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

In recent weeks I’ve received a lot of correspondence from concerned taxpayers and councillors about the costs of holding covid compliant council meetings. During the pandemic, temporary legislation allowed local authorities to hold hybrid meetings – a mix of virtual and in-person meetings – in order for local government to function effectively.

Since May 7th, councils, by law, must hold meetings in person, despite the fact that social distancing guidelines are still in place. Many authorities lack the floor space to facilitate this and have effectively been forced to hire venues that do, at significant cost to the taxpayer.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council shelled out £6,000 to hold a recent meeting at a local exhibition venue. So too Sefton, Sheffield and Manchester, costing taxpayers £3,000, £10,000 and £7,000 respectively. Similarly, Portsmouth City Council bought £5,000 worth of AV equipment in order for its meeting to go ahead. Across England’s 330 plus councils, it’s very possible that the total bill to ensure meetings are covid compliant could be in excess of £1 million.

With many in the private sector adopting the financial and environmental benefits of video conferencing technology, it’s a massive shame that the temporary legislation couldn’t have been extended until social distancing restrictions are lifted. Councils aren’t to blame for this and many local leaders have called for hybrid meetings to continue. It’s not hard to see why – time and money could have been better utilised on frontline services.

A warm welcome?

Back in March, the government announced the Welcome Back Fund (WBF) “to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns”. £56 million has been allocated to local authorities in England to invest in everything from seating areas to parks.

I’m not a huge fan of the WBF. Yes, I want my town centre to look nice but there really isn’t a magic money tree. Given the devastating effects of covid we have to focus public cash on real priorities like adult social care and children’s services. Is this fund really a priority at a time like this? Put it another way, if you were struggling to pay your mortgage every month you wouldn’t splash out on fripperies would you?

Sheffield City Council was allocated some £520,216 from the fund and I have to question whether they’ve made the best decisions when it comes to spending taxpayers’ cash. The council has tendered two contracts, one to appoint a “media and PR agency” and the other a “creative agency” to promote the objectives of the WBF. The total value of these contracts is £135,000 – 26 per cent of allocated funding.

It begs the question, will taxpayers’ actually see any value from this? It seems quite ridiculous to me that such a large chunk of their budget will be splurged on ad men. Does the council really need two agencies to achieve its goals? Why not ask the public directly (for little to no cost) what they want by getting them to email their suggestions. Or why not go to businesses directly in the town centre and get their opinions?

Promising news from Croydon

At long last there’s a glimmer of hope for Croydon Council following the latest report from its Improvement and Assurance Panel. You may recall that the council ploughed £214 million into a housing company called Brick-by-Brick (BBB) which at last count had only built a handful of the homes it promised. This coupled with other serious failings led to Croydon Council declaring bankruptcy.

A brighter future is on the horizon though. The decision has been taken to continue with housing construction on some BBB sites but with the overarching goal to extract the company from all activities by October of this year. Additionally, a property developer is seeking to buy up BBB and a deal will hopefully be struck next month.

There are opportunities for further savings to be made too. The council has 313 external contracts worth around £200 million that are up for renewal this year. The Improvement and Assurance Panel described the council’s arrangements for ensuring that contracts deliver value as “poor.” So one would hope that in future negotiations they can both negotiate better deals and ensure that suppliers better fulfil their contractual obligations.

Croydon Council is by no means out of the woods. It’s only thanks to capital injections totalling £120 million from central government that there is a balanced budget this year. In all likelihood, residents will be paying for the council’s mistakes in the form of even higher council tax bills. Let’s hope Croydon residents get good value for money in future, especially since the newly appointed chief executive will be paid £192,000 a year.