back to article Councils show true grit in the face of ... FOI requests

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 …

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FAIL

Transport Costs

I have no sympathy at all with the refusal to answer in full the FOI requests. However the price paid for each tonne of salt is dependent on two factors: the cost of the raw material at the point is is extracted from the ground and the cost of transport to the council depots. For a bulky, dense commodity like salt the transport cost will form a large part of the total cost and councils with depots a long way from the site of production will have to pay more than those closer. Not a reason to avoid answering the question though!

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Anonymous Coward

This is why we need sites like Wikileaks.

If they know that information can be released in an uncontrolled and embarrassing manner then they might be less inclined to censor.

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Re: Wikileaks

Sites like Wikileaks are important , but it also shows us the the FOI is not really working as well as it could. The money they spend is not THEIR money, but taxpayer money, and in my view they should be forced to be completely transparent about how they spend it. Otherwise you get things like the MPs expenses. In fact I would say that democracy requires transparency to be really effective. If you let politicians have too many secrest, then they will simply take the piss.

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But...

"In fact I would say that democracy requires transparency to be really effective."

Who said we were living in a democracy?

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No.

This is why governments of various flavours should be posting all non-classified information on government-sponsored, well maintained and well indexed versions of wikileaks. They should also have huge restrictions placed on what can be classified or placed out of the public domain.

This sort of information should be regularly filed in a publicly accessible database for full review. There shouldn't have to /be/ a FOI request. This should simply be available online as soon as the many and varied levels of paperwork are accomplished to get the job done and the information data-entered into the system.

That this sort of stuff even needs a FOI request – let alone that your councils are actually allowed to deny these sorts of requests – isn’t a call for “sites like wikileaks.” It’s a call for your entire nation to get off your arses and start a damned revolution.

Still, apathy wins the day as always. “Oh, it’s just some expenses, who cares if we don’t get told.” The tune changes rather suddenly when the total cumulative amount of waste starts to be enough to cut the national unemployment rate in half….

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How is this remotely legal?

So, the government and/or councils are basically saying that they are corrupt or inept and so they will not allow us to see how corrupt and inept they are?

The conclusion I draw from this is that every local council in the UK is paying twice as much as the going rate for salt in return for kickbacks and favours.

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Flame

Err... You missed the actual point of ineptitude

1. Salt works only until around temperatures that are close to 0. In theory a concentrated solution of salt will freeze at -21C. However the amount of salt you need to dump on the snow for that will more or less cover the road.

2. Snow is not slippery. Neither is ice. They become slippery when compressed because they melt under pressure. At around -10 clean ice stops being slippery for walking and at -20 you cannot even skate or ski. Even a blade cannot exercise enough pressure to melt it.

Because of 1 and 2 dumping salt on roads in temperatures from -10C onwards is a bad idea (if not even earlier). It actually makes the roads _MORE_ dangerous as they become _MORE_ slippery than without any salt at all. The same is valid for dumping salt if a considerable snowfall is expected.

In both cases you still need to grit the road, but you grit it with _REAL_ grit. Just check an old dictionary for the meaning of the word grit - it means broken down slag from iron and copper smeltering and _NOT_ salt. Salt in quantities as used now is a relatively new invention (30-40 years).

Anyway, coming back to the FOI requests. The real ineptitude will be revealed through FOIs for how many tons of salt were dumped on the road with temperature under -9, how many tons were dumped prior to big snowfalls and how many tons of proper grit (if there is any left in this country nowdays) was used alongside.

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Boffin

balance needed

The chances are that many council officials are corrupt and that many are honest as this seems to be the case in almost any other business or profession.

Given the advantages to the honest negotiator of being able to negotiate confidentially, as opposed to every message in a negotiation being immediately published, would it not strike a sensible balance to have such messages and prices paid embargoed for a period of say 1 year ? Would it not make sense for everything to be published automatically or made accessible through FOI soon enough to allow for public scrutiny without forcing our public servants entrusted with making purchasing decisions on our behalf to negotiate with both hands tied behind their backs ?

You could argue that if both buyer and seller do such an outrageously overpriced deal that they can both afford to go on a runner that this would not create the level of accountability needed. But I think considering the hoops a business has to jump through to be able to tender for government or local authority purchases in the first place and the scrutiny purchase orders get within the bureacracy between being signed and being paid, that this scenario doesn't seem very likely.

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Anonymous Coward

Salt/Grit there's loads of diffferent types

I'm not defending the Councils but the price can also vary depending on what type of Salt/Grit they use.

Some come with added ingredients to help it stick to the roads more, some buy from overseas, some pay more for securing supplies over other Councils. They should really publish the info but if some are citing commercial sensitivity it might be because they don't want other councils to know what deals they have done.

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@Anton Ivanov

Speaking as one who skates and skis in cold weather regularly, I must point out that both activities are quite possible at temperatures below -20.

At temperatures below -20 clean ice has a thin film of liquid water which makes it slippery for walking, driving, skating, skiing, dragging corpses, etc... Below that skating and skiing are still possible (and I've done both) since the friction of movement causes the ice to melt a bit.

An important consideration to make in a discussion such as this one is that the temperature of the ice/snow is rarely the ambient temperature. Ice and snow warm and cool more slowly than the ambient temperature changes so the two are rarely the same.

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"at -20 you cannot even skate or ski"

I've skated at -25C, but since you say that's unpossible, I must have been deluding myself.

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Unhappy

look elsewhere for corruption

You make an unsupported statement that many in business or the professions are corrupt, and then extend it by alleging, by a false analogy, that many council officials will be corrupt. This is a blaggardly slur for which you have adduced no evidence.

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Which bit ...

... do you consider the slur - that business and professional people are, by and large, corrupt, or that council officials are generally corrupt? If it is the latter, we disagree, and you will find that you are in a very small minority.

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WTF?

so Norfolke @n@ Goode

You'd be happy if your partner checked the price of all the presents you buy them under FOI then called you a cheapskate?

Wikileaks is not a public service or whistleblower site, you can find most info on the net if you search, it's an ego trip site, like facecrap.

Have you bought all your 2011 consumer goods to avoid the 20% VAT too like a good citizen?

If you need it, then pay or shut up...else councils in London would have stored salt at great expense for almost 20 years until it was needed in 2007, at what premium would that have been?

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Sir

"You'd be happy if your partner checked the price of all the presents you buy them under FOI then called you a cheapskate?"

If they were bought with their money and I had a history of poor purchasing decisions (or I was suspected of corruption ( i.e. snaffling money) then yes, because that's what you're really comparing here.

This is PUBLIC money, not a gift from Santa!

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WTF?

Eh?

"You'd be happy if your partner checked the price of all the presents you buy them under FOI then called you a cheapskate?"

What does that have to do with the price of salt?

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Er..

WTF are you talking about?

If the councils and governments refuse to give out information requested under FOI, for something as trivial as cost of salt, then sites like Wikileaks are necessary for exposing corruption, inefficiencies and incompetencies. If there is nothing constraining the people in charge then corruption will out. Zimbabwe is probably a good example.

Not sure what that has to do with how much is spent on the other half's new hair straighteners, or whether people have bought 2011's consumer goods already. Please enlighten us.

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London, London, London...

The FOI legislation is not about private gifts: it's about ensuring that citizens have access to information on the basis of which they can judge whether or not public servants are carrying out proper stewardship of the funds which the citizens have to pay (whether they like it or not) for public services. In the past, public servants have been able, with the protection of the law, to prevent exposure of their incompetence and corruption. Perhaps there was little such incompetence and corruption. Perhaps there was a great deal. We don't know, but it's important that we have the mechanisms to find out.

There is no point, either, in saying that "you can find most info on the net if you search". If this indeed be so (which seems doubtful), then congratulations go to those who made the effort to find it, to collect it and to publish it. In contrast, your claim is on the level of "Well, I could have invented the internet too, but I was busy with other stuff".

There is no suggestion, either, that salt should be stored for 20 years. The appropriate choice of stock levels (perhaps somewhere between zero and 20 years) is a difficult problem and rarely will the perfect choice be made. The solution is to expose the details, not to hide them so that you can look good, because no-one knows what the decision was.

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Checking is not the issue

Transparency is.

If the Government, councils or other body funded from taxes - which the majority have no option but to pay - have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear. (so they tell us, anyway)

I recognise that there may be inefficiencies and that excessive cost may be incurred. What I don't accept is that expensive incompetence be permitted to be covered up.

It may be that they have bought well and can justify the processes in this case. If so then there should be no issue at all. If the clever dicks who run councils/other bodies attempt to disguise or hide what they are doing because they dont want to answer, or worse believe they don't have to answer valid questions from enquirers then they had better think again.

What is worse than declining FoI requests is denying the information to elected public officials. It takes a very robust representative to fight the battle with administrations especially when the relevant Chief executive gives them a bollocking for even asking the question - and that happens!!

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Your example is flawed

It would instead be like you giving money to your partner to buy you a present (let's say a console game) and them buying it from an expensive store so that they get a kick back (points, cashback etc) instead of going to the shop next door where they could have got it 20% cheaper and got you a nice DVD box set as well.

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@Sir Runcible Spoon

Thank you.

@Ac did I use tax payer money to buy my partners presents?

No I didn't so your comparison is gibberish.

With such a lack of understanding of governmental accountability it's no wonder that politicians think they have the right to do so much without our knowledge or consent.

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I'm not surprised you're posting anon

Are you really such a fucking nimrod or is this just an act for our amusement?

I really cannot believe a reader of El Reg could be so naive.

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Title

Shouldn't stuff like this be in the public domain already, like income / outgoings of all councils, readily available for the public to peruse them.

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Grit, what grit??

I have seen the Gritter out here in Newcastle plenty of times but its not been spreading. I think we have matched sunderland with a big fat £0 in spending on grit (not just the emergency spending) and plenty on Council members expenses.

Come the revolution they will be first against the wall, after the Marketing Division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

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re: so Norfolke @n@ Goode

I am not a _publicly-accountable_ and _funded_ body therefore FOI requests to me personally can be ignored.

k thx

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Transport

I agree with the first post, the cost of shipping low value goods like grit can be greater then the cost of it ex-mine or ex-docks, depending on source. The councils should publish the cost at source and the transport costs, then we can see if they are getting good deals.

I would expect councils like Cornwall and Devon to pay a little extra ex-source simply because they order it in smaller qualities as they normally have milder winters, there use less. But that is no excuse to avoid the questions on cost.

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Exactly.

This is why we need the information - so we can see where these problems lie, and see if there are better ways of dealing with it (e.g. Devon and Cornwall buying together to get bulk discounts).

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The TPA again.........

Has anyone ever done an FOI request to ask how much those endless requests from the Taxpayers Alliance cost? I'm not sure what the TPA's point is in this case. Randomly picking out what they think is the cheapest price for grit and complaining that councils are paying more than that ignores the fact that it might not be available to them. Alternatively, are the TPA complaining that councils aren't spending enough on gritting and that they should spend more? If so, that isn't going to happen unless councils get more money.

Despite the name the TPA is a rightwing lobbying group with a tendency to whinge about anything that might get their name in the papers.

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TPA

Surely they just don't want to pay taxes themselves.

They define themselves as

"Elliott insists the TPA has grassroots support. It has a database of 3,000 activists who have given money or time and 32,000 supporters who "tend to be middle-aged, probably Eurosceptic, and they tend to be right-leaning, but not party political", according to a source with knowledge of the group."

I often wonder if making a donation to them is tax deductable?

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Winging it

Of course the TPA is "right wing". It's the Tax PAYER'S Association, not the Vote Myself Benefits I Don't Have to Pay For Association," which is the left-wing counterpart.

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Paris Hilton

You really think...

...councils are so cunning that hundreds - of various political persuasions - could collude together like this?

Clearly you've never worked in one.

If you want to know how much your council spends, why not contact your local councillor and ask? (You can usually find their details on this thing called "the Internet".)

If they don't/can't answer, ask why.

If you're still not happy, don't vote for them.

Democracy = pretty simple really.

Paris, 'cos she'd have no trouble getting payment information from councillors wanting to make salty deposits

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It's not that simple really...

"If you're still not happy, don't vote for them"

The trouble is that whoever gets voted in is unlikely to willingly and voluntarily release such information. That's why laws get enacted to force their hand. As they say - whoever you vote for, the government gets in.

But I have to say I'm pretty pessimistic about the real power of such laws. As soon as they have enough teeth to really force budgetary transparency, then all manner of payments will simply fall off the radar... they'll find a way around any legislation.

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Open secret

In our county, councillors (at any level) can go to a depot and load up their boot or trailer with pre-bagged salted grit, but any mere rate-payer who turns up to try to get some is turned away. Supposedly, this is to allow responsible officials to supply grit to disabled people or other places that have need of it, but it smacks a little of the Soviets marking out special road lanes for the use of communist party officials.

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Ooo!

Would you like to tell me a bit more about this by sending a message to me off-board (just click on my name in the piece). Would be very interested.

jane

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Coat

Searching for a 'council gritter' pun..

That is all :-D

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FOI & Commercial Confidentiality

There appears to be a dearth of actual FOI expertise in these comments so allow me to enlighten you somewhat.

Tthe councils were probably right in that the information requested is the result of individually and confidentially negotiated contracts with suppliers and as such falls under the section 43 exemption (ooh controversial). However, there are a couple of tests that should have been carried out before the exemption to publish is actually applied and I think it might be helpful to have some idea as to what has actualyl occurred.

The first test is the prejudice test. Would release of this information cause harm to the commercial interests of any person or organisation?

Hmmm...well if it's known that one company charges one council one price and another council a different one then there's a good chance that the next time it comes round to negotiating the company is going to find it that much harder to get the higher price from the other council thereby damaging its commerical interests. Alternatively, the company might say 'Fair enough, we'll just charge the higher price.' So the council that paid less now finds itself paying more because of the release, again damage.

Also, the salt supplier is working in a competeitive marketplace. The next time these contracts come up for renewal they're going to be at a significant disadvantage to other salt suppliers due to the fact that they've had their pricing structure splashed all over the place and the others haven't.

Ok, so it seems reasonable to say that there would be harm to someone's commercial interests if this information was released. Test passed.

Next is the 'public interest test'. Basically this is a balancing act to see whether it is in the public interest to release the information anyway DESPITE the harm. Note: This is not the same as what the public is interested in. Now obviously I'm not privy to the arguments put forward but I reckon I can take a fair shot at some of the main ones.

Firstly, factors for maintaining the exemption. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

It is not in the public interest that a company's commercial interest is harmed without very good cause.

It is not in the public interest that a local authority is unable to obtain best value for a product because of a skewed marketplace and the inablility to hold confidential negotiations with suppliers. Possibly resulting in the reluctance of suppliers to compete for work with authorities that then go on to release that information. Less competitiveness = less chance of getting a good deal.

Second, factors against maintaining the exemption.

It is in the public interest that transparency is promoted by releasing information.

The release of this information would inform an ongoing debate on a relevant and significant subject in the public eye.

There is a public interest in the public knowing that there council is getting the absolute best value it can for products it purchases.

Given the signficant sums being spent it is in the public interest to know how it's money is being spent.

Anyway, that's just a few. So, what happens then is that your friendly neighbourhood FOI officer takes a look at all the factors and decides on balance which has the greater weight. Note: If they are equal then the exemption should not be maintained.

Obviously what has occured here is that the authorities have decided that it is not in the public interest for this info to be released in the manner that it has been asked for.

I'm inclined to agree with the councils but you can argue a public interest test like this until the cows slip over.

Now, if they'd asked for last years prices, that'd be a different story.

Anyway, I hope that's enlightened some of as to the mysterious art of the FOIA.

Please continue.

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no

when dealing with the government departments ( with the exception of the MoD and) then there should be NO commercial secrets.

It is OUR money that they hold in trust -- that trust is demonstrably broken

There is a logical fallacy in asserting that there will be commercial advantage gained due to the public knowledge of the pricing structure (or commercial damage)- it is that ALL pricing structures of tendering suppliers become public knowledge; so no damage to future dealings to either councils or suppliers. The ONLY reason for refusing to publish such information is to hide what happens - there are many reasons for wishing to do so; none of them actually apply to the spending of OUR money

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@Secret Geek

I've upvoted you for a genuinely useful and insightful post - thank you! However, I don't agree with your calculus - I doubt that it is in the public interest to maintain any confidentiality regarding companies' prices. If we knew more about them, we'd be better able to spot where the inherent corruption is.

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its not just salt thats needed

Its not just salt thats needed.As a previous poster already mentioned the salt used is only effective between a certain temp range.If its colder than that then its useless.We really need more snow ploughs.

Even my dad(he is inn his 80's) came up with the suggestion that why not get all council garbage disposal vehicles fitted with a snow plough and a salt dispersing system in the back.Hell if the bus companies offer to do that as well that would make more money for them too.

In my area its not the council that does the gritting but its contracted out to a private company who can probably charge what they like as they have the council by the short and curlies.

A huge fail as this FOI request is being denied and thats more of a reason than ever to have sites like wikileaks.We pay these bufoons with large council taxes and road taxes,etc to keep and maintain roads and keep them clear.They are just using this to cover up their own stupidity.

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WTF?

I refuse to enoble a simple forum post....

I'd suggest that the TPA couldn't get a figure because based upon the activity of the gritters here in the People's Republic of Central Bedfordshire, I'd say they spent not one jot.

They need to keep it quiet because as we all know, funds allocated in this years budget that aren't spent are offset against next years budget.

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WTF?

"Commercial confidentiality"?

But to whose benefit?

If I was running a business supplying salt and grit and could find out that a Council was buying it at £38 a tonne and I could supply it at £20 a tonne, it would be to my advantage, the Council's advantage and, most importantly, the Tax Payers' advantage for that information to be available.

In fact the only people whose interests are protected by "commercial confidentiality" are the people who are supplying it at a higher cost and thus making greater profits from the public purse!

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Paris Hilton

Ah well yer'see

It all depenz on wether the family of a councillor or council employee are concernd.

We go'ta look after uz own yi know els a favor mite be owned from one t t'other

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Grenade

ICO can override.

I've had discussions with the ICO about other govt organisations using the commercial confidentiality line and the bottom line is the ICO are more than prepared to assess such claims and force the information to be divulged IF THERE ARE COMPLAINTS.

In a nutshell: The ICO is more than aware of this dodge being pulled and are heartily sick of it.

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Boffin

Rusty cars

Do the British cars still rust-out like they did in the early 80's.

I remember seeing gaping holes in the fenders of every second Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Cavalier...

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Unanswerable

You would have to buy a British car to find this out. No one is that curious.

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What's more important ?

The trouble is the bloke who will be responsible for answering the FOI question and the the bloke responsible for calling out the gritters will probably be the same person - it was in the one I worked for. I suppose you can argue that entertaining the TPA is more important...

The main problem is that the gritter guy has to look at the big picture. If he needs grit at one end of the county then the lorries leave the depot and start gritting where required. This then leads to complaints (see above) that they aren't gritting. Of course not, they would use it all up within a few miles of the depot.

Also, as other posters have pointed out , the stuff only works in certain ways and at certain temps. From the reporting in the media you'd think they were sprinkling fairy dust such is the expectation.

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Unhappy

@ Alan Brown

Ain't it a shame then that the ICO seems to do nowt to stop it? After all, if they then fine the local authorities involved, the cost will be passed on to the Council Tax payers. As bloody usual.

Fines ain't enough. Sackings should ensue.

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Unhappy

This does not surprise me in the least.

I'm in the middle of a lengthy legal battle with Rotherham MBC and my solicitor tells me they are the most incompetent, uncooperative, uncommunicative and deliberately obstructive organization he has ever encountered.

Rotherham MBC, by the way, are the same set of useless bastards who didn't even bother to grit the roads when we had snow at the beginning of the year. Guess what? They did exactly the same this time round, too. Due to their incompetence, a bunch of drivers were left stranded for days and had to take refuge in a church until South Yorkshire Police asked them to clear the roads.

They are every bit as sparkling in their other areas of responsibility, too.

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Stop

And how much did the constant FOI requests cost?

FoI irks me to the core. It's nice that we have the ability to request important information, however just looking at most of the crap people try and get info for is ludicrous. I think I may put in an FoI request to see how much of my tax is wasted on some team having to scuttle around finding out all of the information (and now apparently tieing up other resources within the council whilst they decide what they want to release, which of course adds to more inefficiencies within their day to day work).

I'm no fan of my local council, nor the Government. I know a lot of money is wasted. Sadly, pointless idiotic organisations like Taxpayers Alliance just help waste even more.

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Coat

Scylla and Charybdis

It is pretty bad of the councils to be claiming commercial confidentiality on this. Maybe there should be a timing policy, so they don't talk about the current financial year, but anything longer is a bit excessive.

And I can't say that the Taxpayers Alliance all that bright. As pointed out above, transport costs vary, and councils also vary in the miles of roads they cover. My local council publishes info on which roads they grit, and which they give priority. If you don't get that data for each council, publishing the total spend is ridiculous point-scoring, essentially meaningless in making any judgement of the quality of the council's purchasing process.

It's been a few years since I needed to keep track of transport costs for bulk loads. There was a while when distance from the ports could make the difference between profit and loss for a wheat farmer. since haulage distance affected the price at the farm gate. The cost per tonne for road salt is much lower: transport will make a huge difference.

Oh, and there are regulations in force now which make it difficult for bulk haulage to switch between certain sorts of load. I can recall loading grain onto a 20-tonner which had carried coal to a nearby power station, during the miner's strike, but you'd have problems doing that now. If you can't get that back-load, it doubles the cost.

(Army-surplus combat jacket with hank of baler twine trailing from one pocket.)

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