For years they were the cars from behind the Iron Curtain that people would be embarrassed to own.
But now warring political parties in Northumberland are squabbling over whether a Skoda bought to ferry a civic head to public engagements is so luxurious to be cast as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Hexham Conservative Guy Opperman has criticised Northumberland County Council after it emerged the authority has bought a Skoda Superb for £20,887 “primarily” to ferry council chairman Kathy Graham to functions.
Staff from within the council’s fleet transport team drive the vehicle with the costs for operating the car in April and May put at £3,400.
Mr Opperman and a Tory county councillor have called on the Labour run council to “sell or scrap” the car, branding it a waste of money.
But authority bosses say they can’t ask Coun Graham “to go to key events on foot,” that “taxis are too expensive” and that buses “have often stopped running before her engagements are over – and don’t go to the places where she needs to be.”
They claim the purchase of a Skoda rather than a more expensive make of car show “we are tightening our belt” and that their arrangements are cheaper than other councils.
Mr Opperman said “This really is beyond the pale. There is simply no need for council chiefs to be chauffeured around in posh cars. Those days quite frankly should be long gone. In terms of what they do now the best option would be to sell it.
“The problem is that, according to most experts the car will have lost 60% of its value within three years making it a very poor investment of council taxpayers’ cash.
“Every day they own the thing not only is it costing taxpayers in deprecation but also in massive running costs.
“At least scrapping it would stop the running costs which seem to be over £1,000 a month. Over three years this car is going to cost the council over £57,000.
“That is the equivalent to almost 40 average families in Northumberland paying their council tax for nothing else but to fund this brand new car.
“That is simply not right when families across the county are tightening their belts.
“No one is saying that councillors should not be able to claim fair and reasonable expenses but having a dedicated car and driver is in my view excessive.
“The council has tried to defend the new car as cheaper than alternatives but I honestly don’t know many families who would call buying a £21,000 car a saving.”
Conservative county councillor for Hexham Colin Cessford added: “When I was first told I honestly did think it was a joke. At a time when everyone is tightening their belts it is just the wrong thing to be spending council tax payers’ money on.
“The Labour leadership constantly complain about finding savings, well here is an easy one to make.”
Yet a council spokesperson responded: “We can’t ask our civic head to go to key events on foot and taxis are too expensive. Buses have often stopped running before her engagements are over – and don’t go to the places where she needs to be.
“A Skoda says we are tightening our belt whilst putting the county in a good light. It’s a good car but, it’s not a limo.”
Council leader Grany Davey recently claimed the arrangement “is much cheaper than that of many other councils.”