Secret service

You may be of the view that the public bodies that serve us should be accountable to us. That means that their policies should be a matter of record. It means that when they discuss changing those policies, the public should see the debate and know the outcome. If for no other reason, because the public are paying the bill with their taxes.

South Somerset District Council (SSDC) do not appear to share this view. Up until September this year it was widely known, indeed SSDC themselves were happy to share the information, that the council had an investment policy. In simple terms (it was a lot more detailed, more nuanced) but for these purposes a summary will suffice) it was this:

The council could invest up to £75m in property investments to generate a revenue stream for the council.

  • Any investment up to £10m could be signed off by the Leader of the Council, the Chief Executive and two senior officers with private sector experience of property investment.
  • Any deal over £10m, required the approval of the elected members of the full council.

Now not everyone would agree with the policy, but it was democratically agreed, publicly voted for and was a policy the council were happy to discuss.

In September that changed.

The first issue was that SSDC insisted that the change to the policy should be debated in camera. In simple terms, this is unusual. Any council is entitled to discuss commercial items out of the public eye. Something councils often abuse, but the idea is sound enough if something is genuinely commercial in confidence.

However there is nothing in the discussion of a change in policy that is either commercial or confidential. It is after all just a policy.

The Leveller® challenged SSDC on this. There response was more surreal than a painting by Salvador Dali. Their spokesperson told us “The position is that the disclosure of the investment fund would be prejudicial to SSDC’s affairs, because parties with whom we might wish to transact will be aware of how much we have to spend and this may weaken our negotiating position on price and other matters.  It was also reasonable as there was a real chance of members wishing to discuss sensitive specifics of individual transactions and projects, whether past, current or contemplated – in other words, officers have to be mindful of not just what’s in the report but also where debate on that report might lead.”

This is spurious. To our knowledge, no other public body in Somerset in the past 5 years has considered the discussion of council policy to be a confidential matter. If anyone knows differently, we’d love to hear from you.

Their argument is that the entire item must be discussed away from the public gaze just in case councillors decide to start talking about specific commercial items?

Firstly, those deals that have already been done are already in the public domain – indeed press released by SSDC, and so are not commercially sensitive.

Secondly, deals that have not yet been done (though how councillors would know about deals not yet done is a mystery) could be dealt with in a separate item held in camera.

The key point is that it was perfectly possible to have the policy discussion held in public, separately from any properly confidential discussions, but SSDC have chosen to arrange the agenda in such a way that this did not happen.  Taken to its logical conclusion, all items of council business can now be held in camera because there is always a risk that any individual councillor might start talking about a commercial item.

No doubt this story will continue to run.

In the meantime SSDC has shared details of their new policy on investing for the future with The Leveller which you can find by following the link here 

We are happy to share that with you although we should warn you in advance it is not a quick read!

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