Mark Wallace: Windsor and Maidenhead Council has delivered on its promise of transparency - others must now follow suit
Mark Wallace of the TaxPayers' Alliance congratulates Windsor and Maidenhead Council on fulfilling its decision to publish the details of all expenditure over £500.
I wrote here a few weeks ago about the decision of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead to become Britain’s first transparent council. I am delighted to report that this week, they implemented that policy – publishing a full list of all expenditure over £500 which can be viewed here.
This is a major development in the relationship between the people and the State, and particularly between taxpayers and their local councils. Transparency is essential to a functional democracy, and it is particularly essential to achieving a low tax, localised democracy, which the TaxPayers’ Alliance would very much like to see.
This gold standard of disclosure has several benefits to taxpayers, to the council and to local democracy in general.
The public clearly benefit by the new power they gain to identify wasteful spending and hold the council to account. If the default position for all public spending was that it would be made public, then large amounts of the absurd, self-indulgent and outright bizarre spending that goes on would never get off the ground, and that which did continue would swiftly be stamped out by public demand. This new gold standard of disclosure also sweeps away the advantage that opacity gives to councillors or officers over taxpayers and voters, too. No longer does one party come to the table armed with all the information on a given issue, while the other is kept in the dark.
The council benefits both practically and reputationally. Practically, because if two brains are better than one for solving a problem, then the application of thousands of brains to the question of how best to run the council’s budget can only be a good thing. The internet is a particularly good tool for harnessing the power of a community to study a question or solve a dilemma, and this new policy of openness provides a much greater opportunity for local residents to suggest ways to make the council run better.
Reputationally, the council gains because openness in public spending dispels suspicion. The MPs’ expenses saga proves all too vividly that keeping the details of how taxpayers’ money is spent simply serves to feed the fire of suspicion, rumour and disdain. As mentioned above, if a council is wasting taxpayers’ money then transparency will force them to stop doing so. If they are not, then this policy gives them the opportunity to reassure the public that they are good stewards of our money and thus bolster their reputation.
Local democracy itself benefits because a better informed electorate is always able to make better choices. This is taxpayers’ money being spent, and for them to be able to control democratically how it is spent and how their local services work, they must be allowed to see in detail what goes on behind the doors of the town hall.
Even in the last week there have been encouraging signs that scrutiny and accountability do work. After I revealed last week on this blog the names of the councils that refused to adequately respond to the TPA’s freedom of information requests on senior staff pay and perks, several have already recanted under public, media and political pressure, such as Torridge and Lewisham.
In the age of the Freedom of Information Act, it seems ridiculous that only ten years ago taxpayers in Britain had almost no right to know how their money was spent. Windsor and Maidenhead has just opened a new age of transparency, and in ten years it will seem just as ridiculous that once we only had the right to take potshots in the dark using Freedom of Information requests to guess how politicians and civil servants spend our money. Other councils must now follow suit.