Freedom of Information - St. Lucia News From The Voice Liberal Democrats block move to adopt the 2015 Local Government Transparency Code

Cllr William Sunnucks, Conservative spokesman on Council Resources, explains why Colchester City Council is failing in its duty to fully comply with the 2015 Local Government Transparency Code: "Government's purpose in issuing The Code is to ensure that all background material and data used by Public Authorities in their decision-making is available to Councillors, taxpayers and members of the public. This transparency ensures that everyone can judge whether decisions are good or bad."

Colchester Council has a moderately good record on Transparency. But when tough decisions have to be made, the political groups currently controlling the Council are tempted to play games with the release of information and it needs a reminder of the 2015 transparency code."

So at the Council meeting on 19th October 2023, I proposed a motion to Council that "All data held and managed by the Council should be made public (except for that relating to private individuals) and that the 2015 Local Government Transparency Code should be respected in full"

Imagine my surprise, and that of my fellow Conservatives. when the Leader of the Council proposed an amendment deleting the words " the 2015 Local Government Transparency Code should be respected in full". This says it all. The Liberal Democrats do not believe in open government.

And this is my personal experience. I’m sick and tired of trying to get the information I need to do my job as Conservative Spokesman for resources: and I know other Conservative spokespersons have struggled with the same problem. Councillors shouldn’t have to submit "freedom of information requests" to get information from their own Council. 

The Liberal-democrat Administration talks at length about collaboration, but as soon as the questions get hard, the clam shell closes. Answers are promised, but never received. Next you get the "Sir Humphrey speak".  it sounds pleasant enough but you don’t actually get an answer. If you persist it turns political and someone else is blamed - auditors, Essex County Council, central government - anyone not there to answer back. 

Finally - and this happened at yesterday’s Governance and Audit committee - you will be told that the questions are not relevant to voters on the doorstep and you are made to feel silly for asking them. This is disrespectful: people do care about the risks being taken with public money and whether there is waste that causes them to pay more tax. Our questions are not frivolous or irrelevant:  they are about how the Council can be run better for the benefit of our residents.  

We are emphatically not asking for more work from Council Officers.  Quite the opposite. Please just open the books and give us the base information you already have.  There is no need to reshape it into long carefully sanitised reports - in one case we asked for a one-page financial appraisal which we know exists, and after six months got back two weighty reports -  but still no sight of the one-page appraisal.  

So why can’t we see the appraisal?  What is there to hide? My example refers to the Northern Gateway leisure development where it turns out that our residents bear almost all the risk.  Goodness knows what those reports cost in cash, officer time and energy. It would be so much easier if the Administration would give us the one piece of paper we really need. The press releases are ceaselessly positive but no one knows the likely damage to our accounts and the financial future of the Council.

The same applies wherever we get too close to the Council's risky decisions.  Over the coming months we will need to know what property assets we own and why the rental income is so low, how many staff we employ and what they are doing: and to have proper breakdowns of the accounts to enable us to prepare The Conservative Opposition budget.  

So please can we just open the books and conduct the Council’s business in an open way as required by the transparency code.  Let’s not get clever with the law or use information as a tool of politics.  Just share what we have so that, together, we can address the problems of Colchester City Council.