pay and remuneration to be made public, so that organisations like ourselves wouldn't have to fight to force councils reveal the information.
Today, the Government have taken on our proposal as well:
[Local Government Minister John] Healey said the government had decided to legislate to reveal the full picture of what senior councils officers are paid. "We've seen in some councils' salaries spiralling, we've seen some big pay-offs for failure, and that can't go on," he said. "I think the public need to know the full picture. That's why I'm going to change the rules."
This is a major victory for the campaign. We believe that these are public servants, being paid taxpayers' money to manage our services that we fund and use. Of course we should have the right to see who is being paid what.
Producing the Town Hall Rich List has shown that it is possible to produce this data, that the public want to see it and that when it is analysed there is clearly a problem with how muc some senior staff are getting. That campaign has been the spur to this success, so it's great news that the Government and the Tories have now taken it on as official policy.
But what of transparency in the rest of council spending? Our other Council Spending Uncovered papers - on things like pensions, publicity nad management payroll - only really scratch the surface of the billions councils spend. The Conservatives, as I quoted before, have committed to making councils publish their spending for all to see, but they aren't in Government at the moment. That said, a meeting I went to earlier in the week gave great signs that we are making practical headway on this issue around the country right now.
We've always said, when the Conservatives talk about changing things in local government, that they don't need to wait until they win a national election - they are the largest party in local government, as they keep reminding people, so they should be getting their councils to pursue best practice locally.
One council that is doing just that is the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. I attended their council budget meeting on Tuesday, where they voted through proposals to publish every item of council expenditure over £500. That's right, £500. This is revolutionary stuff, banishing the days when you had to struggle to find out the cost of even big ticket items.
Windsor & Maidenhead have become the first council to introduce this kind of transparency - others should follow their good example as soon as possible. If George Osborne's promises on Google Government are kept then one day we may see a similar policy pursued across the whole public sector. For now, Windsor and Maidenhead are the stand out leaders in the field. Hopefully other councils will join them before long.