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Councils show true grit in the face of ... FOI requests

Road salt info requests lost in 'confidentiality' blizzard

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Local Councils may not be getting any cannier at ordering in salt to coat the roads during the current unprecedented cold spell – but they’re certainly getting a lot cleverer at covering their tracks when it comes to answering Freedom Of Information requests.

Last year, it was the BBC that caught them unawares, using FOI to reveal that the price being paid for road salt varied enormously from a rock-bottom £18.75 a tonne in Redcar, Cleveland and Darlington to an eye-watering £38.00 a tonne in Torbay.

As the Beeb put it back then: "This raises important questions about value for money in public procurement".

This year, the councils were ready and, when the Taxpayers’ Alliance attempted a similar wheeze (pdf), key questions that might have shed some light on their purchasing effectiveness were rejected with claims of "commercial confidentiality".

So, councils were prepared to reveal the tonnage they ordered in 2009/10, the tonnage for 2010/11 and the total amount spent on emergency salt for 2009/10. Some extra detail – such as the date that orders were placed and whether all the salt ordered has yet been received – was also on offer. What they would not to do was make the same mistake they had made with the BBC, and give away both the tonnage ordered and the price paid for a given period.

Armed with such information, it would have been possible to work out how efficiently councils are buying salt – and also for the public to form some sort of informed opinion as to whether last-minute buying is really a bad idea.

According to economists, it all depends on the premium paid vs the cost of holding unused stocks. So long as salt suppliers can provide salt at short notice, then paying a small premium for that service is not a bad use of ratepayer money.

In the end, the Alliance had to restrict itself to highlighting some interesting, but hardly killer facts, such as:

  • The total cost of purchasing emergency supplies of road salt in 2009-10 was £10.5 million.
  • The council that spent the most on emergency road salt in 2009-10 was North Yorkshire with £533,652.
  • Emergency spending on road salt varied greatly between councils. For example, Newcastle spent £331,400, while neighbouring Sunderland spent £0. Bradford council spent £286,000 on road salt on an emergency basis while Leeds council spent £13,400.

This tells us very little about how well councils are doing: nor does it support the conclusion that the Alliance appears to wish us to draw, that councils are being irresponsible with our money.

The real story here is about how local government is both inventive and quick to learn when it comes to hiding uncomfortable facts. FOI is intended to be a means by which the public can shine a light into the murkier corners of official activity.

Having been caught out once by the BBC – and been shown to be less than efficient when it comes to salt-buying – councils have taken action to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Not necessarily by improving their purchasing policies – but by clamping down on the information they are prepared to release. ®

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