CRITICS have branded plans to give county councillors an extra £10,000 each to spend on local projects “buying votes”
and “a misuse of public money”.
Cllr Ken Thornber was narrowly re-elected leader of Hampshire County Council after the promise of a hike in individual grants was dangled under councillors’ noses.
As revealed by the Daily Echo yesterday, Cllr Thornber beat his rival Cllr Roy Perry by 25 votes to 23 at the Conservative group annual meeting at The Castle in Winchester last week.
More cash to spend on local good causes was one of several measures Cllr Thornber promised Conservative colleagues in a bid to win votes – and give backbenchers more of a role in policy-making and greater powers.
But Cllr Keith House, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group on the county council, said: “This extra £780,000 is not new money. It is cash raided from libraries, youth budgets, bus services and children’s centres.
“Liberal Democrats said these were unnecessary cuts and we’ve been proved right. £780,000 to buy 25 votes for the leader to keep his job is a travesty of misuse of public funds and democracy.”
Cllr House added: “In times of massive cuts in services for older people and our youth, increasing this budget is not a Lib Dem priority.”
But Cllr Thornber defended the hike in local councillor budgets, saying the extra money would come from corporate savings and not cuts to frontline services.
The Tory chief said extra cash would be available to councillors of all political parties, adding: “It is to be spent specifically to improve roads and pavements and the general environment in their divisions.
This is similar to an existing scheme in Kent.”
Currently councillors get £8,000 each to spend on community projects in their electoral divisions, which was reduced from £10,000 last year as part of £100m budget cuts.
Under Cllr Thornber’s proposals, all 78 county councillors will have their individual budgets more than doubled to £18,000, starting in October.
This includes £10,000 to hand to community projects and £8,000 ringfenced to improve the environment in their local areas, including roads and pavements.
In total, this will add £780,000 to the county council’s budget at a time of cuts to frontline services, including care of the elderly and Sure Start children’s centres.
However individual budgets have proved popular with councillors of all parties as a chance to help their local communities.
Grants have been given to a wide range of projects, from newboats for Sea Scouts to replacement boilers in village halls and refurbishing war memorials to replanting hedgerows.
Councillors are barred from giving grants to political organisations and campaign groups.
A spokesman for the Local Government Association said it did not have figures to show how many councils had individual councillor budgets.
He said: “It is quite popular and a link between local communities and their councillors but it is up to each local authority how it chooses to spend money in its patch.”
Kent County Council gives councillors £10,000 each to spend on community projects and a second larger pot of money for highways improvements.
However unlike Hampshire County Council, each councillor publishes an annual report on the local authority’s website giving the exact details of how and where the money is spent.
The Daily Echo asked for but was unable to obtain before going to press a breakdown of how Hampshire county councillors spent their individual budgets last year.