Tag Archives: Lichfield District Council

Why is public money being doled out to politicians in Lichfield?

This week, Lichfield District Council’s cabinet approved a pilot to hand £14,100 of public money to councillors to dish out at their discretion with a scintilla of oversight that leaves the scheme wide open to abuse, in a step that seems to be a solution without a problem.

In the report to cabinet, a lack of access to funding for smaller groups and initiatives is given as to why this extra program is needed.

Some of these groups are not eligible for most funding because they are not charities or constituted organisations.

It’s true that funds often ask for things like constitutions but that’s for good reason – accountability. This is public money and needs to be accounted for so that we know it’s not being wasted or used corruptly. It may sound onerous but my personal experience is that sometimes it’s as simple as a document that minutes a meeting of the group of people involved agreeing what they are going to do.

If Lichfield District Council has identified that groups aren’t able to access funding, perhaps they can help those groups get access to organisations like Support Staffordshire who are brilliant at helping every day people trying to do good to access funding and deal with whatever bureaucracy is there to protect the public purse.

There are many local funds where the requirements aren’t even very onerous. We Love Lichfield, Swinfen Broun, Conduit Lands to name a few. Even Lichfield District Council’s own recently launched community lottery proudly states that good causes can apply for “free and the application process will only take a minute”.

That said, the report contradicts itself a little later on…

funding awarded would be paid into a bank account in the name of the group

Have you ever tried to open a bank account for an organisation? Doing so without a constitution is pretty hard. In fact, I’d be surprised if it’s even possible. So how do they suppose that groups that can’t access funding because they don’t have a constitution are going to have a bank account without having a constitution?

That’s where it gets even more dodgy…

Funding can be awarded directly to individuals at the Members discretion.

A fund distributed entirely at the discretion of individual councillors, each with their own political associations, biases and motivations, can also be distributed into the personal bank accounts of individuals with no formal checks.

This is touted as a positive by the report, as if handing money to politicians to dish out to individuals at will with zero checks and balances is a good thing!

Where’s the accountability? Oh right…

Councillors will be required to sign a declaration stating that, as far as they are aware, the funding will be used for the benefit of the local community

Which really amounts to councillors being able to just say “yeah, this is fine, trust me” and we’re expected to just nod and accept their word. Forgive me if I don’t trust some of the councillors who tried to shut a much-needed community asset down not so long ago.

Elected members are often well placed to identify local needs and are in touch with grass root organisations operating in their ward.

Sometimes, yes. In fact some councillors already give their personal allowance away in donations to local groups and are very in tune with their ward. Depressingly often though elected members are merely making up the numbers for the party they represent, not because it’s their area. Like a councillor living in Alrewas (IIRC) apparently able to represent Burntwood. Again, we’re asked to trust that these councillors actually have the best interests of their ward at heart but we unfortunately have far too many reasons to distrust.

As the scheme will be managed and administered by members the costs would be minimal.

True, and the money is already allocated to good causes, so it’s not like it’s being diverted from elsewhere. The real cost is in the risk of abuse with a system so wide open to it. In the hands of individual elected members it has potential to become an electioneering tool with members funding projects as they get close to an election in an attempt to bolster support, granting them an unfair advantage. Unless you think that would never happen?

Members would make declarations about the use of funding, which would be in the public domain ensuring awards are transparent.

Which sounds fine until you consider that councillors have had to be reminded of their basic duty to declare interests and it wasn’t so long ago that one of the current Cabinet members was found to have failed to declare something as obvious as a company directorship. The council’s record on holding councillors accountable isn’t great either, having previously held secret meetings to deal with claims of undeclared conflicts of interest.

Here’s what the report says about evaluating this “pilot”:

The pilot will be evaluated against the overall purpose of the scheme. The extent to which it has supported grass roots groups in local communities not eligible for funding from other funding sources. It’s effectiveness in enabling local community groups and individuals to set up and deliver and expand their community activities.

What does that mean? Where are the goals? Where are the measurables? Where are the real, tangible outcomes, that can give the public confidence their money is being used for good versus the already well-established and accountable community grants system (already cut to the bone in the last 11 years, by the way)?

This whole scheme, while small in the grand financial scheme of things, is ill-thought through even if well intentioned and feels like a solution in search of a problem that could erode trust in local politics while depriving deserving groups of much-needed funds. Lichfield District Council’s cabinet should think again.

Think open data is just the realm of geeks? Not in Lichfield…

This is partly the reason why I love Lichfield so much. Our council CEO recently joined Twitter and was last night tweeting (much revered) webmaster, Stuart Harrion;

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/Ninadawesldc/status/133285420699095042″]

Where else do you get a council chief exec tweeting her webby on a Sunday evening about the Open Government License?!

Fantastic!

Filming council meetings – my progress in Lichfield

So, after Chris Taggart was asked to leave a meeting of Windsor & Maidenhead for trying to video it, while SE1 managed to get permission to record Southwark Council meetings I decided to see what I could do in Lichfield. Here’s what I did.

  1. I sent an e-mail through Lichfield District Council’s generic contact form.
  2. I was then called by Richard King, Strategic Director of Democratic, Development and Legal Services who asked me a number of questions such as why I wanted to film and where the resulting video would end up. I explained that I work on The Lichfield Blog and it would probably end up there but would likely be embeddable (sic?) to other sites. Richard promised to talk internally and get back to me.
  3. A few days later I received a call from Richard in which he said that in principle it would be acceptable and we agreed that I would meet him and Elizabeth Thatcher, Communications Manager, before a Cabinet meeting to discuss the specifics.
  4. Before the Cabinet meeting Richard and Lizzie showed me the meeting rooms and we discussed where I could position myself to get a good shot of the proceedings (outside the public/press ‘pen’) and we chatted about making sure I could be discreet so as not to impact the meeting itself. We agreed that in order to get councillors and any visitors used to the idea I would begin filming as soon as I had the equipment to do so but without publishing the video. The idea is that this will ensure any concerns are ironed out before the film is made available to the world.
  5. I will now attend Cabinet, Full Council and Planning Committee meetings (maybe Overview & Scrutiny, too) just to see them in action so I get used to the format. Once I have a way to record video I will begin to record them and we’ll work out the specifics through learning by doing. Although, I’ve sent Richard and Lizzie a link to Paul’s recent post talking through Southwark’s guidance which should help & offered my own take.

I’ll blog again with further significant updates, as they come along. For now, I encourage everyone running a local blog to do the same in their area and contribute to the investigation.

Recognition for The Lichfield Blog just keeps on growing…

When I first got involved in The Lichfield Blog back in February this year I had no idea that six months later I’d be writing a business plan for a brand new social enterprise.

The Lichfield Blog banner up at Fuse Acoustic '09

I never thought I’d be looking at stats showing an average of 11,000 visitors each month (equivalent to over 10% of Lichfield District’s population* and a third of the circulation of leading print weekly, the Lichfield Mercury). Nor did I imagine it would spur such cool things as Lichfield Social Media Cafe and Lichfield Social Media Surgeries (both still in planning). I would have laughed if you’d have told me I’d be live-streaming local artists at Lichfield’s Fuse Festival. A look of disbelief would accompany the thought of our MP, Mike Fabricant advertising on the site.

I knew we’d do lots of very cool things with it – as seems to be customary now my brain buzzed with ideas for exciting developments as soon as I saw it. I’m taken aback by the way things have played out though.

When I first started working freelance in November 2007 my aim was to be a leader in my industry. The heavy involvement in The Lichfield Blog and the recognition it’s seen has proven to me that I’m starting to achieve that.

That recognition has seen a massive boost over the past few weeks for two big reasons. The first is securing Michael Fabricant MP as an advertiser on the blog. He was our third advertiser and (we think) the first MP to advertise on a hyperlocal media site. Rick Waghorn of Addiply (the ad system we use) took the opportunity to shout about it that very afternoon at NewsInnovation London. I saw the tweets rolling in and I could barely contain my elation at having made such an impact.

Second reason, and the inspiration for this post, is that today Lichfield District Council have (after I sent them a cheeky tweet) changed their “Local Newspapers” section to “Local Media” and included The Lichfield Blog. They’re even syndicating us! I’m still undecided as to whether to check the other 353 local government district web sites to see if Lichfield is the only one to do so…

Both of these also come after what I consider to be a huge compliment from Birmingham Mail who recently started syndicating us along with our friends, Tamworth Blog and local blogger, Brownhill’s Bob. I call this traditional and new media meeting and getting along nicely – aka a sneak peak into the future of local media.

I know this is just the start though. All this has been achieved with the only expenditure being less than £100 and the time of a small team of dedicated and passionate volunteers (I say only, but it takes a lot of time). With the extra help and support we’re hoping to get as part of our future plans it’s obvious to me that The Lichfield Blog is going to move on leaps and bounds.

I can’t wait!

* based on data from the Office for National Statistics.