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No excuses on Council transparency

Wallace Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says Council Chief Execs suggesting parallel transparency from the private sector shows flawed reasoning

Last week, Derek Myers the Chief Executive of Kensington and Chelsea Council made an intriguing announcement.

The private sector, he opined, should be compelled to be as“accountable” as local government. Now, the context to these remarks is important. First, Mr Myers is Chairman of SOLACE, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. Second, his remarks are reported in the Local Government Chronicle – the house journal of local government officers, one of the publications in the land which has felt an editorial need (or perhaps just a business need) in the past to question the drive towards council transparency.

Mr Myers is, therefore, playing to a very select audience – an audience which has elected him to a very rewarding job.

Over the last couple of years, as transparency, accountability and direct democracy have been taken up by all three main political parties, the dwindling rump at SOLACE have been fighting a rearguard action. While some leading figures, such as SOLACE President Katherine Kerswell, have embraced transparency and urged their colleagues to do the same, others have been less enthusiastic.

Now, they appear to have changed tack. SOLACE are about to publish a new document that lays out a set of specific proposals about how the Government should legislate and regulate on the workings of private companies, change the function of private sector auditors and make the tax returns of private individuals “public property”.

To a certain extent, Derek Myers’ latest outburst is encouraging. This is a sign that SOLACE’s leadership has finally accepted that accountability and transparency in local government are inevitable. We should take heart that they no longer think the tide can be held back.

However, this new tack that Mr Myers is taking highlights serious misunderstandings about the role and function of local authorities. These misunderstandings may be blunders, or they may be wilful on his
part, but either way they need to be corrected.

First, why do Derek Myers or SOLACE think it is their role to tell the private sector how to function at all? Their job is to run local authorities under the instruction of the elected representatives of the people. They rightly remind us at every opportunity that their job is a complex one, and that many functions they perform are of great importance. They ought to focus on getting that job right and doing what the people ask of them, rather than going so wildly beyond their remit.

Second, Mr Myers seems to have failed to understand the meaning of the word accountability. The boom in transparency in recent years has certainly changed life for local authority chief executives in recent years, but if they really think this has made them more accountable than private businesses, they are deluding themselves.

Councils are at best semi-accountable at the moment. Every year, or three or even four years I get a vote on who my councillor is. Even then, many of their policies are not decided by elected councillors. In between elections, I am legally compelled at the threat of prosecution to hand over as much money as they demand.

Compare this to private business. Every time I go shopping, I take part in a referendum on which supplier I give my money too. Even better, it is a referendum of a population of one – me. At any time, if I get a dodgy product, poor customer service or an unreasonable price hike, I am free to withdraw my business from any one of the thousands of different companies I deal with in my day to day life. I don’t get outvoted by others, and if I choose to reject Heinz beans as far too expensive, they cannot serve me with court papers demanding I hand them money regardless.

Does Mr Myers still think that Kensington & Chelsea is more accountable than a private business?

This is the really good reason why councils should be more transparent than private companies: if voters are only given a choice about their council service once every year or more, then they deserve as much information as possible to inform that decision. If taxpayers are to be forced to hand over their money, then the very least councils can do in return is show us how it is spent.

The third, and final, thing which Mr Myers should consider is how well councils would really fare if they were forced to compete as private companies. Can he name a company which has behaved like local government in the last decade? I can’t think of a shop I use which has doubled its prices, cut its key services (e.g. bin collections, playing fields or library provision) and vastly increased the pay for its senior staff, and got away with it.

Councils are in an extremely privileged position. They have a special legal power to compel people to hand over their money, and only have to ask them occasionally what their views are on how it is spent. Instead of lecturing everybody else, they should seek to serve the public – that, after all, is their job.

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