No sooner have we praised Coventry City Council leader Ken Taylor for pushing to keep the rise in councillors’ allowances below inflation, than a Freedom of Information response reveals that the council have spent over £50,000 in travel over the last year.
The amount, revealed by the West Midlands TaxPayers’ Alliance, made the headlines on BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire. Councillor Kevin Foster went into the studio to defend these costs, but didn’t really seem to know what the money was being spent on himself…
His responses to the following:
• A trip for 3 to India at a cost of £4,220 – Kevin hesitantly tells us: “I suspect it was part of a business trip”. But he doesn’t know, and he’s the one they sent on the radio.
• £18,700 spent for 7 people to attend MIPIM property event in Cannes, France. The cost apparently included the council hiring a yacht to hold a reception for various cronies – Kevin said that this was perfectly justified as many of their investors were there, but despite this it has been ‘reviewed’ and they’ve managed to knock £10K off the budget for next year. This is just an indirect way of Kevin telling us that they spent at least £10K too much on this year’s event.
• A trip to Serbia (hardly in a position to invest in Coventry as the host pointed out) – Kevin tells us that this was a “cultural exchange” trip for two adults and 20 children. Why? Well according to Kevin it’s important for children to learn about other cultures, particularly living in diverse Coventry (surely it’s more important for children who don’t have diverse cultures on their doorstep to travel in order to learn about them?). Kevin also tells us that it’s important because Serbia has been at war with it’s neighbours in recent years. Eh? That’s right, according to this councillor it’s completely acceptable to dispatch classes of school children off to recently war-torn countries on the public purse. Indeed, the fact that Serbia has been at war is the very reason for sending these children according to Kevin. Once Darfur calms down presumably some Coventry kids will be sent out there for cultural exchange reasons..?(I found out that Coventry is twinned with Belgrade, which is still no real reason to send classes of children there at great expense. Kevin didn’t seem to know this.)
• Numerous trips to Spain – Kevin gave a characteristically vague response of “education and other things” (sunbathing?). His main defence was that it’s cheaper to go to Spain than it is to go to London for conferences these days. Even if that was the case – it’s not, if you book two weeks in advance you can travel from Coventry to London direct on a Monday morning for £35rtn not the £110 Kevin claims – surely the hours spent waiting around at airports is a waste of officers’ time? The host remarked that the prices looked as though they’d hired a villa with a pool.
• A trip to New York for one at a cost of £1,900 – Kevin didn’t pull it out of the bag with this one either, and when asked if he knew the details he replied “not off the top of my head” and then gave a confusing explanation as to why officers can request to fly Business Class. There were inferences that those who did were expected to work on the plane, hardly something that can be verified.
The fact that the man Coventry City Council chose to defend them publicly had very little idea what these trips were for and why they cost so much is indicative of a council that does not have a proper handle on it’s spending.
Due to the single-status pay situation the council are being left with a multimillion pound gap to plug, which means they will need to tighten their belts significantly to avoid a major council tax hike for their residents.
Trips should be assessed on their necessity and many other options are now available, for example video conferencing. If officers and councillors have to go abroad it should be done on a budget, and that means low cost carriers and cut-price hotels.
Luxuries like overseas travel can all too often be seen as a perk of the job, but council workers should be reminded that, like the gentleman who called in to the radio programme, there are pensioners struggling terribly to pay their council tax bill each month, and to misuse their money in this way is truly contemptuous.