PONTYPOOL Community Council has gagged the Free Press from reporting on how it hands out taxpayers’ money to community groups.

In a highly unusual move, the community council barred both the press and the public from any part of its meetings where such Local Project Funding grants are discussed.

The council has £30,450 a year to give to local groups, which range from male voice choirs to local schools and sports clubs, among others.

Each of the 21 members of the council has a personal yearly allowance of £1,450 which they can contribute to causes of their choice, with full council ratifying their decision.

But now they will give that money away in secret, with residents only able to find out how their money has been spent at the end of each financial year, when the council says it will send the Free Press a letter detailing all the grants.

The Free Press understands the move has been made because councillors were upset about getting complaints from groups which hadn’t received funding or which hadn’t got as much as another group in the area.

Parish and community councils are covered in law by the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960.

The Act says councils can only exclude the public fromall or part of a meeting “whenever publicity would be prejudicial to the public interest because of the confidential nature of the business to be transacted or for other special reasons stated in the resolution and arising from the nature of that business or of the proceedings.”

Pontypool community councillors were contacted by the Free Press and asked to explain why releasing information on Local Project Funding would be prejudicial to the public interest but were told we needed to speak to chairman of the council Barry Taylor.

Despite repeated attempts to contact Cllr Taylor, we were not able to speak to him.

Campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance Robert Oxley said: “This is a shameful attempt to undermine scrutiny of how local politicians are spending residents’ cash. This budget allows councillors to spend taxpayers’ money on their pet projects, but if information about recipients is withheld there is no chance for residents to judge whether this represents value for money. Details of all spending of this kind should be published as a matter of course.”

COMMENT: Council’s ruling wrong

WE HAVE to admit to being taken aback by a motion by Pontypool Community Council which effectively bans us from reporting which community groups are being awarded community council grants.

Certainly in many years of covering community councils, the length and breadth of Gwent, we have never come across this situation before.

We cannot understand the logic behind the decision, which seems to us at best totally draconian and at worst, a misinterpretation of the law governing access to community council meetings. The press and public can of course be excluded from community council meetings, but only in exceptional circumstances.

The over-riding principle – and spirit – of the lawgoverning access to such meetings, is that they must be open to press and public, unless there are very serious reasons for not doing so, most usually this involves business confidentiality. There can be no such reason in this case and we would urge Pontypool Community Council to think again.

The awarding of grants to community groups is surely good news for the council and for the community it represents.

Small groups benefit by getting a little bit of extra cash to help the work they do in the community.

The council benefits by being able to help out and hopefully make a difference in the community it serves.

The facts are reported and recorded and taxpayers know which groups have received money and how much.

Under the new rule introduced by Pontypool Community Council that information will now no longer be readily available but will only be published in letter form to the Free Press at the end of the financial year.

In our view this is just not good enough and we will be lobbying for this decision to be overturned.