One goal of our Climate Action Plans Explorer is to make it easier for good ideas around cutting carbon to be shared and replicated between local areas. For this to happen, the service should be good at helping people in one area identify other areas that are dealing with similar situations or problems.
Currently the climate plans website shows the physical neighbours on a council’s page, but there’s every chance that councils are geographically close while being very different in other ways. We have been exploring an approach that identifies which authorities have similar causes of emissions, with the goal that this leads to better discovery of common approaches to reducing those emissions.
The idea of automatically grouping councils using data is not a new one. The CIPFA nearest neighbours dataset suggests a set of councils that are similar to an input authority (based on “41 metrics using a wide range of socio-economic indicators”). However, this dataset is not open, only covers councils in England rather than across the UK, and is not directly focused on the emissions problem.
This blog post explores our experiment in using the BEIS dataset of carbon dioxide emissions to identify councils with similar emissions profiles. A demo of this approach can be found here (it may take a minute to load).
Using the ‘subset’ dataset in the BEIS data (which excludes emissions local authorities cannot influence), we calculated the per person emissions in each local authority for the five groupings of emissions (Industry, Commercial, Domestic, Public Sector and Transport). We calculated the ‘distance’ between all local authorities based on how far they differed within each of these five areas. For each authority, we can now identify which other authorities have the most similar profile of emissions.
We also wanted to use this data to tell more of a story about why authorities are and are not similar. We’ve done this in two ways.
The first is converting the difficult to parse ‘emissions per type per person’ number into relative deciles, where all authorities are ranked from highest to lowest and assigned a decile from one to ten (where ten is the highest level of emissions). This makes it easy to see at a glance how a council’s emissions relate to other authorities. For instance, the following table shows the emissions deciles for Leeds City Council. This shows a relatively high set of emissions for the Commercial and Public Sector, while being just below average for Industry, Domestic and Transport.
Emissions type Decile for Leeds City Council Industry Emissions Decile 4 Commercial Emissions Decile 7 Domestic Emissions Decile 4 Public Sector Emissions Decile 9 Transport Emissions Decile 4
The second story-telling approach is to put easy-to-understand labels on groups of councils to make the similarities more obvious. We’ve used k-means clustering to try and identify groups of councils that are more similar to each other than to other groups of councils. Given the way that the data is arranged, there seemed to be a sweet spot at six and nine clusters, and as an experiment we looked at what the six clusters looked like.
How ‘Urban Mainstream’ Industrial emissions differ from other local authorities using a raincloud plot.
Using tools demonstrated in this jupyter notebook, we looked at the features of the six clusters and grouped these into three “Mainstream” clusters (which were generally similar to each other but with some difference in features), and three “Outlier” clusters, which tended to be smaller, and much further outside the mainstream. Reviewing the properties of these labels, these were relabelled into six categories that at a glance gets the broad feature of an area across.
Label Description Authority count Lower Tier Land Area % Lower Tier Population % Urban – Mainstream Below average commercial/industry/transport/ domestic emissions. High density. 165 14% 45% Rural – Mainstream Above average industry/transport/domestic emissions. Low density. 122 44% 26% Urban – Commercial Above average commercial/public sector, below average domestic/transport. High density. 66 4% 22% Rural – Industrial Above average transport/ industry/ domestic emissions. Low density. 43 37% 7% Urban – High Commercial Very high commercial/public sector emissions. 7 1% 2% High Domestic Counties Very above average domestic and transport emissions in county councils. 2 – –
This data is not tightly clustered, and the number of clusters could be expanded or contracted, but six seemed to hit a good spot before there were more clusters that only had a small number of authorities. The map below shows how these clusters are spread across the country. This map uses an exploded cartogram approach, where authorities with larger populations appear bigger. The authority is then positioned broadly close to their original position (so the blank space has no meaning).
Joining these different approaches allowed us to build a demo where for any local authority, you can get a short description of the emissions profile and cluster, and identify councils that are similar. This demo can be explored here (it may take a minute to load). The description for Croydon looks like this:
This is not the only possible way of crunching the numbers.
For example, the first thing we did was adjust the emissions data to be per person. This helps simplify comparison between areas of different sizes, but how many people are in an area is information that is relevant in helping councils find similar councils.
The BEIS data also breaks down those five categories by more variables (which might better separate agriculture from other kinds of industry for instance): an alternative approach could make more use of these.
We are considering using multiple different measures to help councils explore similar areas. This could include situation features like flood risk, deprivation scores and EPC data on household energy efficiency, but could also include, for example, that some councils are more politically similar to each other, and may find it easier to transfer ideas.
The datasets and processing steps are available on GitHub.
Image: Max Böttinger
The Equality Act of 2010 requires that disabled people are not disadvantaged by any ‘provision, criterion or practice’. You might be familiar with its implications in the workplace or in providing customer services, but the law also applies to the public realm.
If we’re thinking about streets, for example, certain clauses of this Act mean that councils have a duty to ensure that access is as easy for a disabled person as it is for anyone else.
We’ve recently become aware of people making good use of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow to challenge cycle routes that are impassable for some, for example where a cyclist would have to dismount to get past, or where an adapted bike or tricycle would not fit through the space allowed.
“I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results”
The request-makers identify barriers to access, and ask the relevant authorities to confirm that all requirements of the Equality Act have been adhered to in their implementation, from the carrying out of an impact assessment to the making of ‘allowances and accommodations’ for those that need them.
It’s easy to find such requests by searching for the term “Was an Equality Impact Assessment carried out at this location” on WhatDoTheyKnow, which brings up several examples.
These FOI requests have been inspired by a request-maker going by the name of Heavy Metal Handcyclist, who provides a template for others to use as an example — and whose WhatDoTheyKnow account shows him using the Act to very good effect himself, as for example with this request picking up on some obstructive barriers in Warrington. And he gets results: in this case the issue was dealt with constructively by the authority concerned; and a request to Warwickshire County Council will mean that some ill-placed new barriers in Clifton upon Dunsmore, Rugby will be removed:
We came across this little seam of activism thanks to an article by Jamie Wood, in which the author writes affectingly about how cycling has returned to him some degree of the independence and mobility that his Multiple Sclerosis took away: he goes on to say, however, that there are frequent frustrations in the form of paths blocked by thoughtlessly-placed bollards, posts and barriers that he can’t navigate on his tricycle. Constructive engagement and polite letters to his local council didn’t do the trick, and so he turned to activism.
“In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”
Describing his learning curve, Jamie pointed to the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as well as to this letter on Doug Paulley’s DART website — which brings us full circle, as Doug is a WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer as well as an accomplished campaigner on accessibility for disabled people.
As Doug quotes on his site, court cases have established that:
“The policy of the (Equality Act) is not a minimalist policy of simply ensuring that some access is available to the disabled: it is, so far as reasonably practicable, to approximate the access enjoyed by disabled persons to that enjoyed by the rest of the public.”
We admire the level of knowledge and clarity in these requests and we hope that they bring good results. At the same time, we recognise that this sort of work shouldn’t be left purely to the disabled people who are affected by blockades and impediments: we can all keep an eye open for where such barriers may be making paths impassible for some. And, thanks to the examples linked to in this post, it is simple enough for us all to follow their lead.
As Jamie says, “It’s the Equality Act itself that can be only be used by people directly affected; anyone can make an FOI request”.
He also points us towards this report from the York Cycle Campaign, released last week, identifying more than 30 places across the city where the requirements of Equality Act have not been met. Kate Ravilious from the campaign says, “If City of York Council does not step into gear and rectify the problems, they will be forced to take legal action, which could end up with the council having to fork out as much as £50,000 for every person that pursues action via the small claims court.”
But Jamie points out that Freedom of Information is a softer and sometimes more effective first step towards getting these issues fixed: “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”
The Heavy Metal Handcyclist agrees:
“Whilst it is true that local authorities continue to install barriers to access despite their S.149 obligations, it is entirely possible to force almost immediate removal of barriers both new and predating the EA2010 by using a sufficiently pointy FOI request. To date, only one authority has needed further legal action, with officers in almost all the others immediately recognising the problem and addressing the issue quickly. I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results in this regard.
“WhatDoTheyKnow has been an excellent tool to catalogue and track FOI requests, particularly with regards to time limits.”
Image: York Cycle Campaign
This past month, we’ve been laying some more of the groundwork for our climate work, and getting stuck into some finer details. The recent recruitment drive is starting to pay off — we’ve had four new members of staff join mySociety this week, and in the climate team we’re delighted to be joined by Emily Kippax.
As Delivery Manager on the programme, Emily’s going to be working with us on getting the right balance between planning and acting — and making sure that we align the work to play to our different skillsets and roles.
Researcher Alex and designer Zarino have been figuring out the best ways to learn more about how and why people are using the Climate Action Plans explorer site. This should help us understand how to improve it, particularly as we start to share it with more people.
First of all, we’re thinking about a pop-up asking visitors to click a few buttons and let us know who they are — what sectors they work in, what they’re trying to find, et cetera. Zarino is working on the hunch that if we add our friendly faces to this request, showing the real people behind the project, it might get a better take-up. I’m looking forward to finding out whether he’s right.
Meanwhile Alex has been doing some work on the other end of that request. He’s seeing how to make it easy for the team to understand the inputs and use them to measure our progress.
He also took a quick diversion into non-contiguous cartograms (courtesy of the templates produced by the House of Commons library), to map the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.
Mid-month, we co-hosted a webinar along with Friends of the Earth and Climate Emergency UK: ‘How can local councillors help to meet UK climate targets?’.
This was particularly aimed at newly-elected councillors wanting to understand what they can do around the climate emergency, and what resources are available to help them (a video of the session is available). It was really exciting that the session was so well attended, with an audience of more than 200.
Finally, our colleagues Grace McMeekin, Isaac Beevor and Suzanna Dart over at Climate Emergency UK have produced a set of questions to ask about climate emergency action plans that will illustrate what the differences are between them. This builds on previous work with Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth to produce a checklist for the plans.
We’re really keen to see if we can work together to turn what can be quite dry documents into something a bit more accessible and comparable that we can share openly, with other councils, citizens, action groups…anyone who wants to see it.
As the team embarks on the hard work it takes to make simple services, it reminded me of what the journalist Zoe Williams wrote about civic technology a few years ago:
“Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions […] collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”
Image: Tim Rickhuss
At this time of year, when plants run rampant, we see two common types of report on FixMyStreet: those asking their councils to mow the local verges, and those asking them why they have cut the wildflowers and grasses back.
With increasing amounts of coverage in the press about wildflowers and the benefits they can provide, we spoke to British wild plant conservation charity Plantlife to understand more about why citizens might be using FixMyStreet to request some flower-based improvements to their local road verges.
Not just a pretty place
According to Plantlife, more than 700 of species of wildflower can be found alongside UK road verges. If they’ve been left unmown in your neighbourhood, you’ll know that in these summer months they really are beautiful, with poppies, convolvulus, meadowsweet, celandine, thrift, clover and harebells (to name but a few) scattering a variety of colour through the grasses.
But there’s more than the visual appeal: these verges also improve air quality, buffer noise, and give a home to precious insect life.
With the correct verge management, Plantlife estimates that the 313,000+ miles of rural road verges in this country could become a sanctuary for 400 billion more wild flowers, as well as providing a habitat to all the bees, birds, butterflies and many other creatures that count on such flowers to survive.
A change of direction
So given all these benefits, why aren’t councils already leaving their verges to grow?
In some cases it’s the perceived expense of specialist equipment; in others it’s the fear that longer grass creates road safety issues (such as a lack of visibility at junctions) or attracts litter. Sometimes, it simply comes down to residents preferring closely mown grass.
As Plantlife points out in their Managing Grassland Road Verges guide though, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. There are lots of ways that councils can easily, safely and cost-effectively manage road verges to encourage wildflower growth, without compromising on the ‘neat’ look of an area and still ensuring safety.
Wild verges aren’t left entirely to their own devices: they just require a different regime of care, and still get cut back — just in a way that encourages biodiversity.
The picture is changing. Freedom of Information data collected by The Press Association earlier this year revealed that 7 in 10 councils are already taking steps to encourage wildflowers on road verges.
That being the case, giving your support by requesting a wildflower road verge in your local area could help to move those steps along and sow the seeds of better wildflower road verge management in places where opinions are still divided.
How to request a wildflower road verge via FixMyStreet
- Go to fixmystreet.com or open the FixMyStreet app.
- Enter the area or postcode of the road verge, or if you’re making the report on-the-go and you’re (safely!) standing right by the verge, you can select ‘use my current location’.
- Drag the pin across the map to the exact location of the road verge and hit ‘continue’.
- Select a category. It’s worth noting that categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. For this reason, you might be able to select a specific verge-related category, such as ‘verges’ ‘wildlife verges’ or ‘grass verges’, but if your council hasn’t supplied us with a designated category for verges, you might need to select one such as ‘roads’ or ‘other’.
- Add a photo of the verge if you want to. If not, click ‘continue’ again.
- In the ‘Summarise your problem’ box, type a title such as ‘Wildflower road verge request’.
- In the ‘Explain what’s wrong’ box, tell your council the reasons why you would like to encourage it to manage the road verge in a way that maximises flowering plant diversity. See Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign for advice – you could even link to it to help the council get the guidance they need.
- Once you’re ready, click ‘continue’, fill in your details (if you’re not already logged in) and then hit ‘Submit’ to complete your request.
- Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign also has posters you can print out and display in your window, if you’d like to get your neighbours on board.
- Experiencing pushback or (almost worse) no response from your council? Try getting your MP or local councillors to join your call, using WriteToThem.com.
We’re looking for a Delivery Manager to join our new Climate programme.
Last year, we added Climate to mySociety’s existing programmes of Transparency, Democracy and Community — you can read more about our activity in this area here.
We dived in to the programme with work to support the UK’s national Climate Assembly; close on the heels of that has come our project to collect and share the Climate Action Plans of every local council across the country, a service that we’ve now launched at data.climateemergency.uk.
The Climate Action Plans site allows citizens to see what their own council is doing around carbon reduction, and simply by making the plans public and searchable, all in one place, it opens up a multitude of opportunities for councils to learn from one another.
The service is in its early stages. We already have feedback from early users that it’s useful in its current form — but there’s lots more we want to do with it, and it stands as a good signifier of the plans we have for our Climate programme over the next few years.
Now we want to expand on this use of data, and increase our outreach to key stakeholders such as climate action groups, councils, journalists and researchers to help accelerate and improve action on climate at the local level, where it is estimated that 30% of the progress towards net zero can be made.
Thanks to funding from Quadrature Climate Foundation, we’re now in the process of scoping this work and scaling up our team: if you’re interested in being part of what looks like it’s going to be some of the most rewarding and crucial work mySociety has been involved in to date, do check out our current job vacancy for a Delivery Manager.
We’ll also be looking for a Network and Outreach Coordinator soon, so sign up for our Jobs mailout right at the foot of this page if you’d like to know when that vacancy goes live.
Image: Vadim Kaipov
London’s best known and most-visited neighbourhood is now covered by FixMyStreet Pro. If you’re living, working or sightseeing in the borough of Westminster, your reports will drop directly into the council’s own systems.
In this first phase, the following categories are covered, with potholes, street signs and lights to follow soon:
- Fly tipping
- Street cleaning
So, visitors to Hyde Park can report overflowing dog poo bins. Commuters coming through Victoria Station can let the authorities know about graffiti.
And may we suggest that Westminster’s best known residents are welcome to report, should the view from the palace ever be marred by an unswept Mall.
Everyone — royalty, the political ruling class, the humble citizen and even tourists from far flung places — can make a report either via fixmystreet.com or on the Westminster website, and in either case they’ll go directly into the council systems to be dealt with. There’s also the option to log in through the council’s My Westminster portal.
Especially for Westminster
As with all FixMyStreet Pro installs, this one has its own distinct features, and the integration with the My Westminster log-in, a pre-existing service where users can keep track of their reports, planning applications and so on, was a vital requirement.
mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams
The two systems working together like this means that for those already signed up to My Westminster, only a single log-in is required: ideal for the local resident who may be completing several community-based tasks in short order.
Councillor Paul Swaddle, Cabinet Member for Customer Services and Digital, Westminster City Council, says: “mySociety have been professional, from the point of contracting all the way through to deployment of our new ‘Report it’ application.
“Their team worked in partnership with council staff to integrate FixMyStreet into our systems including CRM against challenging timescales. They also supported us in delivering several successful resident engagement sessions, and quickly reflecting user feedback in the WCC branded version of the site.
“mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams.”
Testing with the people that matter
Westminster have been a shining example of best practice when it comes to implementing a new service. They did something that ideally all authorities would do when introducing a new online system, inviting potential users in to have a go, and feed back their thoughts.
Once they had had a chance to enjoy that amazing view from the council offices, local residents tried out the report making interface. mySociety designer Martin was there to take notes, and users’ feedback was added directly into our development roadmap.
We hope that they, and all residents of Westminster, will be happy with their new service.
Hounslow is the latest borough to adopt FixMyStreet Pro, adding to the ever-growing share of Greater London councils who have chosen the service as their main street reporting interface.
As with other Pro integrations, citizens can now make reports via the Hounslow website or on FixMyStreet.com; either way they’ll display on both sites, and will drop directly into the council’s case management system — in this case, Confirm.
It’s part of a dual contract with contractors Ringway that operates the highways contract on behalf of the London Borough of Hounslow: watch this space for the other council implementation going live soon on the Isle of Wight.
In fact, this installation has involved a seamless transfer which minimised the impact on council staff; everything was handled through Ringway, including user testing via their network of volunteer ‘Lay Assessors’.
Thanks to a lot of previous experience with Confirm, it’s all proven very straightforward from our point of view. The whole system was up and running in just two weeks, something of a record for FixMyStreet Pro implementation — and a great illustration of just how quickly councils can get going and start to see real change in their customer interface with FixMyStreet Pro if everything is in place.
Rob Gillespie, Ringway’s Regional Director, agrees: “I have been impressed with the level of engagement and simplicity of this change. The team behind FixMyStreet has supported our team to develop a service that I believe will be a real game-changer for the industry. Our aim was to improve the accessibility of our highway services, and improve the connectivity between customers and our operational teams. This partnership has really delivered on these expectations.”
Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
In a major new inquiry, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made Freedom of Information requests across all 353 councils in England.
Their aim? To build up a full picture of the public places and spaces sold by councils across the country, as they struggle to make up funding shortfalls.
The Bureau used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro‘s batch functionality to help them in this mass investigation, which has resulted in an important report for Huffington Post as well as an interactive public database where you can search to see what your own local council has sold.
In total, councils’ responses have confirmed the sale of over 12,000 assets since 2014. The report goes on to prove that in many cases, the proceeds have been used to fund staff redundancies as authorities are forced to cut back.
Investigations like this serve to highlight one of the key benefits of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch feature. While some of the data may have previously been available piecemeal – published in regional papers, perhaps, or requested at a local level — this is the first time that the full picture across the country has been made visible.
One of the journalists responsible for the report, Gareth Davies, says:
I’ve been working on these FOIs since July last year and I’ve no doubt the dataset I built would be nowhere near as comprehensive without the @WhatDoTheyKnow Pro dashboard. Also means I know exactly which councils have still yet to respond, 180+ days later.
We are glad that the service was of help.
If you’d like to check out WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, sign up here.
What can you do if you suspect your local council of financial misconduct?
One solution is to take a good hard look at their books; and thanks to the Local Audit and Accountability Act we all have the right to do just that for a set 30-day period each year.
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of people who are keen to raise awareness of these little-known rights, in the belief that local government spending should be open and accountable to local people.
At the same time, they’re using the Act to good effect themselves, as they probe into spending anomalies in their own borough of Lambeth. They’ve found that the Freedom of Information Act has proved a useful complement to their auditing activity.
Investigating financial misconduct
We spoke to Ben Rymer from The People’s Audit to find out more. What exactly have they uncovered to date?
“Perhaps the most worrying finding was around the Fenwick Estate regeneration project in Clapham. The chosen supplier was almost £6 million more expensive than some others who tendered. This is a massive red flag as the likelihood of this sum being accounted for by quality of work alone is slim.”
There’s plenty more: Ben says they’ve made concerning findings around public housing, procurement and contract management and how major works are overseen, from possible price fixing between contractors to payments for work that was never done.
For example, the group say that a sampling of some of the housing blocks on the Wyvil Estate in Vauxhall indicates that the council paid its contractors for more than twice the number of repairs that were actually carried out.
They also claim to have found evidence of land in Kenningham and Streatham being sold to a private developer at a discount of at least £1m, without any competitive tender.
And another major finding was that costs for Lambeth’s new town hall — originally flagged as a money-saver for residents — have overrun by more than £50 million.
Two Acts working together
So, some substantial discoveries. Where does Freedom of Information come into the picture?
Ben says that the two Acts can be used together, to good effect. “The Local Audit Act requires access to be given to documents relating to costs incurred by the council in the preceding financial year. Once these have been obtained, FOI requests can then be targeted more precisely using the insights gained from such documents.”
But there is a slight snag: with the Local Audit Act offering access only within a specific period of 30 days each year, the FOI Act’s prescription that a response must arrive within ‘up to 20 working days’ does not allow for much wiggle room, especially if the FOI response generates more questions that might be answered through scrutiny of the accounts.
Ben says that unfortunately, responses to both Acts are often delayed, refused on the grounds that they would take too long (despite similar requests to other councils being processed without an issue) or just ignored. “An extreme example is our attempt to obtain the original budget for Lambeth’s new town hall, which we have now been trying to get hold of for 18 months!”.
But all of this notwithstanding, WhatDoTheyKnow has been a useful tool for the FOI side of the People’s Audit’s investigations: “It is an easy way to organise FOI requests, and the fact that it’s all in public means that other people can use the information in the responses — though we do also submit requests directly to the council.”
“One notable success was when one of the team received some emails via WhatDoTheyKnow following the audit inspection period in 2015 which showed that the council had agreed to install gyms in libraries months before any public consultation on the idea.”
So, the group have uncovered plenty of concerning information — but have they actually made a difference?
Ben says that they’ve achieved a good amount of local and national press attention. More importantly, they’ve seen an increased focus on financial issues among the people of Lambeth, especially in the run-up to the local elections in the spring. “Given that we are all volunteers with day jobs and families we think this is a pretty good result!”
And they believe that there’s been some effect within their local authority too, although not as wholehearted as they would have liked. “They have published their responses to citizen audit requests and are making more positive noises about the importance of transparency.
“However, they are also imposing arbitrary limits on the amount of information which citizens can request and have put in place ‘guidance’ around requests which we think may be intended to discourage further requests.”
If the Local Audit and Accountability Act is new to you, you may be wondering whether you should be using it yourself. The People’s Audit think you should consider it:
“Local Government financial scrutiny is really important and these powers need to be used to their fullest to prevent wasteful spending or corruption. Many people don’t realise that councils are often £1bn+ organisations, or that UK councils spend a total of over £92bn a year. Yet since the Audit Commission was abolished there is very little scrutiny of this spend.
“Many local newspapers have closed in recent years so citizen audits and hyperlocal publications have become more important.
“The powers are hugely underused currently. However what we’ve hopefully shown is that a group of committed individuals can use them to good effect.”
If you’d like to do the same, find out more on the People’s Audit website.