First person: The FOI which led to a council changing its policy — and pledging to spend more money
Amy Orton is a local democracy reporter based at the Leicester Mercury.
In our second weekly look at local democracy stories which had an impact, Amy reveals how a passing comment at an overview and scrutiny committee meeting led to big story which has changed council policy when it comes to spending money:
Cranes, diggers and scaffolding as far as the eye can see.
Everywhere you look, there are pockets of land in our towns and cities — old factories, patches of scrubland and abandoned buildings — which are being transformed into housing.
The pressure on local councils is immense. They have been ordered to build thousands of houses over the next five, ten, twenty years.
Many property developers are rubbing their hands together as they see the opportunity presented by the huge demands for new housing from families, couples and investors. But businesses have to play their part too.
And I was taken aback when I discovered just how much they were paying into a pot designed to make communities sustainable… and how this money destined for schools, roads and parks just wasn’t being spent.
Not only was I shocked. But the council which had the money was as well… and they promised to take action after my story featured in the Leicester Mercury.
I’m a Local Democracy Reporter for Leicester and Leicestershire, I’m one of 150 journalists across the country, paid by the BBC, working in local newspaper offices, providing content for local partners.
My job at the Leicester Mercury is to cover — and scrutinise — decisions taken at a local level. Councils, clinical commissioning groups, Police and Crime Commissioners, NHS trusts, any official body that spends public cash is for the taking.
Fresh from my BBC training back in March, I decided to head to a health and wellbeing board meeting at County Hall in the hope of being inspired.
The meeting started with an NHS official telling members of her disappointment that the CCG she worked for had had to return about £50 of ‘section 106 money’ that had been earmarked for a new blind at a doctor’s surgery.
Section 106 money is consolation cash for those affected by the impact of new developments. As part of the planning process the agreements are drawn up with developers who are required to hand over money to local schemes. More homes mean more people registering at doctors’ surgeries, more children at local schools, more cars on the road.
Councils negotiate with the house builders to secure funding for certain projects, it’s ringfenced and — crucially — there is a time limit on how quickly the money must be spent.
Normally this limit is within five years of the agreement being signed.
In the case of this surgery, the £50 blind had been ordered but when it was delivered didn’t fit so it was returned and another ordered in its place.
The new one didn’t arrive before the five year cut off date and the CCG lost the cash.
It was a bizarre situation. And shouldn’t have happened.
But it did get me wondering if mix ups like this could be happening on a grander scale.
Surely councils couldn’t be so careless as to not spend free money?
But in any case I sent a freedom of information request into my local councils to find out.
Responses dripped through and there was nothing much to report.
Until Leicestershire County Council replied with an amount sent back- £895,592.
There were a few notes attached to the response. The blame was largely placed on a cycle path that didn’t get built in time; roads on an estate that weren’t ready for a bus service and new homeowners not applying for six month bus passes.
I went down the usual channels, a response from the press office, some opposition comment and then waited until the end of an uneventful cabinet meeting to ask the leader, Councillor Nick Rushton, his thoughts.
He thanked me for bringing the matter to his attention.
I walked away thinking that would be the last I heard of it for a while, if not ever.
The story was published and generated a lot of interest and engagement.
People wanted to know why this had happened — and, more importantly, they wanted reassurances that it wouldn’t happen again.
The next time I was at County Hall, I was asked by the leader if I was available for a quick phone interview the next day.
Minutes before the phone was due to ring, I received the papers for the next cabinet meeting and saw to my amazement that this issue of unspent money was now on the agenda.
Soon after, the council leader was back on the phone, this time thanking me in quite fulsome terms for highlighting the matter.
Genuinely he seemed was appalled that, on his watch, money was being unspent.
As a direct result of the freedom of information request, the county council are now reviewing the way they make section 106 agreements with developers.
He vowed to make changes and to never let it happen again — and in future using this income towards new homes for foster families on new developments or providing community transport schemes for elderly people.
There are no easy answers to the housing shortage.
New properties do need to get built. But sometimes, even with the best intentions, there can be a social impact.
Section 106 cash isn’t meant to be a bribe, it’s a sensible way of making sure the existing infrastructure can cope with the influx of new people.
I am really proud that my story has made a difference and hope that it marks the start for this money being properly used for what it was meant for — improving communities and services, not just catching cobwebs in the council’s account.