Rother transparency row: Council accused of withholding information

Bexhill Town Hall SUS-150325-095657001
Bexhill Town Hall SUS-150325-095657001

A damning letter sent to Rother District Council from the government has accused the authority of a “significant failing” by withholding important information from council tax payers.

The correspondence, from Kris Hopkins MP of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), accuses Rother of failing to publish data on the council’s website in a number of key areas, including contracts over £5,000, land and assets, senior salaries and parking revenues.

It appears from your website that your council has not published data in a number of important areas.

Kris Hopkins MP

And as a result, Central Government says it is to withhold some funding to the troubled local authority.

Council leader Carl Maynard said he was ‘hugely disappointed’ to receive the letter, and insisted that RDC had never hidden information from the public.

But several of Rother’s own councillors have criticised Cllr Maynard, claiming their own questions are often left unanswered.

And some of the councillors said they were not even aware of the letter until they were contacted by Observer reporter Laura Button - four days after it was first made public.

It is the second time Rother has been criticised by the government for its lack of transparency.

Back in December, Mr Hopkins first raised concerns about the way the council’s 
redundancy payments to its ex-chief executive and two heads of service were accounted for.

This prompted a further investigation by the DCLG, which uncovered a “significant failing” in the way RDC presents information to taxpayers.

In the latest damning letter to Cllr Maynard, Mr Hopkins said: “In light of the approach you have taken in your annual statement of accounts, we have taken the opportunity to look at your council’s broader approach to transparency. This has raised further concerns.

“For example, your council does not appear to be following best practice on Localism Act pay policy statements. Our guidance states that councils should ensure that pay policy statements are easily accessible to the public as stand alone documents, not hidden in committee papers.

“Your council does not appear to have followed this guidance.

“Furthermore, I am concerned that the information published on your website on senior salaries does not meet the requirements of the mandatory Local Government Transparency Code 2014 – which simply has been introduced through secondary legislation.

“Indeed, I note that your council has stated that it intends to achieve compliance with the Code by April 2015. Councils’ statutory obligations under the Code are very clear – the first set of quarterly data had to be published by 31 December 2014 and the first set of annual data had to be published by 2 February 2015.

“It appears from your website that your council has not published data in a number of important areas, for example, contracts over £5,000, land and assets, senior salaries, an organisation chart, trade union facility time, parking revenues, grants to the voluntary sector and the like. This is a significant failing.”

In light of the council’s 
failings, the government has opted to withhold RDC’s ‘burdens funding’ for 2014-15 until the data is published correctly.

The burdens funding - money given by the government to councils if they take on more responsibilities or work - amounts to around £2,500.

Mr Hopkins warns that the government would consider withholding future payments if Rother doesn’t comply with the Code.

The letter concluded: “Councils should aim to provide the highest standards of transparency, particularly in how they spend local taxpayers’ money, and certainly meet their legal duties. The public expect no less.

“It is our view that, as it stands, your council is failing to do so.

“I would therefore urge you to use the coming weeks to ensure that your authority takes the necessary remedial action and to ensure that local taxpayers in Rother have access to all the information that they have a right to expect.”

n To read Kris Hopkins MP’s letter in full, visit https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/transparency-in-rother-district-council