Death of open government
The next full meeting of South Somerset District Council will take place in Yeovil on Thursday evening. Some very significant changes will be discussed. The only people who will not be allowed to hear about those changes are those who are paying for them – that’s you the tax payer – and us, the press.
An agenda item is proposed which will be heard in camera. As the agenda item is to be discussed behind closed doors we can only guess at the content through hints dropped in the agenda reports pack. But there are are clues aplenty.
What the item appears not to be, is anything that is genuinely commercially sensitive. Such as a discussion of a specific investment, or the financial details of any individual. These are items which would, with good reason be considered commercially sensitive. Of course we cannot be certain as the facts are being hidden. But certainly the reports pack strongly suggests there is no good reason to hide it.
It appears that SSDC will be discussing increasing the amount of money set aside for capital investment. To date they have spent around £40m on property investment. First we are told “Please refer to Appendix 2 for the Confidential Item detail in relation to a new investment fund to take the Council forward to meet its revised financial needs” except that the public and press can’t. Then the agenda hints that they will look for “additional capital investment of £75m as outlined in the Financial Strategy and commercial activity“. No doubt it is outlined, but not for the press and public to see.
There is absolutely no reason why this should be treated as commercially sensitive. If specific investments were being discussed they could, indeed should be separated out into a genuinely confidential item. But it is very contentious to hide a conversation that is about nothing more than the total quantum available to invest.
That is hardly commercially sensitive. What it is, is tax payers money. The issue of the total of how much SSDC can spend on speculative property investment is of great public interest.
Yet SSDC have decided they can justify hiding the item behind closed doors. No discussion, no what ifs – it is simply hidden from view. What price democratic accountability anyone?
But there is other more worrying material to be hidden from you too. Presently any investment under £10m can be signed off by a group of just 7 people without reference back to elected councillors. SSDC now want to alter the levels of authority to give “increased level of delegation of individual investment / acquisition approvals to the CEO in consultation with the Leader as set out at Appendix 2 as a Confidential item.”
In other words it seems that the intent is that even larger sums can now be spent of your money. Money that will be spent without any public scrutiny. Indeed without any scrutiny by elected councillors, until after the deals are signed off. By which time it is arguably too late.
If the SSDC of Rik Pallister could make some claim on being a paragon of open government, it rather looks as if the new regime in Yeovil have other ideas.