Cars, planes and canapés: How councils spend your money

by Jacob Groet, Volunteer

The fact that council tax is increasing makes grim reading for many taxpayers. At the very least we hope tax is being used sensibly by local councils. However, for large portions of the country this is not the case. Many councils spend thousands of pounds on perks. Perks which exist on top of the high number of council executives receiving six-figure pay packets.

By combining council award ceremonies, flights and mayoral cars into a single map, we can reveal regional and local authority differences in perk spending. In total councils have spent at least £16,239,464.21 on perks from 2015-18.

These are the top 10 perk-spending councils*:

  • Manchester: £390,831.20
  • Glasgow: £274,701.34
  • Derbyshire: £223,730.44
  • Aberdeenshire: £222,509.37
  • Argyll & Bute: £217,625.84
  • Aberdeen City: £216,256.30
  • Cardiff: £197,532.04
  • Greenwich Borough: £189,148.79
  • Coventry: £187,022.90
  • Perth & Kinross: £178,543.04

Analysing the regional level there is no clear geographic trend but it is clear that Scotland (£4.4 million) and London (£2.2 million) top regional spending. The figure for Scotland is skewed however by the large cost of flights from Scottish islands to the mainland.

That said, even with these local authorities (Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles) accounted for Scottish councils still spent over £2 million pounds on perks.

England, even without London, does not fare well either, having spent between £750,000 and £1.9 million per region. For each, the breakdown of spending varies but a clear trend towards overspending on award ceremonies emerges. In the North West this amounts to over £590,000 and more than £1.1 million in London. The justification for these figures is surely very limited indeed.

Whilst the regional breakdown shows lower spending in Wales and Northern Ireland, there is still cause for concern. For instance, look at the map below, which shows spending on perks by individual councils. In Northern Ireland we see a trend of high spending in Armagh, Belfast, Bainbridge and Craigavon, Lisburn and Castlereagh all caused by expenditure on award ceremonies. Councils in Northern Ireland have claimed the ceremonies are intended to "recognise the achievements of local people," but they fail to explain why they are spending three times more than average.

It is interesting to note that Scotland, the North West and London repeat the pattern of wasteful spending found in analysis of the Town Hall Rich List 2019.

Of course, population size varies from council to council and this may be a factor in spending.

In fact, it does. It shows that councils which spend the most per person have some of the lowest populations overall (see the perk spending per capita map below). Additionally, high spending councils with larger populations still have a high spend per person so we can’t say these costs simply scale with population size. There must be another factor at play.

For example, Reading Council spent over £60,000 on cars for their mayor in 2018. Three times more per person than its immediate neighbours.

This case perfectly demonstrates a key feature of council misspending. It is not just about the size of the cost, more what it has been spent on. The cost of a car for a mostly ceremonial mayor is very hard to justify spending five figures on. Every pound wasted on frivolities is a pound that could be spent on statutory services or put towards tax cuts.

Funding for local councils is a big concern for the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) as many local authorities often plead poverty and demand more money from central government. These maps tell a different story. They help to expose wasteful council spending that is usually buried in large spreadsheets. Putting it all together highlights the unnecessary spending which could be eradicated quite easily thus weaking the case for more taxpayers' money to be funnelled from central government.

You can use these maps to find out how your council spends your money. The more accountable they are, the less likely it is that your tax bill will continue to climb higher and higher.

*The Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands, The Western Isles and the Isles of Scilly have been excluded from the top 10 as their totals are significantly inflated by costs incurred from flying to and from the mainland. As such, this cannot reasonably constitute a 'perk'. Additionally, some county councils are excluded from the mapping as they would overlap and obscure local authorities within their boundaries. This data can be found within the original research papers.

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