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

Across the country, local authorities have had to adapt to the challenges the pandemic has brought. One key area has been the ability to continue to hold regular council meetings using online services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In order to make this possible, the government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for public meetings to be held in person.

As a result, many councils have made saving courtesy of reduced travel expenses claimed by members. Powys County Council estimates it can save £40,000 per year by using a mixture of online and in-person meetings. Similarly, West Sussex County Council has stopped shelling out “some £6,000 per month” in expenses.

Based on back of the envelope calculations, and using Powys as a guide, across the UK’s 26 county councils and 120 unitary authorities, savings could be just shy of £6 million per year. And that’s before adding borough and district councils into the mix. The environmental benefits shouldn’t be ignored too. A reduction in car journeys would help authorities meet their ambitious green targets.

It begs the question: should things continue this way after the pandemic is over? After all, many in the private sector are embracing the working from home revolution. Especially given the huge savings afforded to them by reducing the size of expensive city centre offices.

There are undoubtedly concerns around whether holding meetings in this way would be good for democracy. Technology should be aiding councils’ decision-making processes, not hindering them. But potential multi-million pound savings shouldn’t be ignored.

Councils must get their priorities straight

One benefit the internet definitely has brought, is the ability to scrutinise local and national government more easily. The TaxPayers’ Alliance frequently scours the Contracts Finder website – which allows anyone to see tenders by the public sector – as part of our efforts to ensure money is spent wisely.

In most cases, contracts put forward by councils are more than reasonable, such as the provision of grass cutting or bin collections. But this week I found two examples that show a worrying attitude to taxpayers’ cash by public officials.

We’re all fed up of covid and can’t wait to see the back of it. But many will question whether Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council has its priorities in the right place. It plans to spend £10,000 on “suitable experienced lighting companies” to project messages onto buildings that “will encourage the community to think about what they would like to tell themselves in a year’s time once things have changed and some sort of normality is hoped to have resumed.”

Fylde is another council that clearly thinks money grows on trees. It awarded a three year contract worth nearly £65,000 for a mayoral chauffeur. When households are struggling to put food on the table, it is nothing short of outrageous that council bosses think this is an acceptable use of money for what is a largely ceremonial role.

In the scheme of local government spending this is relatively small fry. But wouldn’t it have been far better to put this money into essential frontline services?

Keeping a tight grip on the purse strings

Following a tip off, I sent a freedom of information request to all councils in the UK asking how much money they had overpaid to staff (e.g. in salary, bonuses, expense, pensions etc) and of any excess payments, what amount had been successfully reclaimed. I’m pleased to say that at a majority of authorities only a microscopic sum of money was written off. But there were quite a few that didn’t fare so well.

In total for the financial years 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, £2.5 million was written off across a total of 57 councils. Much of this was made up by The Highland Council, whose response was particularly concerning. In just three years, it overpaid staff to the tune of £1.1 million but couldn’t say how much had been recovered, stating its “policy is to pursue all overpayments.” It’s worrying that they can’t provide a figure; let’s hope for the taxpayers’ sake, they’ve managed to claw back a decent percentage rather than nothing at all.

There is no doubt that payroll is a complicated area and correcting all errors may be almost impossible. But why is it that some authorities are able to recoup nearly all monies while others lag so far behind? Whatever the answer, councils should remember that they have a tremendous responsibility to taxpayers and must strive to get the best possible value for every penny.