Council’s wall of secrecy revealed

Staff at Newcastle City Council have complained that decision-making at a senior level often appears to be behind a ‘wall of secrecy’, according to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) in ChronicleLive.

That will come as no surprise to readers of this website, which has repeatedly complained of a lack of transparency over devolution affecting not just at the city council but at other North East councils as well.

This is not just pique at being kept out of the loop. The way senior ruling councillors play their cards as close to their chests as possible betrays a mindset which fails to take their duty of accountability to the public seriously and damages the region’s interests.

It is a mindset that is deeply embedded and dates back decades in the North East’s civic centres and town halls.

It is not without serious potential consequences because ministers considering a new devolution deal for the North East – when and if they get round to doing so – will want to have confidence that regional councillors can be trusted to account for any new powers and funding they are granted.

If even council staff, never mind the public, think there is a wall of secrecy between them and senior decision-makers, the government is unlikely to have that confidence. That is why they are so keen on directly elected mayors, who can be held accountable by both local voters and ministers.

SURVEY

The staff complaints, revealed in a survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) and obtained by the LDRS, were not as far as is known specifically or even at all about devolution but more general matters such as staff morale which are not the direct concerns of this website.

But the same concerns about secrecy, or at best lack of transparency, apply. One complaint was that there was ‘a significant lack of communication as to the changes we are facing as an organisation both in policy and operationally.’

Members of the public might say the same about possible changes that will occur if there is an expanded devolution deal for the North East, which councillors and town hall officials are discussing with ministers and civil servants behind closed doors..

There are some mitigating features coming out of the LGA survey. According to the LDRS in ChronicleLive, it reveals some positives in staff opinions of the city council including improved communication with city residents via social media, and it is perhaps reassuring to know that the survey was undertaken at the request of the council’s recently installed new leadership.

But the survey results are of no value unless acted upon. There must be improved communication with the public over policy issues, including this website’s area of special interest – devolution.

And improvements cannot be restricted to Newcastle alone. As far as the expanded North East devolution deal for which this website has consistently argued is concerned, it is all seven councils in Northumberland, Tyne & Wear and County Durham that have important decisions to make.

Yet instead of engaging the public, as the LGA advocates, they conduct their discussions through their secretive LA7 group of local political leaders, to which the public has no access.

Secrecy has been a way of life in the North East’s town halls for decades. This author was writing about it in the Evening Chronicle in the 1970s. Nothing has changed except what has been forced on councils by the 1972 Local Government Act.

A request by this author for information about devolution has gone unacknowledged by his Labour ward councillors; opposition Liberal Democrats have been as helpful as they can but have little information themselves.

The wall of secrecy referred to in the LGA survey follows the recent Max Caller report, which revealed dysfunctional, distracted and unhealthy governance at Northumberland County Council.

The North East’s local authorities need to get their act together as collaborative, well-functioning and transparent institutions if they are to instil in ministers the confidence to do a devolution deal with the potential bring the region greater control over its own affairs and a reported £3bn in investment over the next 30 years.