Tom Richmond: Transparency will shine a light on real democracy

TWO weeks ago, this newspaper challenged West Yorkshire Combined Authority '“ one of the myriad bodies responsible for the area's economic development '“ to become the most transparent in the land in the wake of disturbing revelations about its financial management.

2018 must be a year of transparency for Leeds-based West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the rest of regional government.

A fortnight later, it still appears to be hesitating about its duty – as a publicly-funded organisation – to be totally transparent with the public, the people that the organisation purports to serve, about its decision-making, expenditure, expenses and probity. Why not?

After all, this newspaper’s lengthy investigation was triggered earlier this year by WYCA’s hopeless website which advertised details of forthcoming meetings that had already been held.

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Now its rather extensive external affairs department has been arguing about its online calendar – and whether it offered sufficient clarity about upcoming business. It says it does. I disagree – it’s not always been totally clear where some months begin and end and senior councillors have said the provision of basic information needs improving. Even MD Ben Still concurs.

The problem is that bodies like WYCA are too internal in their outlook and seem to think their audience is their public sector colleagues. It’s not. It’s the long-suffering taxpayers who pay their far too generous salaries and they should have a right to easily accessible information on decisions taken.

However this matters. Even though breaking Yorkshire’s devolution deadlock is still one of the region’s most pressing priorities at the dawn of a new year, many residents fear that a county-wide mayor, or individual figureheads for the city-regions, will simply mean more bureaucracy and less accountability.

It should not be like this. Given that all metro mayors, large or small, require a support structure of sorts, it’s imperative that the county’s leaders start thinking this issue through from the public’s perspective – how will devolution work in practice, how will it be financed, what powers will be available and who is interested in standing for office?

And, in doing so, they need to remember this in light of the misgivings surrounding West Yorkshire Combined Authority – the public’s desire is for fewer politicians, less officials, total transparency and more money being spent on the provision of services rather than the well-remunerated officials who see their role as standing in the way of progress because they’re either bored or can’t see the bigger picture.

That’s why WYCA’s response is so disappointing, For, if it had risen to the challenge and pledged to be totally upfront about its costs, marketing activity, luncheons at posh Mayfair restaurants and so on, more people might support any devolution deal..

For this reason, 2018 must be the year of transparency in regional government.

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I NOTE Margaret Thatcher’s matter-of-fact approach when her loyal deputy, Willie Whitelaw, wanted to swap his Ministerial car, a standard Rover, for a Jaguar which had more room for the long trips between London and his Cumbrian constituency.

In a handwritten aside, the then Prime Minister noted: “What is the price difference? If none, I see no problem.” Perhaps this mantra should be applied to all those public officials, both here and elsewhere, who are pre-occupied by upgrading their perks and priviliges and not thinking of the taxpayer.

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I WAS totally underwhelmed when John Glen, a very junior culture minister, responded to Commons questions from Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman – and others – regarding library cuts.

“There are clearly challenges... and I’m working very hard with the libraries task force and with librarians across the country to look at ways of delivering better services,” he droned.

Not good enough.

A more able – and dynamic – minister would have been talking up the service, committing the Government to extending digital services to the branch network and raising revenue by renting out some space to coffee shops, or encouraging community groups to make greater use of premises. I only have to think of the untapped potential of my local library in Guiseley to realise the size of the opportunity that exists.

A promise. I will be the first to congratulate Mr Glen if he becomes the saviour of the library service. And I will be the first to call for him to be sacked if he he is unenthused by a brief that should be innovative and inspirational.

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JEREMY Hunt makes a key point following five years at the helm of the Department of Health – the NHS might be more manageable if budgets were agreed on a 10-year basis.

Three points. Are rival parties prepared to work together and build a consensus? They should be. Will social care provision be included in this long-term planning? It must be. And what about historic debts that are crippling many NHS trusts? An idle thought, but it would it actually be cheaper to write them off and start with a blank sheet of paper?

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‘FAILING Grayling’ – sorry, Chris Grayling – is at it again as the Department for Transport promise clarity on the price of off-peak rail tickets as commuters brace themselves for the traditional New Year fares hike.

I’ve simply lost count of the number of occasions when Ministers have promised to simplify the ticketing process so passengers are offered the cheapest ticket when they make their purchase. It’s simple. If train operators breach this edict, passengers concerned recompensed with a month’s free travel. What’s stopping you Mr Grayling?