Harry Fone: A browse through Council contracts shows the extravagant spending continues

26 Aug

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) frequently calls out wasteful foreign aid spending and we never have a shortage of examples. From “friendship benches” in Zimbabwe to a study of Latin American teenagers, millions of pounds go up in smoke every year. A common argument by those who defend overseas aid is that you can always cherry-pick profligate projects.

But I disagree. It shouldn’t be easy to find such examples because they shouldn’t exist in the first place. This brings me onto local authority spending. Despite many councils claiming there is no more fat left to trim from their budgets, one doesn’t have to delve too deep to find some juicy morsels. In what will be at least a two-part series I’ve put together a list of publicly tendered council contracts that are ripe for cutting to help put a stop to inflation-busting council tax rises.

Barnsley Borough Council is currently tendering a contract worth between £25,980 and £30,000 to buy 100 laptop computers which it will loan to European Social Fund (ESF) participants. If you’re not aware, the ESF “aims to improve employment opportunities in the European Union”. Now this may well be a remnant of Brexit that Britain still pays into but why Barnsley Council thinks this is a good use of local residents’ cash at a time like this is beyond me. Especially so considering that council tax increased by 3.4 per cent in Barnsley this year.

The TPA has previously called out so-called ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ – glossy council newsletters funded by council tax which are often nothing more than propaganda. Spending on these was bad enough before the pandemic but that hasn’t stopped Dorset council. The local authority offered a contract worth £225,000 for “the provision of a Residents’ Magazine Publication”. Dorset residents pay the second-highest Band D bill in the country at £2,223 – every penny of which should be going on statutory services not glorifying the council.

In this column, I’ve highlighted questionable spending by town and parish councils. My concern is that many are charging ever-greater precepts and becoming more grandiose in their ambitions. Leighton-Linslade Town Council in Bedfordshire is the latest example. It seeks suppliers to set up a “technology helpline” for those aged over 55 in the community. This is very noble but is it the role of a town council? Especially when the cost is upwards of £30,000. Add to that there are countless private sector organisations already providing training (often for free) and you have to question if this is good value for money.

This next area of spending is interesting to say the least. Both Doncaster and West Lancashire Borough Council have awarded contracts for “terrorism insurance” worth £80,000 and £13,038 respectively. I can’t be certain but I find it unlikely that councils were taking out this kind of cover, say, 25 years ago. Perhaps it’s a worrying sign of the times we live in. In this instance, I’m not saying this is outright wasteful spending either but I suspect many households would be more than a little annoyed to see their hard-earned taxes spent in this manner.

I’ll try and finish on a happier note, or perhaps that should be a ‘hoppier’ note? I’ve discovered that the Isle of Wight council plans to construct a “Brewery and Visitor Centre”. The contract doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail but we know that total value was £1.75 million for “the construction of a steel-framed structure to provide a Brewery facility incorporating a visitor centre, staff offices and storage warehouse.” Begging the question, why is the IoW council building a brewery? Given many councils have a poor track record when it comes to commercial investments one wonders if the council will be able to organise the proverbial in a brewery or will things fizz out?

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so far I’ve only scoured a small percentage of the thousands of contracts put out to tender by councils. In my next column I’ll show you even more wasteful contracts. At a time when the public finances are in dire straits, every penny of taxpayers’ cash matters. Councils can’t afford to waste a single penny. So if you’re concerned about your council’s spending I implore you to join me in this quest to root out waste. Do drop me an email with your findings.