Openness and transparency have become buzzwords over the past few years in north Northumberland, not least at Rothbury Parish Council.
Further north, efforts for greater transparency at Berwick Town Council have led to resignations and reprimands – and plenty of headlines – and a similar campaign has been ongoing in Rothbury for more than two years.
On the one hand, the concept of holding elected officials to account, particularly in relation to the spending of public money, is clearly a valid one. Taxpayers need to know their money is used properly.
However, while MPs and county councillors are renumerated for their roles, town and parish councillors are volunteers, who give up their time for their community.
Rothbury Parish Council, its members and its clerk have been the subject of complaints and accusations, dating back to 2013, primarily from transparency campaigner Tony Kell, who was named publicly during the last meeting.
However, in January, it was reported that complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office, Northumbria Police, the external auditors and Northumberland County Council had resulted in ‘no further action’.
It came to a head at the authority’s August meeting, which was brought to a dramatic end after an altercation between members of the public. Several Berwick residents and town councillors attended the meeting to ask questions on issues such as financial regulations, purchase orders, contracts and invoices and the council’s duty as an employer.
Meanwhile, following a request made through the Conservatives, another Berwick resident, David Spencer-Barclay, attended a meeting with Mr Kell to look at Rothbury Parish Council’s accounts, later writing a report, presented to the Gazette, in which he raised issues relating to the presentation of accounts, invoicing and employees.
A parish council statement said: “Rothbury Parish Council is a non-party-political council.
“Like all town and larger parish councils, its accounts are audited annually by both an internal and external auditor. During this process, any elector of the parish of Rothbury can exercise their right to examine the accounts and raise questions with the external auditor at a cost to the parish of £170 per hour.
“This is what a resident of Rothbury, accompanied by a resident of Berwick, has chosen to do. It would be totally improper of the council to comment on any part of this process until the annual external audit has been completed by the Government-appointed external auditors, at BDO Stoy Hayward.”