Cambridge City Council’s 2008/9 Accounts, Receipts, Invoices and Contracts Opened to the Public


Wednesday, July 8th, 2009. 3:38am



Today (Wednesday 8th July 2009) is the first of twenty working days during which Cambridge City Council’s accounts, including all invoices, receipts and contracts are available for anyone who is interested to view. A “Notice of public rights” posted deep within the council’s website states:

Notice is hereby given that from 8th July to 4th August 2009 inclusive (excluding weekends and public holidays) any person interested, on application to the Department of the Director of Finance, Second Floor, Lion House, Lion Yard, Cambridge CB2 3NA, (telephone Cambridge 458134), may inspect and make copies of the accounts of the Cambridge City Council for the year ended 31st March 2009 and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating thereto. The inspection may take place between 9 am and 5 pm (Monday to Thursday) and 9 am to 4 pm (Friday).

Due to the volume of material which will be made available the council has in previous years refused, on cost grounds, to make it available online, so individuals wishing to review the documents will have to do so in person.

I have no idea what to expect if I were to attend the council’s offices during the open period. Perhaps copies of all the relevant documents are placed on a table (or on a bookshelf) and members of the public are free to browse through them?

Items which I believe may prove particularly interesting include:

Any further ideas for places to look would be welcome in the comments (or by phone or email if preferred).

Perhaps it will also prove a convenient time to inspect the councillor’s (and senior officers?) hospitality register.

11 comments/updates on “Cambridge City Council’s 2008/9 Accounts, Receipts, Invoices and Contracts Opened to the Public

  1. John Lawton

    I did not know that the Microsoft tax was an annual payment, how could that be?
    I am very interested to know the finances of the green spaces. Consider that the council is paid by some event holders, owners of grazing animals etc to use the common, on the other hand they incurr costs, for instance the management of the Midsummer Fair, maintenance of the sward, fencing etc. I suspect the costs will be scattered around as so many departments are involved. Good luck!

  2. John Lawton

    Richard, have you had a look at the accounts yet? By searching for “Scrutiny Committee” on the council website, I happened on this document which was interesting regarding the budgets for Green Spaces amongst other things.
    http://www.cambridge.gov.uk/public/docs/Budget%20Book%202009-10%20community%20services.pdf and for that matter other cscrutiny committee budgets are there too, such as Strategy & Resources: http://www.cambridge.gov.uk/public/docs/Budget%20Book%202009-10%20strategy%20and%20resources.pdf where the on-off reduction in the IT spend (uSoft?) is itemised. It looks like car parks are a good money earner for the council. Most things aren’t.

  3. Richard Article author

    John,

    I’ve emailed the council asking some questions about how the open inspection works and letting them know what I’m interested in.

    I’ve got reference number E63795A4A2F0C from the customer service centre, but no reply as yet.

  4. Amanda Taylor

    Richard, councillors’ expenses are now on the City Council’s website at my request and have been since June.

    At tomorrow evening’s full council, I shall be proposing a motion to expand our on line information about councillors’ allowances, expenses, interests and running costs, as well as enhance the Freedom of Information content.

    Cllr Amanda Taylor
    Queen Edith’s, Cambridge

  5. Richard Article author

    Cllr Taylor,

    While there are some excellent and positive steps proposed in your motion to tomorrow’s meeting the implication that you and other Cambridge City Liberal democrats are at the vanguard of open government and freedom of information is ridiculous.

    There were a number of people lobbying the council to release councillors expenses for 2008/9 before they finally did so in June. They ought to have been published as a matter of routine before you, I or anyone else requested them.

    My 2008/9 request, along with a link to my 2007/8 request can be viewed found via this link.

    I note that the content of your motion, while positive, it is very weakly worded. Why, for example, are you only proposing consideration of a disclosure log rather than actually setting one up? I hope opposition councillors will amend and strengthen your motion at the meeting.

    I published a couple of entries from the register of members interests myself last year. This resulted in my being warned by a council officer, the council officer who you have since appointed as chief executive, that publishing extracts from the register could be in breach of the Data Protection Act. I also lobbied for the publication of the register electronically and suggested that more councillors ought complete an electronic version of the form. I appreciate the change in position, but it has been very slow in coming.

    Why not go further and open up Love Cambridge? Cllr Cantrill has said it will run to the same standards of openness and transparency as the council yet it is holding closed meetings and does not publish its minutes and agendas.

    The council still holds many meetings in secret, for example the area committee chairs meeting, the ranger steering group, the public art steering group. The significant public appointment of the chair of the public art steering group was not made in public.

    Why not open up the council’s tree database so everyone can learn about, and comment on proposed tree works, and the reasons for them?

    This motion reminds me of last year’s Liberal Democrat ID Cards motion; which unlike similar motions passed by other councils didn’t actually propose any firm action. It expressed the council’s opposition to the scheme, but didn’t go so far as to prevent the council from participating in data sharing or requiring residents to have ID Cards to use city council services. Personally the only reason I have a photo-card driving licence is because the city council wouldn’t even let me know if I was eligible for a parking permit without one.

    The council’s poor approach to openness can be seen from its failure to reply to my enquiry about inspecting the accounts during the “open period”; I have published the reference number I have obtained from the council’s customer service centre. The expenses payments I hope to be able to view during the open period include those for senior staff. I also hope to be able to look at receipts and tickets, for example to see if travel has been made first class.

  6. Cllr Neil McGovern

    Richard,

    As I’m sure you’re aware, public finances are limited. As one of the movers of the motion (primarily the first part) I was informed by senior officers that it would be easier to tone down some of the language.

    I have pushed against this suggestion: I have kept a firm line on this. We have in this motion a commitment to open government. We have a requirement to consider publication. We have a desire to show we can and will lead the way in accountability to the tax payer. It is my wish and desire that this is very much a first step to allowing Cambridge to be an exemplar council in its transparency.

    However we require the resources to deliver this goal. There is an inherent cost in providing this, as I’m sure you’re aware. In these times of hardship for many families across the area, I cannot justify the extra resources that this would incur. As a boy born in King’s Hedges today will die, on average, 7 years younger than in the middle of the city, I believe that these funds must be directed to core services.

    I hope that you will bear with the Council in this. I applaud you in your desire for transparency, it’s one I share. I do, however, hope you can see the reality of the situation, and that we are trying hard to create a more transparent, accountable, and open governance for everyone in the City.

    Cllr Neil McGovern

  7. Richard Article author

    Thanks for your comment Neil, I agree this motion is a good positive step. I think it lacks clarity as to exactly what it means by considering publishing FOI responses. Does that mean every response will be considered for publication, or that no responses are to be published, officers are just going to think about publishing them?

    I can’t see why transparency and openness is seen as a cost, or is expensive.

    Take for example this photograph showing Cllrs Hipkin and Blencowe voting against the CB1 planning application in October 2008. Even after many hours of deliberation, and hearing many views the who voted which way in the end was not recorded. Not only does the council not routinely record the results of votes, but I’ve been warned not to take photos in council meetings to publicise the results of votes. As a result of my actions existing rules were promoted more vigorously and committee chairs now instructed to warn members of the public that they are not allowed to take photographs.

    I am also not able to video the debate on openness tomorrow and put it on this website (which I am sure would get more city residents viewing it that will be sitting in the public gallery). Permission is required to video, and it is only granted during the opening pomp of meetings, not during substantive debate.

    Changing those rules would cost nothing.

    Openness and transparency would I believe reduce waste, corruption and malpractice, it will result in us being richer.

    Councillors simply need to give direction to those staff they already employ, on how they want them to do the jobs they are already doing in a more open manner. If posting a response to an FOI request online is considered expensive then the council needs to change its systems and perhaps staff to make sure it is not.

    With respect to the hospitality register and register of members’ interests surely an online system where councillors take responsibility for keeping their own entries up-to-date online will be cheaper to run than a system involving officers printing out emails and filing them.

    Currently members of the public viewing the registers have to do so in person, accompanied by a council officer who is required to time stamp and sign any copies taken. Allowing online access will surely be much cheaper.

  8. Cllr Neil McGovern

    Hi Richard, thanks for coming back.

    Should this motion pass, for each FoI request that we receive I would expect officers to give serious consideration to publishing it online. There may be reasons why this is not possible, or practical, but I would expect the default to be publication.

    As to my comments about cost, some departmental databases are currently paper based, or not in a format that would make it easy to publish on-line, so some work would be required to get these changed to appropriate electronic versions
    .
    For some information we need to do a cost-benefit analysis of the work invlolved. However, I view this as a way of providing a priority ordering for publication. I completely agree that if the systems are not in place that allow easy and simple publication of documents, then these must be put in place to allow our officers the ability to do so.

    As for voting and hospitality/interest registers, media at meetings etc, I will need to do further research on to the legal implications for doing this. I have no idea what is considered best practice, and wouldn’t want to commit to something we can’t do.

  9. Richard Article author

    John Lawton said: “I did not know that the Microsoft tax was an annual payment, how could that be?”

    The council pay annually into their fund for replacing the licences, so it appears as a line in each year’s accounts.

  10. John Lawton

    Thanks for finding this out. The council appears to have signed up for Microsoft licensing which locks you in to regular payments. Curiously if the payments are annual, how were they able to suspend a payment?
    The other question is whether this is good value for money. I would be interested to know what products are licensed, and whether alternative cheaper or even free products might be suitable for their purposes.

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