Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance on the vanity of councillors becoming art collectors at the Council Taxpayers expense.

With a
recession biting, putting greater pressure on public services and
hitting household budgets hard, it is more important than ever that
councils cut out all unnecessary and frivolous spending.

The Editor
of this blog raised one
of potential savings earlier in the week,
proposing – rightly – the abolition of political advisor posts
in local government. Having elected councillors to decide the
policies of the council and provided officers to carry out their
instructions, people are strongly opposed to such duplication which
smacks of political parties taking advantage of taxpayers’
generosity. Advisers, though, are just the tip of the iceberg.

far more spurious, area of spending which regularly outrages the
public but keeps catching the eye of councillors is public art.
Whilst most people have nothing against the concept of art in public
places, they do wonder why it is so often councils that feel it is
their responsibility to commission it at the expense of local

Take, for
example, Poole
, which was reported this week to be
considering spending £50,000 on a 4 foot tall sculpture in the
shape of a stack of giant plates. Poole’s taxpayers would much
rather that money was used to help sort out the council’s
struggling finances. Failing that, if the council don’t need
the money then it should be given back to people, not spent on

In many
ways this is a classic example of the divide between the people and
the political class. To councillors it is often attractive to think
you can leave a physical, visible mark on the area you represent,
particularly when the benefits of good education, care and other
services feel less tangible. Why not spend a bit of money on a
physical legacy of your political existence?

there are three reasons why not. First, it is not councillors’
money to spend on frivolities and personal vanity projects, it is the
people’s and it should be spent carefully on essential
services. Particularly with the country in the grip of a recession,
it is indefensible to splash cash on white elephants while local
residents can’t afford to pay their household bills.

these projects more often than not lack popularity or mandate. Which
council ever stood for election on the declared intention of spending
tens of thousands of pounds on sculptures? As a council candidate, if
you feel something is unacceptable to tell people about in your
manifesto or on your leaflets it should be a good sign that it isn’t
right just to force it through once you’re elected.

there is a huge amount of duplication going on already. We have arts
bodies, quangos, lottery projects, tourist boards, chambers of
commerce, private companies and all sorts of other creatures who are
actively commissioning and funding public art projects. There is
simply no need for councils – and council taxpayers – to
pitch in, too.

should have learned by now that these purchases often annoy people
and gather bad press, but each year several fall into the trap of
forcing local taxpayers to fund councillors’ artistic tastes.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are angry that
whilst their council tax bills rise and services struggle, their
money is being spent on frills that they never asked for. When most
families can’t afford to buy art that they like for their own
homes, councils have a responsibility to stop buying it on their
behalf and making them pick up the tab.