In an interview given to BBC Radio Humberside last week, the leader of North East Lincolnshire Council, Cllr Chris Shaw, accused the TPA of costing the authority £70K a year in freedom of information (FOI) requests. This, of course, was untrue, as were his accusations that we issue FOIs for information we can already find on the council's website. By his own admission, each FOI request costs an average of £75. We sent eight FOIs in the last two years. Instead of costing £140K over two years, the real cost was in the region of £600, and of course, if the council published this information on its website the cost would be zero.
As you will hear from the robust debate I had with him, Cllr Shaw doesn't think much of freedom of information. He would prefer to keep local taxpayers in the dark, and instead spend the money of what he terms council services. What he couldn't grasp is the purpose of our reports. They are there to give local residents an opportunity to see how their money is spent. They also inform councillors how their authority compares with others across the country.
One of the issues I took him to task on was paying staff mileage rates of 65p per mile. As mileage rate information is not published on North East Lincolnshire Council's website, we were forced to send an FOI to get the figures. In a national report published in April 2011, we revealed the extent to which council workers were benefiting from this perk. Even in good times you cannot justify paying staff 20p per mile above HMRC's recommended rate, but at a time when council budgets are being reduced, they can collectively save millions of pounds by paying a fair mileage rate.
In May 2011, a month after we published our report, Cllr Shaw became leader of North East Lincolnshire Council. He has had twenty-one months to address this issue, however as you will hear in the interview he still says he is in negotiations with the unions. How long does it take? Clearly, ending costly perks is not a priority, yet he accuses us, and local taxpayers, of wasting money trying to find out information that should be freely available on the council's website.
What Cllr Shaw did not mention were plans revealed today in the Grimsby Telegraph regarding parking charges. A series of recommendations have been presented to councillors which include raising charges and introducing charges in some car parks, and ending free parking for blue disabled badge holders. If councillors agree, these changes will take effect in September.
So instead of reducing generous perks like paying staff 65p per mile, Cllr Shaw would prefer taxpayers not request information on how their money is spent and is also considering raising parking charges which could drive trade away from businesses who are already struggling through these difficult economic times. At least we know where his priorities lie.