Where did that £12.7m construction money go? “Open data” and transparency in Leeds

Leeds Arena - a construction project managed by Asset Management Services

Remember how pleased people were last year when local councils were forced by the government to publish a list every month of all of their spending over £500?

Wasn’t all this “open data” going to usher in a new era of transparency, with all of us being able to see at a glance what the council was spending our money on and who it was paying for the goods and services needed to keep us citizens in good shape?

I only ask because I was whiling away an empty hour this morning when I came across the following: between June 2011 and the end of February this year Leeds City Council made eight payments for “construction” work worth a total of £12,710,794. The trouble is we don’t know who these payments were made to. The name(s) of the business(es) aren’t being published for reason of “commercial confidentiality”.

All eight payments were made by the council’s Asset Management Services department – that’s the team that coordinates and manages the delivery of large scale capital building projects like the Leeds Arena, the Northern Ballet Headquarters, the City Varieties refurbishment etc etc.

It got me thinking: how does that “commercial confidentiality” thing work? and whose interests does it serve? Yours? Mine?

Plausible justification anyone?

So I went off and had a look at the government’s guidelines on what can and can’t be excluded from the list of spending that each council has to publish every month. And I can’t for the life of me find a clause which might justify the decision to withhold the info about where this £12.7m has gone. Or, rather, who it has gone to.

Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place. Or maybe there’s someone out there who can come up with a plausible justification.

And it’s not just the council’s Asset Management Services team that feels the need to keep the names of its suppliers out of the public eye. The council’s Libraries, Arts and Heritage (LAH) department made 45 such “secret” payments in 2011, worth in total over £800,000.

Some of that was for construction work, but by no means all of it.  The LAH team, for example, felt it necessary to omit the names of some suppliers of computer software and equipment, furniture, premises security and people who it had paid to do “publication and promotion” work.

Over the same period the council’s Economic Development team felt it necessary to blank out the names of recipients of its business grants. The Support Services team felt it had to keep quiet about suppliers of “office consumables” and telephones.

Unnamed suppliers and unnamed services

And throughout the council’s City Development directorate (where all the departments mentioned above “live”) there are plenty of payments, some of them six figure sums, made last year to unnamed suppliers for supplies/services that go under the unhelpful heading of “other costs” or “other hired and contracted services”.

Extract from Leeds City Council data sheet

In cases like those we don’t know who the council is making the payments to or what the payments are for.

When the government introduced the idea of councils publishing their itemised spending, I’m not sure that this is the kind of transparency they had in mind.

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15 Responses to Where did that £12.7m construction money go? “Open data” and transparency in Leeds

  1. Alison Neale says:

    I imagine that because a number of companies will have bid for the work done – be it construction or the provision of a service or whatever – the final sum being paid for specific items will be withheld, as it would otherwise help the winning company’s competitors in future bids for similar work. By EU law (as far as provision to the Council goes) that sort of info has to be kept secret during the bidding process in order to make sure that no one company gets an advantage, and most companies probably write ‘commercial in confidence’ clauses into their contracts to maintain that advantage. I have gleaned this over years living with someone who deals with big bids like this. If you want further detail, I’ll can find out…

  2. Alison Neale says:

    After further consulation with the other half, apparently even a commercial in confidence clause shouldn’t stop you from getting the information via a freedom of information request, if you’d like to know the details.

    • Which sort of begs the question: if the information will be made available anyway through an FOI request, then why is it redacted here?

      Can you ask the other half if he’s talking about an s43 exemption? where, apparently, the council has to “show that if the requested information was disclosed then there was a real likelihood (and not just a possibility) of prejudice to their commercial position”.

      Cheers

  3. Alison Neale says:

    I certainly see your point. T’other half says it might be to do with that bit of the s43 exemption, but there would be no way of knowing precisely why the specifics are missing from the data without asking the Council for the info and seeing how they responded. The lack of detail could, I suppose, be simply down to laziness in reporting. There are councils that haven’t bothered to produce any data yet (despite being obliged to do so).

  4. Alison Neale says:

    If you have no luck with the open data team, you can (I’m told) put in an FOI request for the schedule in the contract of work that details what is considered commercially sensitive information, i.e. what is being held back. Although ironically you’d still have to find out what the works were in the first place in order to ask for it. It does seem odd that £12 million of construction work hasn’t been broken down a little!! Best of luck!

  5. Paul says:

    The details are always kept secret during a competitive tender process, but once the contract has been awarded LCC should make the process – and final price agreed – totally transparent, including the companies who were invited to tender following their PQQ exercise, and brief details of the bids received. Normally this is published on the website as a Delegated Decision.

  6. Tom Ely says:

    Unfortunately this sort of thing seems to happen everywhere, especially when the council get involved. It is worrying to think that such vast amounts of money cannot be accounted for.

    On the other hand, even figures and receipts can be manipulated, so even if monies can be accounted for, the real costings may not actually exist.

  7. paddledaddle says:

    Ironic that a person who keeps his/her identity a secret and hides behind a photo of a 1970s LUFC striker complains about secrecy.

  8. gardmal says:

    Actually, it does matter who you are. But equally the other stuff matters too. The problem with this transparency stuff is that we tend to want others to open but like to protect our own personal lives. Understandable as it is natural and human.

    This positioning of course cuts to the heart of the very important questions you raise. Detailed scrutiny and accountability by public officials is not unreasonable. Those who sell into public services and therefore are in receipt of public funds should expect that the financial details would not be protected by anything as vague as “commercial confidentiality” and therefore be open to public scrutiny. It was the very reason that Freedom of Information and open government was put into place. And let’s not forget that these freedoms had all party support.

    Following various embarrassing revelations, especially those about member’s expenses, the governments of the day, both Labour and Coalition have sought to restrict those hard won rights. Local Government has never been keen on FoI or transparency. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that there are plans to curb FoI to the point of being useless.

    In my view you should continue to demand the details of how the council spends it money and how it came to the decisions that it has done. More importantly, they need to justify the basis of commercial confidentiality. In this sense they would have only a duty to show that protect of the commercial financial detail is in the Public Interest, not simply in the interest of the supplier.

    • Cheers gardmal, i agree with (nearly all of) what you say. There is an FOI request in about these transactions, so we’ll see. Not sure, though, why it matters who I am. The only thing we need to know is why this is happening. But I’m up for hearing why my name might possibly matter. Cheers.

  9. I wouldn’t seek to hunt out your identity, but my point is this. The motivations of those who hide their identities, especially when they show and interest and seek to comment on the activities of others seems suspect. It is always difficult to trust a man who wears a mask. The first thing that goes through your head is not so much, “I agree with you” but “why are you saying that?”

    To my mind it is entirely up to you. If it is important to you or for you to remain anonymous then so be it. I would not try to persuade you otherwise. I know from experience that if you put your head above the parapet you tend to get shot at and I have seen to what extents South Tyneside Council went to in order to out Mr Monkey. I appreciate there are risks. For me personally it is about the courage of your convictions and all that. But it is a personal view.

  10. paddle daddle says:

    My comment was purely about the irony of a ‘masked man/woman’ making an observation about the identity of a third party. I suspect – from the evidence of how quickly you get hold of information and documents – that you are an insider – or personally close to one. Which actually makes your anonymity quite good fun for the rest of us.

  11. Pingback: Leeds Citizen hyperlocal interview | YCDM.ORG.UK

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