Consultants come at a price

PUBLISHED: 10:35 22 February 2007 | UPDATED: 15:01 12 May 2010

COUNCILLOR Howard Marshall appears to be a man on a mission. He is worried about public money being wasted. And he is aware that bodies such as North Herts District Council need to be prudent when it comes to a question of spending. With that in mind he h

COUNCILLOR Howard Marshall appears to be a man on a mission.

He is worried about public money being wasted.

And he is aware that bodies such as North Herts District Council need to be prudent when it comes to a question of spending.

With that in mind he has raised a number of intriguing questions over the spending of public money on the district council using consultants.

He told me: "It's not a question of rocking the boat, but about saving money, especially these days when there seems to be so much restraint on spending."

Cllr Marshall, who is a member of the council's Royston area committee, and represents that necklace of villages from Reed to Therfield, simply wants to know whether such spending is, as he says, "appropriate".

It is without doubt a question that should be raised - and he was talking to the council's scrutiny committee this week to see whether its members were aware of the expenditure.

And, perhaps more important, the procedure which is undertaken when consultants for a certain project are selected.

Cllr Marshall's questioning has already revealed that the district council spent £1.4 million on consultants in 2005-06.

Such spending has to be compared with the £785,000 spent on consultants in 2002-03.

Such an increase in spending does obviously raise questions - and it seems that Cllr Marshall is leading the "campaign" to unravel the thinking about the needs of consultants.

He admits, as we all do, that there are times when people with a certain expertise should be "employed" when needed.

In the long-run, using such consultants could save money.

But as Cllr Marshall quite rightly said: "There is always concern over the use of consultants."

He is now armed with the spending figures, but questions will have to be raised now over the kind of controls that are in place on selecting consultants, and whether such a selection procedure is rigorous enough.

For each consultant there is a cost to the Council Tax payer.

And now questions have been raised, there is the need to examine the whole issue in public.

It is not the kind of issue that should take place away from the public spotlight.

There was a review behind-closed-doors last year by the council's audit and consultancy services, which came to the conclusion that it could give a "substantial level of assurance" over the use of consultants.

But the council's scrutiny committee is the proper body to undertake a review - one it should do with a certain amount of relish.

It is, after all, a committee that was originally set-up as a watchdog, and this would prove that it actually has teeth.

"Until I raised the questions there was probably no idea about the cost of consultants," said Cllr Marshall.

Now we know the costs.

One example is that consultants working on the development of the Royston Leisure Centre cost £48,000 - and that, it is understood, was after about £75,000 was spent on different consultants who were putting together a bid for Lottery cash to pay toward the £5.5 million project.

As we know, Sport England turned down the bid and the district council had to meet the bill to develop the leisure centre.

It may or may not have been money well spent.

Cllr Marshall may have raised embarrassing questions, but when it comes to the spending of public money. we have a right to know about such expenditure and the confidence that a rigorous monitoring system is in place.

Let's have more councillors who raise such questions as this.

After all, it's all part of being elected.

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