A Surrey council’s £13 million a year spend on consultants and agency staff has been hailed as “good news”. The spend was down from £14.8m in 2020/21 and included more than £5m spent on consultants’ fees for the Weyside Urban Village planning application.
Guildford Borough Council’s lead councillor for resources introduced a report on spending to the authority’s overview and scrutiny committee on Tuesday (June 7), saying it was “full of good news”.
Councillor Tim Anderson (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Clandon and Horsley) said that the total spend was almost unchanged from the previous year.
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He said this hid the fact that there had been a 16 per cent fall in spending on consultants and also that the council had been successful in applying for grants for certain large capital schemes, which covered some agency and consultant fees.
Officers said there were now plans in place to control spending on staff outside the council and that there was now “increased rigour” in the process of appointing agents, workers and consultants.
But councillors were accused of being “detail junkies” by Cllr Anderson as they asked for more detailed future projections, as well as more detail on work carried out previously. He said: “It’s almost like a drug: you give a lot more detail, then people want even more.”
Councillor Guida Esteves ( Guildford Greenbelt Group, Send) said that though the report brought to members contained “a significant amount of information”, for her it lacked a “forward view”.
She said: “What I couldn’t understand from looking at all this information is when does this start dropping or going up? And [the costs are] all related to projects so having a forward view of it as to when those projects will cease to incur consulting costs would be incredibly useful.”
Council documents broke the spending down into revenue and capital spending, with capital referring to long-term projects such as new housing and infrastructure, and revenue being spending on the day-to-day running of the council.
Under capital projects, there was £5.5m spent on consultants in the granting of hybrid planning permission for Weyside Urban Village, a planned development of 1,500 homes around the Slyfield Industrial Estate.
There was also £937,882 spent on a consultants in the detailed design for the Ash Road Bridge, to replace the level crossing in the area which has previously been called “dangerous”.
The officer’s report said: “This high-level expenditure is a direct result of capital projects moving forward.”
It continued to say the council had been successful in getting £250,000 of funding to offset these costs and that grants meant had allowed more than £7m of the total capital expenditure to be funded.
Cllr Anderson said there could never be a “perfect forecast” of forthcoming spending because of issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, and a surge in planning applications that the borough council has seen. He said some spending had to be “reactive, to fill in holes when we can’t meet the demand”.
Councillor Tony Rooth (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Pilgrims) said parts of the report didn’t have “anything like enough detail for a spend of this magnitude”.
He wanted to see tables on projects and companies brought together to show which consultant was working on what, what their brief was and if they delivered.
Officers pointed out that for projects such as the £335m Weyside Village, full breakdowns had been brought to other meetings, and had been broken down into sub headings for different parts of the projects.