Keep proper journalism alive. It's time to Back the Cable
The Bristol Cable

Fear of ‘cover-ups’, bad decisions and squandering taxpayers’ money

A cross-party group of councillors fear “cover-ups”, bad decisions and taxpayers’ money being squandered by Bristol City Council. Now they call for better access rights to information.


Fears of “cover-ups”, bad decisions and taxpayers’ money being squandered by Bristol City Council have been raised by a cross-party group of councillors.

Audit committee members, including its chairman from the ruling Labour group, are worried that potential mismanagement and blunders could go unchecked because they are being denied access to vital documents.

The authority’s top legal adviser has said councillors receive information which is “reasonably necessary for them to discharge their duties” and that improvements have been made, including scrapping the requirement for elected members to sign confidentiality agreements.

The audit committee’s main job is to ensure City Hall’s governance, risks, finance and control systems are working properly.

But Vice-Chairman Green Cllr Clive Stevens, told a meeting of Full Council that they were being prevented from doing the crucial checks, including having access blocked to some exempt papers containing confidential or commercially sensitive information, despite the fact scrutiny councillors are allowed to see them.

Need for proper access rights to information

Cllr Clive Stevens said: “Without proper access rights to information there might be opportunities for cover-ups of bad or risky decisions, project overspends or worse.

“Without access to all the facts we can’t define what we want checked.

“We have to half guess. We have to interrogate officers who may have differing motivations or even instructions from above.

“It’s a national issue made worse here due to Bristol’s governance arrangements.”

“We know there will always be mistakes and the whole point is to not repeat them”

Committee member Lib Dem Cllr Tim Kent told the meeting on Tuesday, 12 January: “As a council you should be worried. You are getting members of the audit committee from all parties saying ‘we are concerned’.

“We are concerned we don’t have the right to access information on your behalf. The audit committee is about making sure we have spent our money well and learning from mistakes.

“We know there will always be mistakes and the whole point is to not repeat them.”

‘A tick-box exercise’

Committee member Conservative Cllr Liz Radford said: “For the audit committee to be effective, the information they ask for must be provided in a timely and accessible fashion and there must be member trust in the information being given to them.

“Without this, the audit committee is a tick-box exercise for this council and none of us can be confident in its risk management controls.”

Committee chairman Labour Cllr Mark Brain said: “I agree with everything Clive, Tim and Liz have said on information access. It has been obvious on the audit committee. Councillors of all parties are of one mind on this issue.”

The situation first came to a head last summer when frustrated committee members who requested financial information about Bristol Energy were told to visit City Hall to view a single copy or to watch an officer turn the pages on Zoom.

At the time, the council said members’ rights to inspect the confidential document was different to the right to access information which forms part of an agenda item for a meeting.

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning

The committee’s elected members unanimously passed a motion in July stating they were a “key part of the authority’s governance and must have potential access to all papers without restriction”. 

“It is inappropriate to restrict access or make access more difficult than would be the case for other members of council,” the motion said.

But as the row rumbled on and councillors demanded answers, the director of Legal and Democratic Services, Tim O’Gara told their last meeting in November: “The rules relating to ‘need to know’ and access to information all stem from the principle that the information councillors need is information that is reasonably necessary for them to discharge their duties.

“When I joined Bristol City Council a couple of years ago, there were some very difficult procedures in place for members to access information. There was a need for members to sign confidentiality agreements.

“I’ve been quite clear to officers that this was not an acceptable practice and I’ve been keen for us to improve how we enable access to members in order for them to discharge their duties.

“I am keen for us to continually improve.

“We have had challenges in enabling members to inspect documents during the Covid pandemic, but hopefully we’ve learned from that and ensured any of the glitches that happened won’t happen again.”

Join 2,500 Cable members redefining local media

Your support will help the Cable grow, deepening our connections in the city and investigating the issues that matter most in our communities.

Join now

What makes us different?


Post a comment

Mark if this comment is from the author of the article

By posting a comment you agree to our Comment Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

Bristol councillors vote down Marvin Rees’ final budget after bad-tempered debate

The Greens came under fire for voting against Labour’s plans without providing alternative solutions. With councils going bankrupt elsewhere in the country, the stakes are high as Bristol prepares to ditch its mayoral system.

Bristol rogue landlord rented out room despite banning order, tenants say

Naomi Knapp was prohibited from renting out her properties to new tenants in 2022, but the Cable has uncovered evidence to suggest she brought in new tenants anyway.

‘I can do action’: cafe owner who organised tower block evacuation response aiming to be councillor

When she heard Barton House was being evacuated in November, Cafe Conscious owner Deniece Dixon got to work helping families who had become homeless. Two months on, she explains why she’s set her sights on City Hall

‘You needed young people’: how one man nurtured a community on an east Bristol allotment site

Tenants of Bristol’s sought-after allotments are pushing back hard on council proposals to hike fees. But back in the 1980s, plots in Eastville at Royate Hill were unloved and at risk – until Mike Feingold took custody of the land.

Bristol’s Clean Air Zone is not exactly winning people over – but the data says it’s working

A new report shows air pollution has reduced both inside and outside the zone a year after it came into force. But many feel poorer people are being punished while traffic is just being rerouted around the city.

‘Stealth closures’ of libraries leave casual staff facing hardship and city with fewer warm spaces

Dozens of temporary library closures have been announced since the council abruptly cut casual workers' shifts in November. With the council under huge financial stress, there are renewed fears for the future of the service.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning