Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
In my last column I examined questionable use of the Welcome Back Fund by Winchester City Council. A further deep-dive into local government contracts reveals that more councils are also allocating cash in ways that many taxpayers will consider misguided.
The government allocated £56 million for the Welcome Back Fund to English councils – and given the events of the last two years, I would argue that it’s vital for local authorities to get the best value possible from this money. But that doesn’t seem to happen in a number of cases I have identified. Here are the three most egregious examples.
Rugby’s Lego Trail
Many of us have fond childhood memories of playing with Lego but I’m not sure we could have ever imagined getting paid for doing so. Well, they must have vivid imaginations at Rugby Borough Council because a contract worth £30,000 was awarded for 18 artists to create a series of Lego models. The aim of which was to create a trail throughout the town as part of an “engaging” art exhibition.
Now some might say I’m lacking in Christmas cheer but £30,000 for some Lego isn’t a winner in my book. Why does the taxpayer have to foot the bill for this? Wouldn’t it have been better for the council to launch a competition instead? They could have asked and encouraged local residents to submit their own Lego artworks for the trail and selected the best to showcase. The costs would have been microscopic in comparison and perhaps achieved more to boost community spirit?
A pop-up beach in Stoke
Stoke council wasn’t going to let geography stand in the way of its desire to have a beach. The authority spent over £100,000 creating an artificial 110 square metre beach in the town of Hanley. The goal was to encourage families to “join in beach activities throughout the school holidays.” According to the publicly tendered contract, the ‘beach’ (which consisted of large quantities of sand and some deck chairs) was only required for just over a month, meaning it cost the taxpayer £20,000 per week.
One has to wonder how many people actually made use of these facilities. Especially when you consider that beaches at Formby and Blackpool, to name just two, aren’t a million miles away. Both are about a ninety-minute drive or approximately two hours by train. I suspect many families would prefer to go to a real beach than one plonked in the middle of a town centre.
Wigan’s big spend on public relations
At least with Rugby and Stoke, local residents received something tangible, despite the relatively high cost. Not so much in Wigan after the council awarded £125,000 for social media, website, and marketing campaign services. It did so to create two campaigns, “Love Local” and “Visit Wigan”, using digital tools to promote businesses in the town.
I would argue, rather than the money going to ad men, why not use the cash to spruce up the town centre? I travel all over the country and many people I speak to are always up in arms about how rundown their local high streets look. £125,000 could have gone an incredibly long way to revamping less affluent areas in the town. That to my mind would do more to attract people into the area than a social media campaign ever could.
Of course, not all councils are guilty of this questionable use of public money. Some have rightly used the cash to make long term, more permanent alterations to their high streets. Installing new bins, seating, lighting, and planting, can bring clear and immediate benefits to local communities. This should serve as a lesson to councillors and council bosses to steer clear of wishy-washy ideas with minimal short term benefits.