THE North's biggest local authority is "reviewing" its expenditure after admitting that staff claimed more than £7m in expenses during the last financial year.
However, Durham County Council also revealed that much of the money was claimed by staff like social workers and planning and building inspectors, who deliver essential services to the community. It also pointed out that Durham is a rural council and if services are to be kept local, staff will have to travel.
Following a request by Independent councillor John Shuttleworth under the Freedom of Information Act, the council revealed it had paid out a total of £6.654,784 in travel expenses between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010.
During the same period, it also paid out a total of £965,741 in “essential car user” allowances to 1,196 members of staff.
The figures were revealed as the authority, which only came into being in its current form on April 1 last year following local government reorganisation, has come under increasing pressure to tighten its belt.
The council is presently considering whether to close care homes for the elderly at Annfield Plain, Blackhall, Lanchester, Newton Aycliffe, Shildon, Stanley and Bishop Auckland. And last week, the Government announced a reduction of £16.5m in grants available to the authority. That prompted leader Simon Henig to say: “We are already delivering £51.3m efficiencies over the next three years in a planned and measured way, including £8.5m this year.
“Having to find an additional £16.5m in the remainder of this year will be extremely difficult and will not be achieved without reducing services.”
Mr Henig added: “These announcements by the Government will hit us particularly hard in this time of recession and will directly affect some of the communities that need help most.”
Yesterday, Coun Shuttleworth claimed: “The public will be shocked by the amount of expenses claimed by council staff.
“I certainly was when I was told how much we had paid out in expenses.
“I am sure a figure of more than £7m could be reduced by car sharing, working from home or similar cost cutting measures. This authority needs to learn that the public purse is not a bottomless pit.”
Coun Shuttleworthy also argued that by holding meetings all across the county, instead of centrally in Durham City, the unitary council was increasing the expenditure that staff can claim.
However, the head of finance at Durham County Council asked that people keep in mind why the claims for expenses were made.
Said Jeff Garfoot: “It’s important to put all statistics like this in to the right context and, as such,
“I want to make it clear that most of these costs are incurred by staff – like social workers and planning and building inspectors – delivering essential community-based services.
“Some 25,000 staff are employed by the council, so this figure equates to an average for each employee of around £5 a week. Over the last year, the council has been through restructuring on a massive scale, under local government reorganisation. Inevitably, this also meant significant relocation costs, which will be short term.
“County Durham is a rural county and we have promised residents that we will keep services, and the staff to deliver them, at local level. This means staff will have to travel.”
The finance chief added: “However, like all public sector bodies, we are reviewing expenditure across the board, in the light of the huge reductions in budget we are facing.
“Travel costs will certainly be part of this wider review.”