Conservative shake-up planned

In Westminster and town halls across the country, revolution is brewing. It threatens riots, possibly on the streets, certainly in cyberspace. Riots of protest, perhaps, and definitely a riot of information.

For a glimpse of the tumult coming your way, call up the website of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM). In a few mouse clicks you can find details of every supplier paid more than £500 of taxpayers’ money by the council.

From April to June this year, for example, it coughed up £460,425 to a firm handling ground maintenance and landscape construction, £15,745 to Legoland, the theme park, and £1,500 to an Islamic trust.

Good value or waste of money? For the first time taxpayers who foot the bill can see the detail, demand answers and decide for themselves.

“At the last budget meeting the council leader wanted to make it as open as we could how we are spending money,” said Peter Brown, chief accountant of RBWM, which is Conservative-led. “So we started to do that. Now we’re looking at extending it further to include payments — allowances and expenses — made to individual councillors.”

The council is even working towards publishing individual invoices from its suppliers in the belief that voters deserve to know exactly what they are paying for. Transparency, they hope, will foster competition and efficiency.

Others are also experimenting. In Barnet, north London, the Tory local authority wants to provide public services on a “no frills” basis, after the manner of a budget airline. Dubbed “easyCouncil”, it will deliver a basic service to everyone with the choice of paying extra for faster, more comprehensive options.

In Yorkshire, two small rural councils are sharing a chief executive to save money. In Essex, the council is setting up its own bank to help local small businesses.

Such bold local initiatives are now moving centre stage. Forget stale arguments about Labour “investment” and Tory “cuts”: whoever wins the next election is going to have to get tough. Instead, a different divide is opening up as the country faces a financial reckoning.

After years of Labour central diktat, the Tories are making grand claims of devolving power and giving it to local people. Although the ideas have been mooted before, they are suddenly gathering momentum.

Last week David Cameron, the Tory leader, made headlines when he said that, if elected, he would cut the pay of government ministers to show a lead in tackling Britain’s ballooning debts. “With the Conservatives the gravy train will well and truly hit the buffers,” he said.

It overshadowed a more profound promise. The would-be prime minister confirmed that under the Conservatives “every item of government spending over £25,000 will be published. Online. In full. No ifs, no buts”. All public sector salaries over £150,000 will be published, too. Cameron is also committed to transparency on MPs’ earnings and expenses.

Two days later George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, re-emphasised the pledge to publish spending details and went on to lay out plans to give local authorities more freedom from central government targets and control. “We must reinvent what government actually does,” he said. “This is not just a cost-cutting exercise. It is about ... making local government powerful again.”

 

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