Open letter to Andrew Travers, Lambeth Council Chief Executive, August 2018

Dear Mr Travers,

We are writing to you to express our concern at the lack of transparency in Lambeth’s annual public inspection of accounts. The recent posting on the Love Lambeth website (http://love.lambeth.gov.uk/lambeth-publishes-responses-voters-inquiries-councils-accounts/) gives the impression that Lambeth council embraces transparency. The reality is very different.

In the two years since we started inspecting the council’s accounts there have been some welcome improvements in the publication of expenditure over £500 data. However, the level of information we have been provided as part of this year’s inspection period is far less than what we received two years ago. Last year the National Audit Office issued guidance to Lambeth regarding the public inspection period which the council has ignored. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that this is a deliberate council policy to try to stop the People’s Audit asking questions.

As any auditor will tell you, refusing to provide information will only strengthen their resolve to root out the truth. The withholding of information only heightens the perception that Lambeth has something to hide. The People’s Audit is not going to away so wouldn’t it be better to co-operate with us rather than try to put obstacles in our way?

Citizens’ audits are an important part of holding any public body to account. You may have recently read about several councils making a legal challenge against ‘Lender Option, Borrower Option’ LOBO loans (https://www.localgov.co.uk/Councils-sue-Barclays-over-controversial-LOBO-loans/45682 ). If successful this legal challenge could save council tax payers hundreds of millions. None of this would have happened without citizens’ audits highlighting the issue.

Our own reports have highlighted millions of pounds of Lambeth tax payers’ money that could have been saved. Yet instead the Love Lambeth website highlights how much officer time has been spent answering our questions. We know from our professional experience exactly how long it should take to retrieve information, so for the Love Lambeth website to suggest that it has taken several days to respond to each elector’s queries is simply not credible.

The Love Lambeth website would give the casual observer the impression that Lambeth answered our questions. Yet in the majority of instances we did not get the information we asked for. Three particular examples, which many Lambeth residents would be interested to know about, spring to mind:

1. The new town hall was sold to the public by Lambeth as costing £50M. The latest figures that have been published say that it will cost £104M. It is not unreasonable that members of the public would want to see the detail to understand why this increase has happened. Yet all we received from Lambeth was some non-descript invoices and a spreadsheet. After repeated requests over nearly two years, nobody in Lambeth council is able to provide us with a copy of the original budget.

2. Given the controversy around the Field Day event in Brockwell Park and ongoing major events on Clapham Common in particular, many residents are interested to know how much money is generated by commercial events in Lambeth’s open spaces and how this money is spent. Yet we were told by Lambeth that they could not divulge any of this information (even as a high level summary) as it was commercially sensitive.

3. The draft annual accounts showed that your predecessor, Sean Harriss, received a payment of £209,809, some £28,000 more than he received the previous year, despite working for less than 6 months. We asked to see details of his severance package. We were told that this would be disclosed at the end of July when the audited accounts were to be published. The accounts are still not signed off by the auditors but the accounts presented to the corporate committee at the end of July show no indication of what Mr Harriss’ severance package was.

We would like to draw your attention to a recent article written by a blogger in your former council, Barnet. ( https://reasonablenewbarnet.blogspot.com/2018/07/why-capitas-gainshare-is-such-rip-off.html ). In the article he examines in detail payments made to Capita. Had he tried to carry out a similar exercise in Lambeth he would have been unable to as Lambeth withhold the level of detail necessary to do this.

The obvious question is, if it is possible to provide this level of information in Barnet, why is it not possible in Lambeth? We would therefore like to request that you give an assurance to Lambeth’s tax payers that you will commit to the same level of transparency as Barnet.

Yours faithfully,
Lambeth People’s Audit

Link to download the letter:
Open Letter to Andrew Travers-Final