Plans to ban reporters from a full council meeting surrounding the future of a multi-million pound project have come under fire from editors at a top-selling regional daily.
West Midlands title the Express & Star has raised objections at proposals by Walsall Council to discuss the high-profile development scheme in private, labelling it a “dangerous path” to tread.
The controversy surrounds an £18m redevelopment project in the town which is expected to bring in hundreds of new jobs.
Councillors are meeting on Monday to discuss the future of the site – but want to exclude the press and public as council leaders claim it is necessary to “protect taxpayers’ money”.
Express & Star deputy editor Diane Davies said the newspaper had made its objections known, and said some opposition councillors were also objecting to the move.
“The elected members of Walsall Council are accountable to the electorate and must not be allowed to make decisions on such important projects in secret,” she said.
“It is a dangerous path we are beginning to tread if a blanket of secrecy is thrown over this project and indeed local democracy.
“We welcome the efforts of some Walsall councillors to have the matter discussed before the press and public. The Express & Star will continue to press for full transparency in local government.
“Even on original estimates, this scheme was expected to cost £18 million. It is now anticipated that the costs will be significantly higher and even double.
“Walsall Council is not a private company or a commercial enterprise, it is a local authority in charge of the public purse. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. They have a right to know about multi-million pound projects that should regenerate the town and bring in many jobs.
“And even if there are problems with these plans, the taxpayer has a right to know.”
Leader of the Labour opposition, Councillor Tim Oliver, said the council planned to make a motion making the details of the report exempt under the 1972 Local Government Act, forcing the press and public to leave if the vote is successful.
“These powers were never designed or intended to throw a blanket of secrecy over local government,” he said.
“So to exclude reporters and the public from meetings is in reality an attempt to prevent the public knowing what is going on with its money.
“We fear that this approach runs contrary to the whole idea of accountability and local democracy, and that far from protecting the public purse they’re hiding their dirty laundry.”
Walsall Council’s regeneration and transport chief, Councillor Adrian Andrew, said it would “not make commercial sense” to allow the details of the meeting to be published.
“This is standard commercial practice in order to protect the council and taxpayers’ money. We’re very careful to follow the correct legal process,” he said.
“To reveal what we think the potential costs are before we have tendered the project to the market would invariably drive costs up and would not make commercial sense.
“We’re working on this scheme to help create new jobs which I think the taxpayers of Walsall would strongly welcome. Those taxpayers would also expect us to deliver the project for the best price possible.
“We reject any suggestion that we are not being open and transparent with the Press. A reporter from the Express & Star recently asked for a briefing on the Phoenix 10 site so we invited them along to the site to explain our job creating proposals and answer their questions.”