ANALYSIS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

What does your council know that you don't know you don't know?

Extracting information from councils is hard work but increasingly necessary for local democracy.

Democratic deficit  Freedom of information  Accountability & transparency 

As George W. Bush’s Secretary for Defense Donald Rumsfeld once remarked: “There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Getting Rumsfeld’s statement word perfect is challenging, but it nevertheless readily comes to mind when observing and monitoring English local authorities. As long ago as 1960 Parliament passed the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act - sponsored by a newly-elected back bench MP called Margaret Thatcher - which forced local authorities to hold their meetings in public unless specific exemptions from that rule applied. The detailed rules have been updated from time to time, but the principle remains the same.

What we get under these rules is of course what councils want us to see. To be fair, officer reports seeking a decision – considered by councillors in public session - often contain a wealth of detail, including nuggets that councillors might prefer were not public. Some reports, and most financial ones, require a degree of knowledge or decoding expertise not possessed by most people. So is this enough to enable we, the people, to scrutinise and hold our councils to account?

Let’s look at what is readily available. Council websites are the obvious starting point, though they are usually designed to help people find out what day their bin is emptied rather than reveal background information. Taking Exeter City Council as an example, start with the pages under the “Council and Democracy” heading. This will take you to information about: councillors; agendas, papers and minutes of meetings; plans and policies; financial information including the annual budget and audit reports. Under Council Data, a miscellany of statistics and information on contracts.

The minutes and papers are a good starting point for anyone wanting to research a particular topic or find out what the council has been discussing. Or simply for fishing. There is a facility for searching documents, though the results are at times unhelpful. Time and patience are required, but the investment is often worth it.

Elsewhere on the website, the most fascinating and useful set of tables is at Council Spending, which lists all individual payments over £250. The spending tables reveal projects few people outside the council have ever heard of, and show trends in spending on, say, consultants and what work they are being used for.

Sadly, despite government instructions on openness, councils are making of use of data protection legislation to conceal the identity of commercial suppliers, often on spurious grounds such as “security” and the fact that the private sector doesn’t publish such information. This policy – and it is a policy rather than a legal requirement – is being challenged locally and we will report further on this.

Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice

Redacting information in the spending tables is just one technique councils use to keep information to themselves. Putting sensitive matters in “Part 2” of a meeting agenda enables councillors to exclude the press and public, then present a sanitised summary of the outcome in the published minutes.

Holding closed meetings is clearly desirable when staffing and organisation issues are being discussed; it is much less so when decisions on major spending and business plans are being taken.

The Information Commissioner upheld a complaint by this author that Exeter City Council were wrong to conceal the original business plan for the leisure centre now being built on the bus station site, though the council appealed to the Information Tribunal and all parties eventually agreed to stay the proceedings, not least because the original plan was overtaken by events.

There are other techniques for keeping information away from prying eyes. One of the most effective is to bypass the rules requiring meetings to take place in public by holding the discussion in a “working group” or other informal body. The Greater Exeter Visioning Board, which laid the groundwork for the slowly emerging Greater Exeter Strategic Plan, was not a formal committee of any of the councils involved and so was able to meet in private with impunity.

The same is true of the successor arrangements for oversight of developing the plan itself. Exeter City Council has a mysterious Planning Member Working Group described as a “sounding board” of members, which meets in private to discuss planning-related issues.

Then there is the simple “no, you can’t see it” tactic. The external review of community grants has been subject to that treatment, and one can only speculate what is in there that the council desperately wants to keep hidden. The same suspicions arise wherever something is withheld for no evident reason.

Yet information is important. Used openly and honestly, it is one of the key commodities that can help rebuild trust in our public institutions. We need to know not only what our representatives have decided, but how and why.

Citizens have remedies, developed in a less paranoid age. These include lobbying opposition councillors, asking questions at scrutiny committees, and making requests under the Freedom of Information Act. We will review these in detail in a further article.


 is a contributing editor of Exeter Observer.

Recent stories
University of Exeter full-time academic staff salary distribution 2020-21

University of Exeter lags behind on female pay and employment terms

Student houses in multiple occupation to let in Raleigh Road, Exeter

Information Commissioner to investigate university over student accommodation numbers refusal

Exeter ticket zone map

Stagecoach escapes major sanctions over service failures

University of Exeter Streatham campus picket line

University of Exeter staff strike in largest walkout in sector history

Devon County Council 2022-24 capital transport programme allocations

Motor vehicle infrastructure continues to dominate Devon transport spending

More Analysis
University of Exeter full-time academic staff salary distribution 2020-21

COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

University of Exeter lags behind on female pay and employment terms

HESA figures show poor performance compared with Universities UK members and only incremental changes over past five years, mostly since staff began industrial action over pay, pensions and working conditions.

Exeter ticket zone map

TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

Stagecoach escapes major sanctions over service failures

Traffic commissioner decides four days of free weekend travel in Exeter Plus ticket zone is sufficient penalty for poor performance despite public inquiry hearing severe criticism of company.

Devon County Council 2022-24 capital transport programme allocations

TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

Motor vehicle infrastructure continues to dominate Devon transport spending

New active travel infrastructure to receive just 5% share of capital allocations this year and next, with new roads capital expenditure to increase from 74% to 86%.

All Analysis
News
Student houses in multiple occupation to let in Raleigh Road, Exeter

PLANNING & PLACE

Information Commissioner to investigate university over student accommodation numbers refusal

Compliance failure follows university admission that nearly 39,000 students based at Exeter campuses in 2021-22, suggesting around three quarters of city's private rented housing stock occupied by students.

University of Exeter Streatham campus picket line

COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

University of Exeter staff strike in largest walkout in sector history

Dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions continues as universities generate record income.

Reclaim the Night protest in Bedford Street

COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

Reclaim the Night protest against sexual violence and harassment of women and girls in public space

Exeter event takes place after survey finding that 85% felt unsafe or very unsafe when walking alone in city centre at night, with police figures showing violent and sexual offences exceed 35% of all recorded crime in city.

All News
Comment
Exeter City Council outline draft local plan site allocations crop

PLANNING & PLACE

Will council seek investment zone status for Liveable Exeter sites?

Government growth plans combine tax breaks with planning deregulation, putting affordable housing provision and environmental protections at risk with little evidence that promised investment zone benefits would result.

Extinction Rebellion UK tour bus outside Exeter City Council's Paris Street offices

CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

World car free day ignored in Exeter as Extinction Rebellion challenges council climate inaction

Protestors gathered outside council offices as CEO Karime Hassan posed for photo with construction company development manager at Princesshay promotion.

Exeter City Futures Exeter Development Fund presentation slide

PLANNING & PLACE

Exeter Development Fund: rent extraction, unaffordable housing and gentrification, but not net zero

Exeter City Futures' private debt-driven Liveable Exeter property development financing scheme is under fire from councillors who say it is based on insufficiently-evidenced assumptions and won't meet Exeter's housing needs.

All Comment
On our radar
On our agenda
New Exeter Local Plan

New Exeter local plan

A consultation on the outline draft version of the new Exeter local plan, which will guide development in the city until 2040, is now taking place.

At the same time changes to the national planning system that are on their way could require significant revision to the new plan before it is submitted to the inspectorate.

All topics

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY   AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY   COP26 COP26 COP26   COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19   CITYPOINT CITYPOINT CITYPOINT   CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE   CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS   CO-LIVING CO-LIVING CO-LIVING   CONGESTION CONGESTION CONGESTION   COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX   CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE   CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING   DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT   DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN   DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL   DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND   EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT   EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL   EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL   EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES   EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING   EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE   EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE   EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND   EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION   EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER   EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN   EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX   EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE   EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK   EXETER ST DAVID'S EXETER ST DAVID'S EXETER ST DAVID'S   EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY   EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE   FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION   FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER   GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS   GUILDHALL GUILDHALL GUILDHALL   HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS   HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP   HOUSING CRISIS HOUSING CRISIS HOUSING CRISIS   LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+   LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD   LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER   LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY   LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS   MAKETANK MAKETANK MAKETANK   MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON   MET OFFICE MET OFFICE MET OFFICE   MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER   NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS   OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE   PARIS STREET PARIS STREET PARIS STREET   PARKING PARKING PARKING   PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT   PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY   PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY   PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT   PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION   PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH   PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM   PUBLIC TRANSPORT PUBLIC TRANSPORT PUBLIC TRANSPORT   RAMM RAMM RAMM   REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING   RETROFIT RETROFIT RETROFIT   RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK   ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST   SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET   SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION   SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER   SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY   SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT   ST SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE   ST SIDWELL'S POINT ST SIDWELL'S POINT ST SIDWELL'S POINT   STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST   STUDENT ACCOMMODATION STUDENT ACCOMMODATION STUDENT ACCOMMODATION   TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL   UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER  

More stories