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 by introducing a compulsory pre-application consultation for proposals above a certain threshold
– Food hygiene reports for food outlets – one 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 LGA 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 around £12-£39 million a year and 151,000 working days.
Have your say on this story using the comment section below