Town councils must expect more scrutiny

Thorn-in-the-side of Congleton Town Council, Graham Goodwin is a bit like cricketer Kevin Pietersen, who, as far I can tell (not being a cricket fan) seems to annoy everyone intensely but is so good that it’s a mistake to leave him out.

There was talk at the council of — not to put too fine a point on it — barring Mr Goodwin from asking any more questions because he was, well, very annoying.

That would be have been a dubious decision anyway but is even more so now, since it appears he does have a point. Several points, in fact.

First there was the digital display unit.

Without the dogged persistence of Mr Goodwin (and others), this would not have to come to light.

In the fuss over the report into the DDU, a fairly obvious point has been overlooked — the council came very close to getting away with wasting £20,000 of public money, and breaking its own guidelines to do so.

Indeed, part of the problem in investigating the DDU was that the money was spent in a now-closed financial period — some town councillors felt the external auditor had acted beyond its remit by going back that far to look at the matter.

It seems logical to conclude that if a fuss had not been made, the issue would have been forgotten, the money quietly written off and the financial regulations left unchanged.

We — the people who fund the council — would be none the wiser. It came very close to being brushed under the carpet.

The same is true of the questions into councillors declaring an interest in businesses in which they are involved.

These arose because Coun Larry Barker failed to declare his directorship of a company that made a planning application when he was chairman of the Planning Committee.

No-one is saying that any deception was intended and there was certainly no personal or professional gain from his omission, but the fact is that it was against the rules — councillors have a duty to declare all business interests.

Again ,this would not have come to light had Mr Goodwin not made a fuss.

Mayor Coun Liz Wardlaw, in a letter to Mr Goodwin, said she would remind Coun Barker and all other members of the council of the need for “absolute transparency” in business interests.

She promised Mr Goodwin that she would be “speaking” to Coun Barker to ensure that he kept his declaration of interests up to date, and she would be advising all other councillors to do the same.

Councillors might find Mr Goodwin annoying (there’s no might about it) but he has highlighted two areas where councillors were remiss and which, under different circumstances, could have left them open to accusations of wrongdoing.

In the council’s defence, times are changing.

As Government cuts bite and more services are devolved to the towns, our town councils are moving away from their more recent history — overgrown parish councils (and I mean that kindly) — to larger authorities with growing staff and more responsibility.

Don’t forget that town councillors are unpaid, but are now expected to work in an increasingly complex area, whether it’s purchasing specialist kit or dealing with HR problems.

The time may well come when town councillors are paid and become more professional.

At least Congleton Town Council is open.

It publishes its minutes quickly on the internet (to be read by the likes of Mr Goodwin) and sends them on to us.

Looking at the other town councils in our patch, not all are so up to speed. Some have not published minutes for months, despite having shiny websites.

Moreover, in our Sandbach edition this week we report a spat between councillors over an alleged lack of transparency, and comments made on Twitter.

But openness is the future.

Critics like Mr Goodwin can sit at home and check councillors’ directorships, employers, social life, property ownership and former jobs, and compare this with their minuted actions, and comments made in the Press.

Town councils — and councillors — are going to have to accept that in an on-demand world, lack of transparency can only cause suspicion. And people who make mistakes will be found out.

Twitter and Facebook mean discussions previously limited to the council chamber can reach the whole community. It’s not what some are used to.

But it can only be good for local democracy — after all, this is all being done with our money.

With town councils taking on more work it seems it’s a case of “Graham Goodwin: every town should have one”.

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