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West Berkshire Council urged to publish finances

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Slow coach council is urged by communities secretary to put spending data online

WEST Berkshire Council is one of several authorities branded “slow-coach” by the Government's communities secretary Eric Pickles for not yet opening their finance books to the public.

Six months ago, the Conservative minister Mr Pickles wrote to all councils calling on them to throw open their files and publish all spending data on items over £500 online, to make local government spending more transparent and show waste is being eradicated.

He gave a deadline of the end of January 2011, and despite West Berkshire Council's insistence it is on target to publish the information on time, Mr Pickles has rounded on those councils yet to put the data in the public domain and said that they will face tough questions from residents and tough action from him.

On New Year's Eve, Mr Pickles said: "One hundred and forty four councils have shown they're not afraid to be transparent and I applaud them, but that's less than half, the slow-coach councils only have a month to go before serious questions will be asked about what they've got to hide.”

Ministers have said that councils need to show they have done everything possible to reduce waste and duplication to save taxpayers' money before considering cuts to front-line services.

Mr Pickles added: "I've started by calling for all expenditure over £500 to be put online by the end of the month but councils should not stop there. They should also be willing to show senior and middle management salaries, councillor expenses, job recruitment, and minutes of council meetings.”

West Berkshire Council's shadow finance portfolio holder David Rendel (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) said he was not entirely confident the published data would be as transparent as Mr Pickles would hope for.

“I have seen some of the spend items and many of them are pretty meaningless. Whether the council produces meaningful figures that are easy for people to read and understand is another matter entirely,” he said.

“If we just have lists of contracts that say, for example, “Gardening equipment - £50,000” it would be fairly meaningless without a breakdown of how the cash was spent which is what people want to know.

“The real issue is what are they going to produce and what are they going to try and get away with hiding.”

Mr Rendel said he would be keeping an eye on the council's progress, but that examples drawn from the past and looking at what other councils had published did not fill him with confidence.

The leader of West Berkshire Council, Graham Jones (Con, Lambourn), said Mr Rendel had indulged in a “typically tortuous line of silly speculation.”

“This is an initiative from the Conservative part of the coalition but which I know the Lib Dems support. It will make local government more transparent

“We will be publishing the information shortly in a "user friendly" manner,” he said.

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