Thursday 14 July 2011

Keeping things under wraps - Part 2

Local government has many ways of concealing and withholding information from the public. One of the most powerful tools in the box is a provision under the Local Government Act 1972 which allows councils to declare information "exempt". In practice, what this means is the councils can withhold publication of information and exclude members of the public from otherwise public meetings while this information is being considered.

The purpose of this clause is broadly to protect the identity of individuals in circumstances where their financial affairs or other private information would otherwise be discussed in public and published; to protect the financial interests of the council itself to prevent disclosure of sensitive commercial or financial information which might affect a negotiation, or give companies, developers, etc. an unfair advantage in their dealings with the council; and to prevent publication of information in criminal cases. Fair enough.

All councils make use of these clauses, and Carmarthenshire is no exception. The question is whether the use of these powers is always justified, and whether there are sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse, particularly in local authorities such as Carmarthenshire where a great deal of power has become concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people.

Carmarthenshire changed to a cabinet system of local government in 2004, and the most powerful body within the council is therefore the Executive Board, which is made up of senior members of the ruling political group (Independent and Labour) with attendance by the chief executive and various senior officers. It is usually the case that elected councillors will be heavily outnumbered by unelected officers at these meetings.

Minutes of the Executive Board meetings show that there is, at least on the public record, never any dissent or disagreement on any of the issues up for discussion and agreement. All motions are passed unanimously, always. In theory, the board is meant to decide at the meeting whether or not to apply a public interest test before declaring a report exempt under the Act and excluding the public. In practice nobody ever challenges a recommendation for exemption, and the motions to exclude the public are, of course, carried unanimously.

In the seven years since it came into being, the Executive Board has met 157 times, and there have been 78 instances of the use of the exemption clause. Sometimes several meetings will pass without an exemption, and then, like London buses, several will come along all at once.

Exemptions are usually, but not always, announced in the published agenda for a meeting, and it is sometimes possible to gain a sense of what was under discussion from the subsequent minutes. On other occasions, all you will read was that the board noted the contents of a report, or that they unanimously adopted one of the options outlined, without disclosing what that option was.

As an outsider, therefore, it is impossible to judge whether an exemption was applied for good reason or not, and at least on the face of things, it would seem that most of the occasions when it has been applied by Carmarthenshire are within the letter and spirit of the law. However, a number of oddities stand out, some possibly trivial, others less so. Here are a few of them.

Ammanford Cemetery makes two appearances in 2004, including one meeting held to discuss specifications for grave stone erection and amended rules and regulations.

A report on fees and charges levied by the Parc Gwyn crematorium was also declared exempt.

In 2006 the board considered a major capital investment in sports and leisure facilities at Ysgol Tregib in Llandeilo. Fast forward to 2011, and the council has just voted to close the school and move it to a new site.

Several of the county's pet white elephant projects make repeated appearances, usually with appeals for more money. These include Parc y Scarlets and the National Botanic Gardens.

For some reason the community hall at Llangennech makes two appearances on the secret list. First in connection with the relocation of a public library, and second when the hall management committee asked to be let off part of its financial commitments.

The county's Waste Strategy Implementation Plan is also considered so sensitive that it is twice covered with exemptions.

The abortive Carmarthenshire TV project is also hush hush.

In 2007, the council decided to purchase the former St Ivel creamery at Johnstown as a strategic investment. In 2010 it decided to give this site to the Towy Community Church, an American-style evangelical group. It is understood that the council paid around £750,000-800,000 for the site and it is clear that the church's ambitious projects will receive further substantial injections of cash from the council. Some strategic investment that turned out to be!

In 2010 the council undertook a review of its ownership of farms. The results of the review remain shrouded in mystery.

Some of the property deals come back again and again. A prime example is land at Machynys, Llanelli, which was sold for redevelopment as a hotel. It seems that the developers went back repeatedly to secure better terms for the deal.

The sums of money involved in these deals vary enormously from just a few thousands of pounds to many millions. Some involve investments which have turned out to be extremely bad for the council tax payer; others are exempt, it would seem, for no good reason at all. The transfer of ownership of a property from the county council to a town or community council (e.g. the YMCA building in Llanelli) is one such example.

It may be the case that some of these exemptions are simply the work of over-zealous council officials whose philosophy is to exempt "just in case". Other exemptions, such as the Johnstown creamery and Xcel bowling alley project, are hiding what look like incompetent decisions and waste of public funds.

The lopsided structure of the council and the powerbase built up by the chief executive mean that bad decisions can be swept under the carpet, and more public money poured down the drain without anyone appearing willing or able to challenge what is going on.


Photon said...

And a blog post like this should, to any organisation dedicated to proper transparency and accountability, demonstrate why secrecy without clear explanation and justification is so dangerous.

I've not slept much, and haven't engaged legal brain, but it would seem that a FoIA request for the justification for barring the public could be the answer.

If they refuse to supply even the information as to why the public were barred, then that would be a breach of FoIA 2000, as they have to apply a public interest test and then state which of the permitted exemptions led them to refuse. So, under one Act, they can hide, but under FoIA, it's more difficult.

Tessa said...

What an excellent and informative post. Thank you.