Sent in the first instance to the editor of the Shropshire Star, he did not disappoint by doing precisely what was expected from him… he passed it directly to the Head of Legal & Democratic Services at Shirehall, who told him they didn’t know what it was referring to.
Serious concerns over the manner in which Shropshire Council has handled certain land and property transactions in the past prompted the setting up of an informal ‘Taxpayers Oversight Committee’ to examine those historical transactions and see what lessons, if any, can be learnt from them.
This is of particular importance given Shropshire Council’s intention to take advantage of the government’s ‘One Public Estate’ initiative, which encourages and assists Local Authorities to dispose of public land.
Investigations by the ‘Taxpayers Oversight Committee’ (TOC) brought to light “anomalies” involving the disposal of assets in the recent past worrying enough to warrant further investigation. Unfortunately, those investigations have been blocked by Shropshire Council.
They did it by labelling all TOC’s Freedom of Information (FoI) requests – carried out by one nominated individual to avoid duplication – as “vexatious”, a legal term normally applied to a singular line of inquiry on the same subject and only rarely applied to an individual: and then only in the most extreme case where there is proof that a persistent line of enquiry is driven by malice. In the case of the individual submitting TOC’s request for information, just an insistence on the part of a Shropshire Council executive was enough to over-ride the requirement for proof.
Once labelled vexatious, any request under the Freedom of Information Act goes unacknowledged.
Of particular concern is that any subsequent inquiry by another individual, even remotely related to those earlier inquiries, comes under suspicion and the person making that inquiry is required to attend Shirehall in person with proof of identity and a utility bill to establish they are not the ‘outlawed’ inquirer.
Despite such blocking tactics the work of TOC has resulted in an application for a formal investigation by the Information Commissioners Office being allowed. Another, potentially far more serious issue will involve the Authority’s External Auditor taking a closer look at the recently published Statement of Accounts. Had Shropshire Council been more forthcoming and less obstructive then the expense of now having to formally defend itself would have been avoided.
Shropshire Council’s determination to be as obstructive as they can means TOC needs to extend its investigations and in order to do that it needs help with an increasing workload, specifically in the area of Developer Contributions, land law, and Local Authority finance.
The Taxpayers Oversight Committee is focussed exclusively on the interests of Shropshire council-tax payers, it is not a political entity regardless of Shropshire Council’s insistence that any criticism of their actions must be “politically motivated”.
Anyone who is prepared to help TOC can get my contact details off the internet and someone will follow up with an email and then a personal visit to establish bona fides which, for obvious reasons, will be rigorously checked.
Unitary Councillor for Highley Division