The end of Secrecy?

15 September, 2000

On April 5th this year, Bradford's "Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership" opened it's doors to members of the press and public for the first time. It is believed to be the first such body in the country to do so. The move was, in part at least, a response to a campaign by KDIS.

[Chris Leslie MP at the Bingley public meeting against secrecy]

And in a packed Town Hall chamber in Bingley last night the local citizens voted overwhelmingly for an end to the closed meetings of it's Town Centre Partnership.

The issue of "secrecy" surrounding meetings of such public bodies is becoming a major political concern.

Even the grandaddy of all secret quangos - Bradford Congress - is currently considering opening of it's meetings to public scrutiny.

But there is a strong resistance to such openness in many quarters. The new Bradford City Management company that will run the city centre will hold it's meetings behind closed doors.

Whole areas of public service, such as health and education, continue to be administered by secretive committees.

The same is true of many local "quangos" which spend vast fortunes from the public purse. Most local SRB regeneration schemes hold their board meetings free from open public scrutiny. And now, following local government reorganisation, even many council decisions that used to be taken at open meetings are being taken in secret by a select group of top councillors and officers.

There are many ways to avoid the public gaze. The Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership only let the public in to observe full meetings after it had established a small "executive" which continues to meet in secret. This is likely to be the model adopted by Bradford Congress.

Partnerships

It was the sharp decline of Council power during the Thatcher years and the subsequent growth of "quangos" and "partnerships" - with direct access to huge pots of government money - that led to this crisis of accountability. By shifting power away from the council chamber and inviting business interests and other agencies into the equation, it was claimed that the result would be greater effectiveness and broader representation.

[Board meeting of Bradford TEC}

But the boards of these bodies are largely self-selecting, drawing membership from a small group of key local players; businessmen, executives, consultants and senior politicians. Many share membership across several bodies, building quite a select network that holds immense power over the lives of the public.

Influence has shifted from the masonic lodge and select business club to this network. As the lessons of the local government corruption scandals of the 1970's were forgotten, the need for public scrutiny faded.

It became increasingly fashionable to invite compliant public "representatives" onto such bodies, hence negating, it was argued, the need for openness. With no public gallery to play to, or to answer to, surely a more meaningful debate could take place.

Freedom of Information

The new Labour government came to power with the promise of a Freedom Of Information Act which would strip away secrecy. The results have been disappointing. The Campaign for Freedom of Information said:

"The government's weak Freedom of Information Bill is still deeply biased against disclosure."

At the same time the "Local Government Bill" is supposed to open up local councils and has led to the recent reorganisation which saw the introduction of a council "cabinet". But again, the results have been rather different to what was promised.

In general, the press and public may attend and observe meetings of the council and its various committees. They may not speak, unless specifically invited by the chair. They may also see agendas and reports in advance. Of course in practice the public rarely attend council committees meetings, but the right to do so can prove vital when controversial issues arise. Public pressure at meetings undoubtedly influenced decisions on a number of planning issues recently, such as the Buck Quarry landfill site in Denholme and the Jenny Lane Playing Fields in Baildon.

But detailed council agendas and minutes are only required for those meetings to which the public has access, and now many meetings are taking place behind closed doors. Just last month a decision to give 110,000 towards a site study for developers of the controversial Odsal stadium scheme was taken at a private meeting of top councillors and officers under the new rules.

These moves have the backing of the Tory and Lib Dem leadership, but have been attacked by Labour. Former council leader Ian Greenwood said: "We have made it clear time and time again that these meetings should be in public."

Library staff at Bradford have noticed a sharp decline in the amount of public information coming from the council. Lib Dem leader Jeanette Sunderland promised that details of all decisions taken in secret would be placed on the Internet, but this hasn't happened yet and so the public are forced to rely on leaks to the T&A.

SRB

A glance at the KDIS Discussion Forum should leave no-one in any doubt about the need for openness and accountability amongst the growing number of government funded regeneration schemes around the district. The controversy surrounding the Newlands SRB Partnership has led the leader of the council to start an inquiry into a number of allegations of malpractice and "cronyism". It is simply not enough to have community "representatives" on a board whilst holding meetings behind closed doors. The potential for corruption in local schemes which handle millions of pounds is too great.

Many of these schemes have taken "secrecy" to absurd levels. For example, the "New Deal for Communities" board which covers the Little Horton area of Bradford, refused KDIS access to a report it commissioned on a highly controversial scheme to introduce CCTV surveillance systems into residential areas. It then refused to identify who sat on the board and made the decision.

In Keighley disaster struck when a major SRB-funded scheme, "The National Centre for Excellence in Environmental Management", collapsed suddenly with debts of 800,000, taking down the local Business Forum with it. Over 1 million in SRB money had been earmarked for the project.

Fortunately Keighley SRB is developing probably the most open structure in the district, and so avoided any long term damage which could have followed the collapse. Membership of it's "Partnership Association" is open to all Keighley residents and anyone can attend it's board meetings as observers. But it goes even further, as councillor Lynn Joyce, chair of the SRB, pointed out:

"All SRB records are available for viewing at the SRB Office except where they contain confidential information about an individual or an organisation. This particularly applies to Project Appraisal forms which would only be available after they had gone through the Project Approval process and with the consent of the organisation running or submitting the project. Given sufficient prior notice most would be available. All general information regarding SRB programmes such as The Constitution, Bids, Annual Reports and delivery plans are distributed widely and available from the SRB Office."

Other regeneration schemes would do well to adopt Keighley SRB's "open access" model.

Bradford Congress

For most people of the district, Bradford Congress is a complete mystery. With no official status and no resources of it's own, it is without doubt the most powerful organisation in the City. Based inside the unmarked, bomb-proof offices of the Telephone Exchange building in Sharpe St, Congress has played it's unseen role for over 6 years now. Even though Bradford Congress "owns" the council's expensive and much hyped "20 20 Vision Strategy", you will still find virtually nothing about the organisation in the library.

Former secretary Charles Forgan refused to let KDIS see any copies of any minutes of their meetings and the current acting secretary David Wilkinson declined an invitation to comment on it's future plans. But at last it is taking it's first tentative steps in to the open.

Council leader Margaret Eaton has promised to open it's meetings to the public some time in the near future.

"Congress has an important role to play in the District. If it did not exist we would have to re-invent it in some form as the Government require an umbrella organisation for Bradford Partners.
"I do believe in as much openness as possible and therefore I am looking at the possible models for Congress and ways of giving the public more access to its discussions."

Labour leader Ian Greenwood also backs an opening up of the secret quango:

"I do believe that Congress should in general terms be held in public. There will of course, as with any public body, from time to time be issues which have to be considered "in Camera" but I cannot believe that these will be frequent. In any case I think that there should be published Agendas before meetings and minutes afterwards.
"The one issue that I have with the foregoing is that there have been many "informal" discussions at congress which partners may not wish to air in public. These could be transferred in to less obvious places and in effect make them less open rather than more. I think we will need to discuss this as we go along. The worst result of all would be if key partners effectively withdraw and damaged the ability of Congress to gain additional resources for the District at which it has been very successful."


Update:

20 Sept 2000: A closed meeting of the Bingley Town Centre Partnership decided by 6 votes to 3 to ignore the overwhelming wishes of Bingley residents and to continue to meet in secret.

21 Sept 2000: It was announced today that Bradford Congress is to open it's doors to the public. The organisation will be renamed "Bradford Vision" and will appoint a Chief Executive on 60,000 a year.

28 Sept 2000: At a meeting of the Council's Shipley Area Panel, councillors voted to reject an ammendment by Green councillor David Ford to allow public access to a range of "partnerships". They confirmed that the public would be excluded from meetings of The Bingley Town Centre Partnership; The Saltaire Project Team, The Shipley Town Centre Partnership, The Shipley Development Partnership, The Shipley East Regeneration Board and all other such public partnership organisations which fall under the Shipley Area Panel.

See also: Council try to gag KDIS

12 Dec 2000: A meeting of the full council passed 2 motions on Public access to information, the first from the Lib-Dems and the second from Labour. They call for an "access to information" audit of the Council and it's "partners" and calls for more openess.

See also: The motions as passed

14 Mar 2001: Trident Ltd - the company that runs the "New Deal for Communities" regeneration scheme in the Little Horton area - announced that from September 2001 it's board meetings would be open to the public.


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