Council bosses use credit cards for lavish lifestyles
Council bosses presiding over the deepest cuts since the Second World War are using their taxpayer-funded expenses and credit cards to fund a lavish lifestyle of five-star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants and retreats at exclusive golf resorts and spas, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
By Heidi Blake, Andrew Hough and Conrad Quilty-Harper
10:00PM BST 16 Oct 2011
The senior officials regularly flew first class and stayed in exotic destinations such as Shanghai, Tuscany and San Francisco. They spent thousands of pounds on tickets to stadium concerts and prestigious sporting events, and even used public money to buy suits, iPads and vintage wine.
One town hall chief executive charged the taxpayer more than £100 to buy presents for his chauffeur on an all-expenses paid trip to the Champagne region of France, while another bought silk ties from “London’s oldest tailor and robe maker”.
An investigation by The Daily Telegraph has uncovered details of apparently questionable spending by chief executives at councils across the country which are slashing hundreds of thousands of jobs and making harsh cuts to libraries, children’s services and bin collections.
Records of spending at 340 local authorities obtained by this newspaper show some bosses are running up tens of thousands of pounds in expenses and credit card bills on top of their six-figure salaries, despite being ordered to slash their pay and perks by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary.
The disclosures are likely to lead to comparisons with MPs expenses and will inflame local anger over the largesse of local authorities.
More than 100 chief executives are paid more than the prime minister and they receive the most generous public sector pension packages in Europe.
Mr Pickles last night declared that he was shocked by the “lavish” spending, which he said proved that local authorities were failing to apply “basic financial controls”.
“I find it astonishing that certain chief executives thought this was an appropriate use of public money,” he said.
“These revelations reinforce the need for stringent controls on the government procurement card to ensure the taxpayer never have to foot the bill again for what appears to be a systematic abuse of public money.”
Documents obtained by this newspaper under freedom of information laws show the town hall bosses ran up credit card bills, expenses claims and travel receipts worth £2.6m since 2008.
While some have only used their expenses to pay for basic work-related costs, others have used them to fund a glamorous lifestyle way beyond the reach of most of their residents.
Many have failed to curb their extravagance despite unprecedented cuts, racking up £1.2m since the Coalition came to power.
They spent a total of £340,000 on hotels including the five star Dorchester in London, the Hotel Gray D’Albion in Cannes and the Hard Days Night in Liverpool – a Beatles themed venue where guests can opt for the “All You Need is Love package” or sleep in the John Lennon suite.
The documents show they stayed at exclusive resorts including The Belfry, described as “one of the world’s most famous golf destinations,” the five-star St David’s Spa on Cardiff Bay, and Lusty Beg, a “private 75 acre island paradise” which claims to offer “the perfect blend of business, leisure and pleasure”.
They spent £61,000 on international flights, many of which were first class, and splashed out £206,000 on dinners and drinks in exclusive venues.
They have travelled to Cannes, Barcelona, Toronto and Washington and dined at restaurants including the Michelin-starred La Chapelle in Spitalfields, Ottolenghi in Islington, and Brasserie Blanc in Chelmsford, owned by the celebrity chef Raymond Blanc.
Some chief executives who have sought to reign in their personal spending last night accused their colleagues of “exploiting” the taxpayer.
One leading council boss told The Daily Telegraph she was “shocked” by the revelations.
“I don’t even have a corporate credit card as we are mean at my local authority, and that is the way it should be because it is public money,” she said.
“If I spend any money for work I just get it reimbursed but champagne lunches and first class travel is shocking. Chief executives incur costs in their jobs but we are paid well and you should not exploit that.
“No-one expects a chief executive to stay in a fleapit, but there is a big difference between the Dorchester and a fleapit.”
Colin Carmichael, chief executive of Canterbury City Council, spent almost £400 during a trip to Reims, France, including drinks at the Hotel de la Paix and £118.95 on a present for his chauffeur.
He also spent almost £6,000 on food including lunches and dinners at top restaurants including the Dolphin, The Crab and Winkle and the Olive Grove.
Tim Shields, chief executive of Hackney, one of the most deprived boroughs in London, spent £6,000 on a trip to Beijing during the 2008 Olympics Games for “training”. He flew business class.
He also spent thousands of pounds travelling to Boston and San Francisco to attend conferences for business leaders, and ran up a £565 bill for a dinner for foreign visitors at the Hoxton Grill.
Eamon Boylan, chief executive of Stockport, spent £57.38 on lunch in the brasserie of Searcy’s champagne bar at St Pancras, while Leo Boland, the former chief executive of Barnet, enjoyed an afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason.
Colin Hilton, the former chief executive of Liverpool City Council, spent £1,152 taking colleagues to a sold out Coldplay concert, while, John Jory of Reigate and Banstead charged the taxpayer £922 for two “away-days” at the Surrey Downs Golf Club.
The disclosures are likely to provoke public fury at a time when councils are axing more than 170,000 jobs, closing libraries and cutting spending on care for the elderly. Council tax has more than doubled over the past decade as local authorities have insisted they need more money to survive.
The documents show that chief executives have lavished £6,500 on gifts to their staff including vintage wines and champagnes, whisky, flowers and chocolates.
They have also spent £12,000 shopping at high street stores including Harrods, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis.
Their bill for personal training came to £220,000. They have taken courses in “understanding corporate manslaughter,” “tribal leadership” and “learning how to relax under pressure”.
The Local Government Association last night launched a defence of the council bosses and insisted that their spending was “properly audited and transparent”.
John Ransford, Chief Executive of the LGA, said: “These chief executives are responsible for huge organisations with budgets of up to £1 billion a year, running services that are vital to every family in Britain. It is part and parcel of the job that they have to travel to meet top people from the public and private sectors, and this can involve stays in hotels and the proportionate use of hospitality.”