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Poll: St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath’s £1million consultancy bill - including £200,000 on move to shared service

PUBLISHED: 10:06 06 June 2014

The West Suffolk House council offices in Bury St Edmunds

The West Suffolk House council offices in Bury St Edmunds

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More than £1million in taxpayers’ money has been splashed out by two west Suffolk councils on consultants - a fifth of which was spent on a highly touted move to shared services.

The spending by Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury councils also includes more than £11,000 on graphic designers and £50,000 for a specialist highways study into the controversial Hatchfield Farm application in Newmarket, according to figures obtained by the EADT.

The councils work together under the banner of West Suffolk and claim to be saving £3.5million a year after moving to a shared service, which included wide-scale redundancies, and a spokeswoman said it is cheaper for the council to use consultants than employ specialists full time.

“As with any business, the council employs expert advisers if we do not have the specific skills or capacity within our own staff,” said the spokeswoman.

“It is much cheaper than having more staff on our payroll, and in some cases we can also reclaim the costs.

“In the case of planning inquiries, they prevent the council being liable to the award of costs from the appellant’s side - potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds - so also provide value for money at large inquiries where the applicant uses expensive barristers and legal teams to challenge the council’s decisions on planning applications and policy.”

Almost £200,000 has been split between two firms - Ignite Consulting and Graincrest Ltd - to undertake an in-depth restructuring programme for the move to shared services.

Forty-eight redundancies across both councils saw them pay out £2.7m during the transition, according to their annual accounts.

St Edmundsbury’s emerging Vision 2031 document has seen the council fork out almost £60,000 - including £600 for two phone calls to a London barristers - while the council has also spent big on research into retail.

Retail experts DTZ Consulting were handed more than £30,000 by St Edmundsbury for a variety of reports and planning advice, while Deloitte was paid more than £37,000 to carry out a retail appraisal report.

Bury St Edmunds borough and county councillor David Nettleton said: “By reducing staff numbers, there is a need to employ outside experts on an occasional basis.

“But if St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath are increasingly becoming enabling organisations, is there a need to pay such high salaries to those officers who are merely acting as go-betweens?”

In Forest Heath, development control has been the central focus of council spending over the time period covered by the figures - from April 1, 2010, to January 1, 2014.

It paid more than £50,000 to consultants over the purchase of the Omar Homes site in Brandon, as well as £16,000 over the application to put housing at the Meddler Stud in Kentford, which was rejected by Forest Heath and again at appeal.

Leading law firm Mayer Brown was paid more than £50,000 to produce a report on the highways impact of the first 1,200-home Hatchfield Farm application.

In response to the EADT’s Freedom of Information (FoI) request, the council said: “Without undertaking this work, the council would not have been in a position to determine the planning application with all of the information and evidence available.”

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