Elliott Keck is the Investigations Campaigns Manager for the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Readers may remember that my last column focused on the growing sprawl of low-traffic neighbourhoods. Well-intentioned or not, it’s clear that the only success of the schemes was to further line council coffers, while making it harder for residents to get around.
If there is one resident of local councils who is having an easier ride, it’s the Mayor. Also known as the provost or chairman, new research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance has found that vehicles used to drive around these ceremonial busybodies have cost taxpayers £2.7 million since 2019.
Clearly, there is value in these posts. Ribbons need to be cut, and schools need to be opened. Residents might enjoy a bit of pomp – we want more civic pride, after all – and there is certainly no problem in principle with using council funds to cover the cost of this, providing costs are low. But our research reveals that local authorities are going well beyond the minimum when ferrying around bigwigs. The average amount spent by councils that cover the cost of car travel was £16,605. That’s the equivalent of eight households’ Band D average council tax bill for the year. There is fat to trim.
Can councils really justify the use of, for example, a Range Rover? That was the case with Birmingham, which forked out almost £60,000 on leasing, maintenance, and fuel, for this luxury ride, despite featuring in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. Or Edinburgh, where the council has spent almost £50,000 on BMWs? Also featured in the fleet of mayoral cars across the UK was a Jaguar XJ, Mercedes S class, Lexus RS, and even a Rolls Royce in Glasgow. Cheap and cheerful these are not.
This indulgent spending could possibly be justified by a council that kept tax low and had its affairs in order. Yet councils are becoming increasingly shrill about their financially precarious state. Just recently, Hampshire and Kent County Councils warned of possible bankruptcy, while Thurrock and Croydon have issued S114 notices, an effective declaration of bankruptcy. Lo and behold, two of these run mayoral cars, with three-time bankruptcy contender Croydon spending over £16,000 on a Lexus. At least officials in Kent can hide behind the comparatively frugal Volvos they’ve been using.
With councils currently consulting on their upcoming 2023-24 budgets, all options should be on the table. The cost of living crisis is really beginning to bite, and with local authorities now allowed to raise council tax by as much as five per cent without a referendum, there can be no excuse for waste. A word of praise here for Glasgow Council, which this year sold off their Rolls Royce, raising over £100,000. If your council is taking steps to save money, I’d love to give them a shout out.
But this story is not just about big-spending councils. There is also the hypocrisy. Because many of these councils lecture residents about the need to cut down on car journeys. Lambeth and Lewisham have even brought in punishing LTNs which have been raking in tens of millions in LTN-related fines. Yet those same councils spent £17,000 and £11,000 respectively on cars for their mayors, who simply must be shuttled around at the taxpayer’s expense. One rule for them et cetera…
Even more hypocrisy was uncovered by the TaxPayers’ Alliance as we recently lifted the lid on the extent of overseas travel by councils since 2019, despite the impact of the pandemic which essentially precluded all air travel during much of 2020 and 2021. From 2019-22, the combined travel of councillors and council officials amounted to almost 2,000,000 air miles, costing residents almost £500,000. According to estimates by BEIS, this number of air miles would likely have led to hundreds of thousands of kilograms of CO2 emissions. Yet so many of these councils have declared a climate emergency, and have no compunction about lecturing residents on this very topic. Looked at another way, these trips involved 1,101 councillor and council officials spending 3,351 days abroad. Not far off a decade on taxpayers’ time. With businesses switching to Zoom, residents will be asking why council officials can’t do the same.
Having praised Glasgow Council earlier, they unfortunately spent £33,000 in 2019-20, flying a combined 314,886 air miles around the world, enough to reach the moon with plenty to spare. This included visits to some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, such as Cuba, China and Russia. The politicians and management of the very same council that hosted COP26 and declared a climate emergency in May 2019 have been jetting off to far-flung locations on foreign jollies. Much the same can be said about Bristol City Council, another leading light in the council climate emergency coalition. It spent over £32,000 on trips to Japan, South Korea, China and elsewhere.
Once again, the lesson is clear. Councils should stop lecturing the public, and forcing them to foot the bill for exorbitant environmental pet projects if at the same time the council leader’s office manager is booking flights and accommodation for that conference in the French Riviera that the boss simply has to attend.
Most importantly, they need to remember that the government has given councils significantly more leeway for the 2023/24 financial year in terms of revenue raising power. Residents may not forgive them if they abuse it.