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How councils thwart journalists’ attempts to probe austerity’s impact

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A guest briefing by Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporter Gareth Davies

First interview with the new secretary of state: James Brokenshire: ‘Clear space and scope’ for more unitaries

Today’s possible restructuring move: Somerset leader in ‘bold’ unitary bid

Today’s top appointment: Former council chief named CQC boss

Today’s top revelation: How up to 15 councils wrongly reported no reserves

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism spent four months looking in detail at local authorities’ future financial plans.

Draft budgets contain key information about how councils plan to spend public money in the coming financial year (and beyond). It is important that they are accessible and understandable, for journalists and the public. But in many cases they are not.

Attempting to aggregate this data for the first time, The Bureau met barriers at every stage. Firstly, it was difficult to understand which authorities even publish advance draft budgets, despite requesting this information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Then the reports themselves were extremely difficult to access and standardise. There are 353 local authorities in England. Each report sits on its own page – draft budgets are not centralised in one place – and there are dozens of different ways the reports are named, making it difficult to even locate these reports. In fact, there was little uniformity in any sense, apart from the documents mostly being published in the cumbersome PDF format. To make matters worse, they are often inaccessible for those who use accessibility software because most screen readers have difficulty scanning PDF documents.

Local authorities also divide and define their spending differently, which made comparing spending on vital services, such as adult and children’s social care, difficult and time consuming. Croydon splits its spending between three main headings: ‘People’, ‘Place’ and ‘Resources’. Others use more categories. Barnet, for example, has six: adults & safeguarding; assets, regeneration & growth; children, education libraries & safeguarding; community leadership; environment; and policy & resources.

Our aim in making this database was to provide accessibility and transparency around proposed spending cuts at a local, regional and national level. But these issues, small and large, were a big impediment to that.

It meant that in order to provide vital information on proposed local spending to journalists and the public, we would spend months trawling hundreds of council documents and manually recording and verifying information.

These issues are compounded if we return to the source of our initial concerns – the government’s datasets.

Once approved, the information within these draft budgets will form the basis of the figures councils provide to government. While we don’t have to manually aggregate this data – because all historical budget and spending data is pulled into one place – we have already identified the flaws that lie in it.

An experienced local reporter given enough time can decipher and report their council’s plans, and they do so up and down the country. But building an accurate picture of what is happening in neighbouring areas or across the region as a whole, is a big challenge. For the average member of the public, even more so.

After nearly a decade of austerity, understanding the cumulative impact of reductions in local government funding has become vitally important.

To do this requires the information published by councils, and by the government, to be standardised and accessible. At the very least it should be accurate.

If it falls short of these standards – as was the case in data for council reserve levels reported by LGC earlier today – then local government spending and its impact on people’s lives, is harder to measure and scrutinise. This is particularly relevant since the abolition of the Audit Commission, which used to provide some of this public service, in 2015.

As Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, told us during our investigation: “With the Audit Commission gone, good investigative journalism is pretty well our only way of finding out where councils face serious financial difficulties.”

That is why, despite the barriers, we set out to build this database and will continue to argue for improvements in the publication and transparency of this vitally important data.

Gareth Davies, reporter, Bureau of Investigative Journalism

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