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Sandwiches, pasties and the Mayfair Hotel – open data reveals council expenses

Sandwiches, pasties and the Mayfair Hotel – open data reveals council expenses

🕔16.Mar 2016

A commitment by council leader John Clancy to turn Birmingham into an open data city is being delivered with gusto. All manner of detail about what the council is doing and what it spends public money on can be viewed online at the Birmingham Data Factory.

With the council asking the public for ideas about which new data sets it should release, chief blogger Paul Dale considers the mind-boggling array of information that already exists.

It’s not so much the big expenditure items that stand out in a list of expenses claims by Birmingham city council staff, although there are scores of hotel bills, plane and rail fares to account for.

What truly takes the eye are hundreds of very small payments, for sandwiches, snacks and drinks which when added together make a very large total indeed.

Most people outside of the public sector might think it odd, or even quite wrong, not that on November 17th 2015 someone from the Lord Mayor’s Parlour felt the need to spend £3 at the Bristol Street Service Station, presumably on light refreshments, but that the cost should then be passed on to the public purse for payment.

The council is hoping to save £34 million a year by 2019-20 through renegotiating workforce contracts and introducing “modern working practices”. Part of these changes will result in the end of subsistence allowances for meals paid to staff when they are out of the office on business.

A glance at purchase card transactions for November 2015 reinforces the sheer scale of Birmingham city council and its spending power, even though the workforce has been cut from 21,000 to about 10,000 in the past eight years. There are 5,324 transactions to trawl through, and that is for just one calendar month.

While the list tells us what the council paid out, it does not explain the reasons behind the claims.

We learn, for example, that someone from the Cabinet Office spent £1,175 at the Mayfair Hotel on November 4 and someone from the European and International Team spent £1,350 at the some hotel on the same date, but it is anyone’s guess as to what they were doing there.

There is no indication of the location of the Mayfair Hotel, but if it is the one in Stratton Street, London, opened by George V in 1927, then we are talking five-star luxury. Almost certainly, sadly for council staff in the age of austerity, this Mayfair Hotel is a Holiday Inn in Berkeley Street, London, described in a guest review as “reasonably priced… no gym and no pool…also no decent TV channels”.

On November 3 2015, someone from the Lord Mayor’s Parlour spent £20 at one of the Phillpotts sandwich stores, presumably in Birmingham. The next day, the Parlour filed a bill for £18.90 from a champagne bar, destination undisclosed. On November 16, the Lord Mayor’s staff, or perhaps even the Lord Mayor, spent £5.21 at Morrisons, and the council picked up the bill.

Intriguingly, someone from the European and International Team spent £2.50 at the House of Fraser on November 3. Answers on a postcard please as to what can be purchased for such a small amount at an expensive department store? Surely even a coffee costs more?

The Pasty Shop, possibly the one at Euston, benefited to the tune of £5.44 in a purchase by the European and International Team while in an up-market move someone from the same team claimed £176.50 for a meal at Birmingham’s trendy Pure Bar Kitchen.

The Criminal Litigation and Regulatory Team appears to have had a bit of a time of it in November 2015 with bills for £20.35 at the Bombay Brasserie, £18.35 at the Jasmine Thai Restaurant, £22.35 at the Sawadee Thai Restasurant and £23.10 at Bombay Spice.

And so it goes on, although records of purchase card transactions make up only a tiny amount of the data released so far by the council.

Anyone with an interest in these matters, or perhaps a nerdish fascination for the minutia of local government, can easily access payments to suppliers over £500, details of payments the council has made to the voluntary sector, street cleaning inspection data, details of contracts for goods and services worth more than £5,000, and the amount the council spends on taxis excluding home to school transport, which was £125,800 in the second quarter of last year.

There are even records for each of Birmingham’s 64,000 council houses and flats listing the number of bedrooms, heating arrangements, date built, rent per month and council tax band.

Council tax arrears records by ward and year are available as is a list of properties in Birmingham liable for business rates including the amount paid.

The council is keen to release more information and is asking for ideas about which data sets should be released. A spokesperson said: “We would like to hear and discuss your ideas about data that is held by Birmingham city council and how it could be utilised in a better way to benefit Birmingham and its people.”

Anyone sending in proposals is being asked to state how they would use the data if it was available and how the release of the data “benefit Birmingham and Brummies”.

All ideas will be assessed by a panel headed by a council cabinet member with a view to publishing selected data sets through the Birmingham DATA FACTORY portal.

Here, then, is one idea to kick things off: release details of the attendance records for every councillor for every committee meeting so that voters can see whether their elected representatives are turning up or not.

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