North Herts district council defends £1.5million spend on consultants

PUBLISHED: 09:26 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:15 11 May 2010

NORTH HERTS District Council (NHDC) has defended its decision to spend over £1.5m on consultants during the recession. This week the Comet discovered NHDC spent £1,546,000 for consultancy work in 2008/9 during the height of the recession. Councillors on t

NORTH HERTS District Council (NHDC) has defended its decision to spend over £1.5m on consultants during the recession.

This week the Comet discovered NHDC spent £1,546,000 for consultancy work in 2008/9 during the height of the recession.

Councillors on the scrutiny committee have now asked NHDC's accountancy manager to investigate and report back to the committee at a future meeting.

But Tory MP for North East Herts Oliver Heald said council tax payers will be angry at such a massive spend when it could have been invested in other more important projects.

"This is a story of big Government forcing small councils like ours to employ consultants as never before," said Mr Heald.

"Hard pressed council tax payers in North Herts had to pay consultants £182,000 to change the way the council's IT works and £114,000 more to roll out new Government software.

"Why should it cost thousands to change the parking restrictions in Letchworth and Royston? Bureaucracy is the answer.

"It is like wading through treacle. Without the consultants under current rules important community projects would be stuck."

But the council insists it will continue to use consultants saying the procurement of all consultants included the appointment of temporary staff to cover critical vacant posts and specialist advice for major capital projects such as Baldock Town Centre Enhancement and Howard Park and Gardens, and advice with regards to the Churchgate development in Hitchin.

Cllr Terry Hone, NHDC portfolio holder for finance, said: "There are many other occasions when external specialist advice has been required such as the completion of surveys, feasibility studies, implementation of traffic regulation orders and medical advice for housing application requests.

"The council provides a broad range of services and is committed to improving the value-for-money in the delivery of its services. NHDC continues to achieve year-on-year efficiencies.

"There is always room for improvement in the control of the costs of consultants, but let's not expect NHDC to never need to use them. We also try to use local rather than national consultants in order to keep the money in North Herts."

Labour councillor and chairman of the Hitchin area committee, Judi Billing, said: "That's a hell of a lot of consultant time. Some will certainly have been necessary to fill in skill gaps at the council but some need real scrutiny to see whether it really was value for money. I doubt it.

"The council doesn't need to cut services or make any front line staff redundant. It can save vast sums of money by sharing more back office services with neighbouring councils and looking at its senior management structure.

"Do we need 11 council chief execs and separate chief officer teams in Hertfordshire? I don't think so.

"A creative council thinking seriously about the results of recession would be talking to its neighbours and stripping out unnecessary top salaries. I hope North Herts will do that - I have publicly suggested it in the past - but it doesn't look likely!

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