Express & Star

Cash-strapped Midland councils' foreign trips cost £47,000

Cash-strapped councils sent their staff on dozens of trips abroad while slashing funding for public services.


The visits to places like India, Jamaica, France and the USA were defended today by authorities who said they helped attract investment into the Black Country and Staffordshire.

And they say the total cost to the council taxpayer was reduced as most got their expenses funded by hosts or other public bodies.

Out of 10 councils asked, the total cost after re-imbursement was more than £47,000 since 2011.

However, four did not incur any costs at all and two authorities have failed to disclose the information – Sandwell refused to do so because it would cost too much to detail its 15 trips. And Walsall Council has failed to respond despite a Freedom of Information Act request being made at the beginning of April.

Councils are imposing multi-million pound cuts after losing government funding.

Wolverhampton City Council alone has been overseas 33 times, as major cuts began to bite.

The council is axing 2,000 jobs to save £123 million but is trying to attract investment into Wolverhampton and is promoting the city's aerospace industry overseas.

It has been over to India to try to win new business.

The council spent £7,247.72 last year sending officers to Bangalore for the Aero India event.

Another visit, alongside the University of Wolverhampton, has cost £12.974.86 but some of that will be covered by the university and it was not yet known how much of the bill would fall to the taxpayer. This trip, last October, is listed as a 'trade visit'.

Some trips have been fully funded by other bodies, including one worth £1,517 for a head teacher to go to Jamaica. The British Council picked up the tab for a 'school partnership programme'.

But the city council did have to fork out £1,369.68 to go to the Paris Aerospace Trade Show.

It also used £2,528.40 going over to Richmond in the USA to 'explore opportunities for trade'.

Leader of Wolverhampton City Council, Councillor Roger Lawrence, said: "If you look at what some of the German cities like Dusseldorf and Frankfurt do to attract investment, it is jaw dropping. They have whole teams of people specialising in this.

"We have been working in niche markets such as aerospace, as we have a cluster of companies.

"We need to use foreign travel in an appropriate and targetted way.

"It brings dividends although not in the short term."

Staffordshire County Council has been on 34 trips, including an annual visit to Ivanavo in Russia. The visit has cost between £3,500 and £6,854 each time.

According to the council the the purpose of the trip is 'an international civic partnership between Staffordshire County Council and the City Administration of Ivanovo'.

It says it was originally set up to 'share information and best practice on an international scale between several organisations throughout the public sector in Staffs including schools, universities, health organisations, youth groups and the County Council itself."

Philip Atkins, Leader of Staffordshire County Council, said: "For 15 years the Ivanovo partnership has helped to develop cultural ties between our two areas and serves as a fact finding opportunity for both parties. We are able to share learning on how we run local government, how we can improve our economies, transport issues and improving people's health, involving a number of partners across the county.

"For the very modest cost of £3,500 the recent trip built on and strengthened our relationship with the Ivanovo region which now features links between Staffordshire's schools, older people in one of our day centres and community work with sports clubs such as Burton Albion. Russia is also an important export market, for national and Staffordshire's major employers such as JCB and other local businesses, so it benefits our economy and local jobs now and in the future to forge closer ties with the country.

"In the autumn the Shire Hall will be hosting an exhibition of rare Russian artwork from Ivanovo, called Palekh, which has previously toured Germany and Italy, which will give Staffordshire people a further insight into the region."

The council also sent two officers over to Vienna for a road safety conference last year at a cost of more than £900. However the cost was met out of fines paid by speeding drivers.

The conference was to look at transport, safety and quality of life issues for older people.

Staffordshire County Council's cabinet support member for transport Mark Deaville said: "The aim of this conference was to share Europe-wide expertise in increasing safety among older drivers. This is not an issue unique to the UK and we have been able take away evidence-based recommendations to keep Staffordshire roads safer. The fact that we have an ageing population is well documented – what we want to ensure is that older people can retain their independence through driving safely. This issue is only going to increase; for example in South Staffordshire 40 per cent of people are over 60. We therefore stand by making a relatively modest investment to deliver long-term safety for Staffordshire people."

Dudley Council has had four overseas trips since 2011 but every one has had its cost covered by another organisation.

Cannock Chase Council has been to Germany once a year to visit the area's twin town Datteln but the cost has gone up since 2011.

That year, Councillor John Beddows went at a cost of £174.26. The following year Councillors Bob and Diane Todd went and it cost £204.86 for flights and £167.52 for accommodation, staying at Zum Ring, a hotel in Datteln. The year after it was chairman Doris Grice and her consort as well as the council's chief executive that went at a total cost of £970.95.

The authority said costs increased because the councils in Cannock Chase and Datteln agreed to fund their own travel and accommodate in future rather than pay for each other when hosting.

It said it was 'customary for the chief executive and the chairman and consort of the council to be invited to attend the Kanalfestival that takes place in Datteln each year'.

Due to 'pre-existing commitments' the chief executive Stephen Brown had been unable to attend the town twinning events in 2011/12 and 2012/13.

He said the council had reduced the number of people travelling on official business and limits the visit to three nights, booking flights as early as possible to get the best value for money.

Gavin Williamson, MP for South Staffordshire, said councils needed to consider carefully the use of overseas visits.

"It is very difficult to justify spending money from the public purse on foreign travel.

"There has to be very clear, direct, inward investment in terms of job creation for the areas the councils serve."

Where your council went over the past three years:

Dudley - Four foreign trips - Warsaw, Ghent, Dublin and Reykjavik but all re-imbursed by hosts.

Cannock Chase - Town twinning with Datteln in Germany each August.

The costs for the same trip went up by more than five times in three years to £970.95 last year.

Lichfield - Sent council leader Mike Wilcox to France for a day in 2011/12 at a cost of £110.34 to attend the MIPIM property event.

Sandwell - 15 overseas trips since 2011 but refused to break down the costs or give further details

South Staffs - Sent the chief executive to Copenhagen in December 2012 for a leadership programme. But he paid for it himself.

Stafford - None

Staffordshire County - Six trips costing £8,552.64 in 2011/12 to Brussels, Ivanovo in Russia, Paris and Bremen.

13 trips costing £9,408.94 in 2012/13. Eight were Brussels, one to Ivanovo, one to Poznan, Paris, Cannes and Bremen.

15 trips costing £12,052.60 in 2013/14. Seven were to Brussels, two to Vienna, one to Ghent, one to Maastrict, Cannes, Poznan, Ivanovo and Bremen

Wyre Forest - none

Wolverhampton - 33 foreign trips since 2011 at a cost of £14,472.57. All but eight were covered in full by other parties.

Included India, Vienna, Paris, Slovenia, Calgary, Richmond, Jamaica

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