Hey big-spender: Large spending local authorities

By Sam Packer, media campaign manager 

As we enter a new year with a new government, it is worth reflecting that a significant proportion of the decisions made on how to spend taxpayer money spent will not be taken by anyone new - because large-scale budgets are the responsibility of local councils. At the TaxPayers’ Alliance, we have consistently sought to hold local authorities to account, given their potentially toxic combination of large sums of money and relatively little scrutiny. We have secured some notable victories, including leading the fight against enterprise-zapping “clean air zones” and successfully forcing councils to detail all spending over £500, the pay of staff earning over £150,000 and the number of employees earning over £50,000.

Nonetheless, the potential for waste at councils is huge and it has been highlighted in the very first week of this year by the revelation that the former West Sussex County Council chief executive, Nathan Elvery, received a golden goodbye worth just under £300,000 upon leaving his post. The TPA’s own Harry Fone was on BBC Sussex this week to note the ridiculousness of the situation, and to highlight the fact that the government has previously committed to adopting the TPA policy of capping public sector payouts at £95,000, but is still yet to put down the statutory instrument to actually enact the policy. 

As the new year begins, it is worth emphasising that it is not inevitable that local authorities must waste taxpayer money; plenty manage to avoid truly egregious spending. As such, It is worth drawing attention to the councils which consistently waste money and fail to deliver value for money. We regularly publish research which compares authorities’ expenditure on a number of topics, ranging from the generosity of senior salaries, to pointless spending on council perks, all compared to the level of council tax charged. A comparison of our different local-government focused releases from 2019 reveals some parts of the country have  more reason to accuse their councils of being spendthrifts than others. 

In 2019, as part of our bid to hold local authorities to account, we released:

An examination of each of these research papers comes up with a few heroes and zeroes - who feature amongst the most profligate councils on multiple occasions. As the year begins, ratepayers in certain parts of the country should note that some authorities fail to deliver value for money for ratepayers in a multitude of ways. Too often a general apathy regarding local politics allows councils to get away with wasting large sums. The below is far from an exhaustive list, but it notes some of the worst offenders in 2019.

Councils to feature in multiple reports:

  1. Glasgow city council set the pace, with the “honour” of being the only council to feature in the top 10 in three of our papers. They employed the 9th most press officers (14), spent the 4th most on their awards ceremonies (£144, 284) and bought the 4th most art from 2016-19 (78 items).
  2. Sheffield city council stood out too, having topped the Bins not Spin chart by employing 24 press officers - more than the entire department for international trade, as well as having the 7th most valuable art collection in the country (worth £55 million) of which just 5% is on display. 
  3. Manchester city council had the most valuable art collection in the country (worth a mighty £369 million) of which only 8% is on display; They also spent the 4th most money on award ceremonies (£155,500).
  4. Derbyshire county council spent more than anyone else on their awards ceremonies (£218,483) and had the 15th most press officers (12).
  5. Southwark borough council employed a remarkable 21 staff members earning over £100,000 (the 6th most) and hold a £9.5 million art collection, though less than 1% of it is on display.
  6. Kirklees borough council had the 7th most valuable portfolio of empty properties (£2.3 million) alongside the 9th most valuable art collection (£44 million), 10% of which was on display.

These may have been among the worst offenders last year, but they are not representative of all councils. Undoubtedly, some local authorities do an impressive job of minimising waste and provide good local services for a comparably reasonable cost. 

We don’t try to tell councils how they should run their services, we merely make the public aware of some of the metrics which reveal how well they are doing. If you have any ideas for further research we could do to hold them to account, make sure you let us know!