Testing out legal right to view Wigan Council documents produces some surprises

Wigan Council has passed a transparency test involving a long-standing law giving residents the right to inspect local authority accounts.

Monday, 17th June 2019, 10:23 am
Wigan Town Hall

Researchers from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) were tasked with finding out if town halls are aware that the public is permitted to scrutinise documents from the previous financial year during an annual set window.

Other news: Man taken into custody on leaving hospital as police continue investigating major disturbance after burglary in WiganAnd even a brief request for information on some of the stories which hit the headlines between April 2018 and April 2019 threw up some interesting nuggets.

This included an invoice for an agreed payment of £2.52m by supermarket giant Morrisons to Wigan Council to get out of its lease on the vacant unit in The Galleries shopping centre from which it previously operated and which the local authority now owns again.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The cash-strapped town hall’s sell-off of assets is also continuing with new buyers being found for around £9.5m of buildings, land and vehicles, although the vast majority of this related to residents exercising their powers to purchase their homes under Right to Buy.

Unlike some town halls the Bureau has encountered, details of the month-long window and how to book an appointment with the finance department were clearly listed on Wigan Council’s website.

A phone call was enough to set up an appointment at the town hall and information was brought along, together with a promise for more documents to be sent over via email.

The Bureau is hoping to raise awareness of these legal mechanisms for the public to hold local government to account.

And the council admitted residents’ knowledge of their rights was not what it could be, suggesting the Wigan Post’s visit to test out the accountability provision was probably the first time in a decade the powers have actually been used.

Even when people have been aware they can scrutinise the accounts, there has rarely been more than a handful of Wiganers booking appointments.

However, the local authority did suggest there are now other ways for residents to find out more and these are used much more frequently.

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act allows for documents over a longer timeframe to be requested, although the public window does enable people to see paperwork that would be exempt from FOI.

Wigan Council also has an open data policy with lists of transactions on its website.

Paul McKevitt, deputy chief executive at Wigan Council, said: “We comply with all statutory requirements in terms of reporting on the council’s finances.

“All our spending is published on our website and is available for people to view at a time which suits them. This includes our accounts and any spend over £500.

“As technology has improved over the years we’ve ensured our data is freely available meaning people don’t need to wait for this yearly window.”

Anyone wishing to inspect any of these council documents has until July 12 to do so before the window closes for another year.

For more information visit www.wigan.gov.uk/Council/DataProtection-FOI-Stats/Open-Data.aspx