When I was younger, I was interested in local politics and who did what in the area in which I grew up. Like most people, though, I’ve since moved around a lot over the years and been focussed on issues and news from around the world, which has distracted me from what’s going on right on my doorstep. As a tech journalist, what happens in Silicon Valley or Taipai is more relevant to my work than whether or not the council is paying over the odds to have the bins emptied every week.
That’s changing. Inspired by several things – the CIJ summer course last month, the growth of hyperlocal blogs, a new government, meeting Paul and the team from helpmeinvestigate.com and the fact that I plan on staying around Shoreham for a while (unless that dream job of African correspondent comes up…) – I’ve started trying to find out a bit more about this place.
The CIJ course had several sessions about investigating local government and politicians which I went along to and have been trying to put into practice locally (including an excellent one by Orchard News Bureau). What’s amazing is that even though this part of the country is a Mecca for journalists, the response from the councils has been complete and utter surprise. No-one takes advantage of the fact that you can walk into your council offices and examine the expense reports of candidates at local and national elections to make sure they’re playing fair. Likewise a request to take part in the public audit of the local accounts has proved painfully protracted, and no-one seems really sure where records are held or how to get them.
After three weeks (out of the four that council accounts are open to the public) I’ve finally got an appointment to view the expenses of the executive – the dozen or so members whose personal salaries account for almost 5% of the total budget of Adur district council, and therefore deserve a little bit of public scrutiny.
As I say, it’s a learning curve for me and next year I’ll be armed with experience as well as curiosity. Which will be interesting – because even my relatively clumsy approach has turned up a few very unusual facts I’m following up for further investigation…