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.