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Posts Tagged ‘transparency

Open data and public expenditure

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'How much transparency'?Whilst public finance transparency is better in Britain than many other countries, poor quality, inaccessible and redacted data is preventing effective scrutiny of government spending, Transparency International UK reported.

[‘Counting the pennies’ [extract], Transparency International UK, September 2016]

Successive governments have made open data a priority and more recently this has included an emphasis on public finance disclosures. Since 2010, public bodies in both central and local government have been encouraged to publish the details of certain financial information on a regular basis. From 2015, this has been a mandatory requirement. As a result of this initiative, there are now millions of records of tenders, contracts and transactions spanning the last five years that had hitherto been undisclosed to the outside world. Across central and local government, this covers over £2.312 trillion worth of transactions, and for local government in England alone, there are almost 63 million individual lines of data on items of spending.

According to the latest Open Data Index, this initiative helps put the UK in the top tier for publishing tender and transaction level data about public finances. These efforts to increase transparency about public finances can only be welcomed. Public procurement is internationally recognised as a corruption risk and is included under Article 9 of the UN Convention Against Corruption. Providing greater scrutiny over this process can help detect and deter attempts to abuse entrusted power for private gain in the UK. There are also several other benefits of public finance transparency beyond fighting corruption. These include helping the public sector as a whole understand who it does business with and increasing value for money in procurement, providing the private sector with more insights into potential business opportunities, and giving greater information to citizens about how public bodies spend taxpayers’ money. This may lead many to conclude that the UK’s job is done and that it should hold itself up as a model for other countries to follow.

However, our research has found there are still a number of issues with how the government’s framework for public finance transparency is implemented in practice. If unchecked, these could fundamentally undermine the utility of this initiative. For both the layperson and expert the data are relatively inaccessible, with there being no single location where it can be accessed. The data often contains inaccuracies, anomalies and omissions. A lack of standardisation in how the data are published also means that in-depth analysis is inhibited, and the level of detail and contextual information provided undermines the meaningfulness of this resource. And not every citizen has the time or skills necessary to analyse and interpret the data as it is being published in its current form.

The UK Government has announced a number of important commitments that could help the UK make progress on improving the quality of public finance data. This includes rolling-out open contracting – the new gold standard for procurement transparency – across central government and engaging data users in how to improve the management, use and availability of public data. These pledges are timely, but also show an implicit acknowledgement that there is still work to be done before the UK can truly say its finances are the most transparent in the world.

In 2010, the coalition government proclaimed a ‘New era of transparency’ would bring about ‘a revolution in town hall openness and accountability’.

[‘New era of transparency will bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability’,, 4 June 2010]

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Local Government Association Chair Baroness Eaton joined forces today to urge all councils to publish details of all spending over £500 in full and online as part of wider action to bring about a revolution in town hall openness and accountability.

As a result, local authorities began to publish lists of spending of £500 or more, with payees. However, in themselves, these are of extremely limited value. For example, if Local Authority A lists a payment to Contractor X of £100,000, one might well wonder, what was the £100,000 for? And how did Contractor X get the business? Was there a bidding process?

In practice, “publishing details of all spending over £500 in full” has meant publishing next to no details.

Other transparency problems have arisen from the transfer of public funds to ‘Local Enterprise Partnerships’ to spend, supposedly on behalf of the public. LEPs tend to function as private fiefdoms, controlled by big business, and untroubled by the Freedom of Information Act.

Written by beleben

September 27, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Posted in Local government, Politics

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Ey up, where are the reports?

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According to the Daily Telegraph, the EY consultancy produced a report on the claimed ‘hub impacts’ of HS2 which was “released to government” in October 2014. However, at the time of writing, the government doesn’t seem to have made it public.

The list of HS2-related reports yet to see sunlight also includes the ‘Tring Crossrail feasibility’, ‘HS2 options for Scotland‘, and of course, the assessment of the Major Projects Authority.

Written by beleben

January 8, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Posted in High speed rail, HS2

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WSP and Birmingham transport development

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Birmingham city council, GBS LTB page at 18 September 2014

According to the Birmingham city council website, the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Transport Board (GBS LTB) “has been established to prioritise and oversee the delivery of Local Major Transport Schemes, which will be delivered in the period 2015 – 2019 for the Greater Birmingham & Solihull geography”.

[Birmingham city council]

By the end of July 2013, GBS LTB will have agreed a provisional programme of schemes which will be developed for final funding approval in advance of April 2015 when the capital funding becomes available. The Department for Transport (DfT) has given GBS LTB an indicative funding allocation of £35.8 million for the 2015-19 delivery period. The DfT have also advised that the actual allocation could be one third higher or lower than the indicative amount. The final allocation will be determined following the next Government Spending Review.


• Andrew Cleaves – GBS LEP Board Lead for Transport
• Jerry Blackett – Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Group
• Mike Batheram – WSP
• Cllr Sir Albert Bore – Birmingham City Council
• Cllr Ted Richards – Solihull MBC
• Cllr John Campion – Representing N. Worcs Districts
• Cllr Steven Claymore – Representing S. Staffs Districts
• Cllr Philip Atkins – Staffordshire County Council
• Cllr Simon Geraghty – Worcestershire County Council
• Cllr John McNicholas – WMITA
Meeting Dates

• Thursday 15 May 2014, 10:00 – 12:00
Committee Room 2, Council House
• Tuesday 9 September 2014, 10:00-12:00
• Tuesday 11 November 2014, 10:00-12:00
• Tuesday 10 February 2015, 10:00-12:00

If GBS has been established ‘to prioritise and oversee the delivery of Local Major Transport Schemes for the Greater Birmingham & Solihull geography’, why are councillors from places like Staffordshire on the board?

Curiouser still is the representation of WSP, a Canadian-owned consultancy firm. It has been handed huge contracts (including the ‘Mobility Action Plan’ and ‘Cycling Revolution’) by Birmingham city council.

Written by beleben

September 18, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Birmingham, Centro, Politics

Tagged with

Manner, form and timing

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Figure 5 of October 2013’s HS2 Strategic Case was titled “Expert judgement on post-2019 capacity pressures on north-south main lines”. However, only the East Coast, West Coast, and Midland routes were included in the “judgement”, and it was not clear how their ‘pressure’ ratings were determined, or what they meant.

The Department for Transport has now stated that although there is “a clear public interest in High Speed Rail and on the basis by which decisions have been made concerning capacity and demand on specific routes”, the (several-months-old) report that informed the creation of Figure 5 should not, at the moment, be made public.

The reason? “It is important that we are able to publish the report in a manner, form and timing of our own choosing”.

[DfT statement]

The experts who made the judgement were Steer Davies Gleave (SDG) consultants. Their report sets out the basis and meaning of the colour coding. We are withholding the SDG report in reliance on the exemption at section 22(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which relates to information intended for future publication. […]

Section 22(1) is a qualified exemption which means we are required to balance the public interest in disclosing the report against that for withholding it at this time.

There is a clear public interest in High Speed Rail and on the basis by which decisions have been made concerning capacity and demand on specific routes. Disclosure of the report now would allow the public to see how decisions are being made and would allow them to contribute to the process.

However, it is important that we are able to publish the report in a manner, form and timing of our own choosing. It is anticipated that the report will be published very shortly and official’s time between now and the publication date would be better spent preparing for publication as opposed to dealing with individual requests for it. This will ensure that everyone gets to see the report at the same time.

On balance the public interest in withholding the report outweighs that for disclosure.

Figure 5 of October 2013's HS2 Strategic Case

Written by beleben

March 4, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Posted in High speed rail, HS2

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Toby or not to be transparent

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Centro's Toby Rackliff disappointed about Office of Rail Regulation transparency-conference, 10 Dec 2012Lack of transparency is a major problem in Britain’s transport industry, resulting in resource waste and/or bad environmental outcomes for the public. West Coast rail franchising, the Intercity Express Programme, and Birmingham Connected City are all examples of how transparency shortcomings can beget socio-economic losses.

On 10 December, Toby Rackliff, Rail Development Manager at West Midlands transport authority Centro, tweeted his disappointment on a rail data transparency conference being ‘hi-jacked by app developers attacking the Association of Train Operating Companies’.

But Centro’s approach to data and project transparency is a lot worse than disappointing. Mr Rackliff uses the moniker @tobythetram on Twitter, so it’s perhaps no surprise to find the Centro website claiming that

In terms of getting a transport network fit for the future, expansion of Midland Metro is critical.

Centro’s rail wish-list includes

* tram lines from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, Wolverhampton to Wednesbury via Walsall, Birmingham City Centre to the Airport via the Coventry Road, and a loop around Wolverhampton city centre;

* restoring the Wolverhampton to Walsall train service, with a new station at Darlaston

but Centro gives no information about their passenger demand, operating costs, required subsidies, or carbon footprint.

And Centro’s Go-HS2 campaign has repeatedly claimed that the HS2 high speed railway ‘frees up capacity for more regional and freight services’ but has never provided any details.

ORR rail transparency conference, 10 Dec 2012

Written by beleben

December 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Operation Barbarassa

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In an 11 October article published on Labourlist, West Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority chairman James Lewis praised Barbara Castle‘s work as transport minister in Harold Wilson’s government.

While the element of Barbara Castle’s career that has made it onto the silver screen was the portrayal of her as Employment Minister in the film ‘Made in Dagenham’, her role a great reforming Labour Transport Minister (arguably the last) is one that I believe sorely needs reprising.

The enduring principle at the heart of the 1968 Transport Act in creating Passenger Transport Authorities in the big Metropolitan areas outside London was to put transport in the hands of powerful locally-accountable and strategic bodies able to take an integrated approach to delivering a network.

Mr Lewis went on to outline three principles for a successful future transport policy.

Focusing on local delivery is the challenge to be faced and setting transport policy in a wider context is a good starting point.. I would argue that for Maria Eagle to be a successful and reforming Labour Secretary of State for Transport, party policy needs to embrace the following principles:

Devolution: Real decision making on network planning and investment should be made at an appropriate local level with funding devolved alongside responsibilities. While the national government clearly has a role in strategic networks and plans, transport decisions on commuting routes, regional links and supporting economic development and growth are better made not by London-based civil-servants but by local councils or consortia of councils to meet their needs.

Integration: The ability to deliver common-sense transport initiatives such as integrated ticketing (like Oyster cards) is vital to make transport simple, attract more passengers and release the full value of capital investment. However, in the current complex web of fractured delivery this is nigh on impossible outside a regulated and integrated environment. Greater powers for local transport authorities to specify the outcomes of local networks rather than just loosely co-ordinate them are the key.

Value for Money: Passengers often don’t feel they get value for money and many consider there is a lack of accountability and transparency in both the concentrated markets with a lack of competition on many de-regulated bus routes and nationally-managed rail franchises driven by centralised DfT decision making. Public transport will always need public subsidy to achieve an inclusive network and for investment in new developments and in the current fiscal climate the absolute best use of scarce public money must be guaranteed. Policy tools for devolution and integration must come with the ability to test value for money, whether through competitive tendering or economic regulation.

These principles are guiding our work in West Yorkshire, whether considering a Bus Quality Contract scheme under the 2008 Transport Act to get the public a better offer assessed against defined tests, working with West Yorkshire councils to secure a Transport Investment fund to deliver projects to fuel growth or taking a pan-north of England approach to devolved rail franchising giving us greater influence over local rail services.

Use of public transport — regulated or unregulated — has been on a downhill slope in most British cities for the last fifty years. But it would be interesting to plot patronage in PTE/integrated transport authority and non-PTE areas, to see whether the activities of Passenger Transport Executives actually resulted in higher patronage or better connectivity. Getting hold of data could be problematic, because integrated transport authorities are not keen on releasing anything.

Written by beleben

October 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

A tax on transparency

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A Labour Party press release dated 14 February 2012 expressed alarm that Britain’s Tory-led government was looking at introducing charges for Freedom of Information requests.

This Tory-led government looking at foi charges is alarming, says Labour (2012-02-14)

Tory-led Government looking at FOI charges alarming – Slaughter
14 February 2012

Andy Slaughter MP, Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister, said following reports that the Government is considering introducing charges for Freedom of Information requests:

“It’s alarming that this Tory-led Government is looking at introducing a charge for submitting Freedom of Information requests. Labour introduced Freedom of Information legislation as a means of opening up the public sector and improving transparency in Government. A charge payable for each freedom of information request is nothing less than a tax on transparency.

“Freedom of Information is a step towards healthy governance. It permits scrutiny of those in power in central and local government and devolved administrations. Introducing a charge is a potential backward step, and will unravel Labour’s drive to open up the public sector to wider scrutiny.”

In May 2012’s local elections, Labour gained control of Birmingham city council from a Tory-led coalition. And apparently, one of the first things on their mind was… introduction of charges for Freedom of Information requests.

From Birmingham city council’s own news website (2 August 2012):

Freedom of Information could come at a price (Birmingham Post)
Councils should be allowed to charge to provide information to the public following a dramatic increase in Freedom of Information requests, Birmingham City Council has suggested.

Most of the cost of FoI requests seems to be generated by councils’ aversion to releasing information, rather than locating and sending it. This can be seen in

  1. officials seeking out reasons not to release information,
  2. redaction of the names of officials mentioned in documents, and
  3. preparation of paraphrased minimal-answer FoI responses from original documents, rather than releasing the original documents themselves.

If council staff spend two hours going through documents looking for and redacting the names of decision-making officials, that is not a cost imposed by FoI legislation. It is a cost imposed by someone in the council deciding that decision-making officers should be anonymous in FoI responses. The Information Commissioner’s Office has stated that there is no basis for such a practice.

The cost of FoI requests as a proportion of public expenditure is miniscule, especially when considered against the scrutiny value. The ruinously expensive equalities claims made against Birmingham city council would probably never have arisen, had the Freedom of Information Act had been in force earlier. The secret bonuses, paid to particular groups of council workers but not others, would never have been started.

Written by beleben

August 3, 2012 at 9:06 am

Panoramic view

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BBC Television’s Panorama ‘Train Fares: Taken for a Ride?’ (first broadcast date 23 Jan 2012) looked at Britain’s railways:

Packed in like sardines, on trains that often arrive late… But it is the price of the tickets that really upsets lots of rail travellers, and fares have just gone up to record levels. So why are train fares so expensive? Panorama investigates the cost of riding on the railway.

BBC Panorama rail interviewees Theresa Villiers, David Higgins, Adrian Shooter, Cathryn Ross, Roy McNulty, Steven Norris

Near the beginning, reporter Vivian White promised, “Tonight we track down the millions that get wasted on our railways.” Unfortunately, the programme never did get around to tracking down the wasted millions, or explaining why train fares are so expensive. However, the interview with Network Rail’s chief executive [time in 08:00] Sir David Higgins, did yield this response:

There are six hundred [delay] attribution people, which is — which is — People think that contracting and legal frameworks, and fines, and blame, can improve an industry… I tell you it doesn’t do it at all… It’s complete rubbish.

Which is tantamount to saying that the British model of railway privatisation is complete rubbish. But fragmenting the railway into more than a hundred parts was always going to result in a morass of contractual and accounting interfaces. And scrutiny and planning conundrums.

The programme was somewhat tabloid, with airtime given over to a commuter who sends long time-wasting complaint e-mails, etc. Around the 19 minute mark, the report turned into a sort of PR film for Chiltern Railways, giving a rather slanted view of the case for train operators to have more control of infrastructure. But the interview with Cathryn Ross, of the Office of Rail Regulation, was worryingly illuminating. Rather than interview Theresa Villiers, it might have been more interesting to question her former adviser, Saratha Rajeswaran, who wrote a review apparently recommending no change in scrutiny of Network Rail executive pay.

Transactional bureaucracy, poor governance, lack of transparency, and ineffective scrutiny mechanisms are the pillars of the high-cost railway. Most of the industry is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, including Network Rail. The ‘members‘ of Network Rail are supposed to oversee its efficient operation, but are clearly unable to perform that function. Whether Network Rail’s public members are even ‘members of the public’ is arguable. For example, Jonathan Bray is Pteg Support Unit Director, and Lord Berkeley is chairman of the Rail Freight Group. One of the commuters featured on Panorama applied to be a public member of Network Rail, and was — surprise, surprise — turned down.

Written by beleben

January 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm

HS2 challenge panels

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Strategic Challenge Panel | Analytical Challenge Panel | Technical Expert Panel |
Consultation Peer Review Group | Meetings

Extract from HS2 Analytical Challenge Panel 17 Aug 2010 minutes - redacted

HS2 Ltd’s website outlines the HS2 project’s External Challenge Groups.

The External Challenge Groups have been set up to ensure that HS2’s approach to High Speed Rail is rigorously scrutinised at every stage. They are comprised of panels of independent experts specialising in the groups’ respective areas of focus and they challenge and reinforce; they will challenge and reinforce HS2’s strategic, technical and analytical approaches.

If you are interested in the work of any of our panels, please contact us on or by any of the methods listed on our contacts page. We respectfully ask that you do not approach any of our panel members directly.

Strategic Challenge Panel

The Strategic Panel provides strategic challenge and an independent perspective on how HS2 develops proposals for a new railway line from London to the West Midlands and potentially beyond. It also scrutinises the proposal themselves and their fit with the strategic objectives.

In particular, the panel will provide views on:

HS2’s overall approach – from option generation to stakeholder involvement – to ensure it is fit for purpose and will ultimately deliver results that are sufficiently robust and comprehensive;
whether all relevant factors, including wider economic impacts, are being taken into account in our sifting and appraisal methodologies to ensure that the outputs are reliable and take account of the wider costs and benefits;
whether the option selection process is both sensible and publicly defensible;
whether the proposals generated are appropriate solutions to our strategic objectives;
HS2’s assessment of corridors for potential development of a high speed line.

Expert Panel Members:

Kate Barker CBE – Monetary Policy Committee Member, Bank of England
Prof. David Begg – Chair of the Northern Way Transport Compact
Richard Brown CBE – Chief Executive, Eurostar
Tony Collins – Chief Executive, Virgin Trains
Iain Coucher – Chief Executive, Network Rail
Stephen Joseph OBE – Executive Director, Campaign for Better Transport
David Leeder – Vice Chair, Commission for Integrated Transport
Sir Michael Lyons – Chairman of the BBC Trust
Anthony Smith – Chief Executive, Passenger Focus
Tony Travers – Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Analytical Challenge Panel

The Analytical Challenge Panel scrutinises HS2’s analytical plan and outputs. In particular it provides advice and scrutiny on the models developed, and of specific issues relating to Wider Economic Benefits.

Analytical Panel Members:

Prof. Robert Cochrane – Transport planner and visiting Professor Imperial College London
Prof. Stephen Glaister CBE – Director of the Royal Automobile Club Foundation and Professor of Transport and Infrastructure, Imperial College London
Prof. Peter Mackie – Research Prof. Institute for Transport Studies, Leeds University
Prof. Henry Overman – Director Spatial Economics Research Centre, LSE
Dr. David Simmonds – Director, David Simmonds Consultancy Ltd
Prof. Roger Vickerman – Director of the Centre for European, Regional and Transport Economics, University of Kent

Technical Expert Panel

The Technical Expert Panel will advise and scrutinise HS2’s engineering, operations and environmental impact work plan. In particular it looks at specific issues relating to the railway systems being considered, the interaction with the existing rail network and the relationship of environment and planning with engineering.

Expert Panel Members:

Ted Allett – Formerly Planning Director of Union Railways and expert on route development, planning and environmental assessment
Mike Ash CBE, MRTPI – Formerly Chief Planner at the Department for Communities and Local Government
Keith Berryman – Engineering Advisor to Crossrail
Clive Burrows FREng – Director of Engineering, First Group
Prof Andy Collop – Head of Civil Engineering Dept at Nottingham University
Alan Dyke – Former Chief Engineer and Managing Director of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Project (HS1), now an Independent Consultant
Prof Robert Mair FREng FRS – Cambridge University
Hugh Norrie OBE FREng – Government’s Agent for Channel Tunnel Rail Link
Prof Roderick Smith FREng – Chair of Future Rail Studies at Imperial College, London and Vice President of the IMechE

Consultation Peer Review Group

The Consultation Peer Review Group webpage does not define its purpose or identify who its members are.


The challenge panels’ meetings with HS2 Ltd have also included staff from other organisations, such as the consultancy company Atkins. However, there are no detailed minutes, and even the names of people attending have been replaced by ‘XXXX’.


[Edit: HS2 Ltd altered the Consultation Peer Review Group page to include the following (as at 23 Feb 2012)]

We set up an independent peer review group to challenge the planning and implementation of our consultations and engagement. Panel members will be independent professionals who have experience of consultations, transport infrastructure projects or communications.

The panel will provide:

feedback on key aspects of our strategy

an independent view

checks that our consultations are fit for purpose, comply with Cabinet office guidelines and are consistent with consultation best practice

advice on consultation delivery

checks to ensure that plans are followed

feedback on response analysis processes

Bore underground

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Having expressed interest in November 2010, former Birmingham council leader Albert Bore has launched his campaign for the Birmingham mayoralty, the BBC reported.

Birmingham and Coventry are among 12 English cities where councils could hold referenda next May as part of the Localism Bill going through Parliament.
Sir Albert, who once led the council before it became a Conservative and Lib Dem coalition, said the city would “benefit hugely” from the new position.

He said: “The Localism Bill is still on its way through Parliament, and, whilst there may well be changes to aspects of the Bill relating to the elected mayor issues, it’s almost certain that in 2012 there will be a referendum on whether Birmingham and other major cities should have directly elected mayors.

The Birmingham Post noted that Mr Bore launched his bid with hints of another underground railway plan:

He said: “Birmingham must be the largest city in Europe which does not have 21st century transport infrastructure. We have failed, over many decades now.
“I have not ruled out an underground system, the problem when it was looked at before was it was presented as the only solution,” he added.

When a Birmingham “underground” system was last “looked at”, it was Conservative leader Mike Whitby who was enthusiastic, although it was never clear what form it would take, or what it was supposed to achieve.

With an elected mayor, things can happen. But it’s also possible that further concentration of power could just magnify the grandstanding, gimmickry, and accountability issues present in the existing politburo (‘cabinet’) system.

According to company director Julia Higginbottom, of the nascent ‘let’s-have-a-Birmingham-mayor’ campaign

“The one thing we all agree is that an elected mayor is a good thing. It would produce better leadership and greater democratic accountability.”

She wants the campaign to avoid the pitfalls of the recent electoral reform referendum “in which mud-slinging, personalities and misinformation dominated”.

Mayoral local government, but no mud-slinging or domineering personalities? Good luck with that.