As well as taking a load of their money away, the coalition government is making all councils publish details of their spending over £500. They were meant to have done it by the end of January, but many of London’s councils have dragged their heels a bit. Greenwich Council certainly hadn’t done it by the end of January. It has now, though – head here if you’re feeling nosy.
In June, communities secretary Eric Pickles hailed this as nothing short of a revolution:
“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.”
So, what is there in Greenwich’s figures for the armchair auditors to get their teeth into?
Not a lot from first sight, unless you’re already familiar with council expenses. The main impression I get is a sobering one – how much gets spent on care services. But in fact, the way Greenwich have published these figures raises more questions than answers. It’s clear that most of these things are bills for various services, with a few grants to voluntary groups thrown in. But there’s no indication as to what these payments are for.
A great chunk are redacted – what are they about? Why does so much money seem to change hands between local councils? What the heck is that £1.65m payment to Ferrier Estate/ Royal Arsenal developer Berkeley Homes about? I’m guessing £30,000 of bills from Trinity Mirror Printing Watford Limited relates to Greenwich Time, but the rest raises more questions than they do answers. Indeed, publishing them in this way could risk costing more money in Freedom of Information Act requests as those pesky armchair auditors get to work.
Down the road at Lewisham, they’ve also been putting their payments online, but using a different approach to Greenwich.
Here, we can see which arm of the council has spent the money and what the cash was spent on. So some of the questions raised by Greenwich’s skimpy stats can be answered – the redactions are for payments to individuals, and councils routinely swap big sums of money to pay for education and care services, as well as staffing costs. And we can tell that lots of different parts of Lewisham Council spend lots of money with Office Depot UK. That’ll be a lot of paperclips.