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Borough Council’s £13m Spend on Consultants Hailed as Good News

Published on: 8 Jun, 2022
Updated on: 8 Jun, 2022

Emily Coady-Stemp

local democracy reporter

GBC’s £13 million a year spend on expensive consultants and agency staff has been hailed as “good news”.

The spend was down from £14.8 million in 2020/21 and included more than £5 million 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”.

Cllr Tim Anderson (R4GV, Clandon and Horsley) said that the total spend was almost unchanged from the previous year.

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.”

Cllr 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 £5.5 million 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 consultants for 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 £7 million 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”.

But party colleague Clr Tony Rooth (R4GV, 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 £335 million Weyside Village, full breakdowns had been brought to other meetings, and had been broken down into sub-headings for different parts of the projects.

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Responses to Borough Council’s £13m Spend on Consultants Hailed as Good News

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    June 8, 2022 at 7:15 pm

    If you can’t do consult. A better thing would be to consult the residents. I’m absolutely sure they could find local retired experts to provide the consultation needed. But would the council officers think anyone of age could possibly have any experience on subjects associated with running the borough?

  2. Martin Elliott Reply

    June 9, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    Apart from requesting more details on costs and scope of work, did any councillors offer reasonable suggestions on cost controls and perceived “value for money”.

    If they recruit more specialist officers, having just laid off ~100, for example, do they know, given salary and overheads, how much cheaper that would be. What would happen when the project ends.

    Too many complain about use of contractors and consultants without understanding the basic reasons why it is an advantage over permanent staff.

    • Keith Reeves Reply

      June 12, 2022 at 11:16 pm

      The other two replies well illustrate Martin’s point in his last sentence. Approximately £6.5 million of these costs are attributable to just two construction and housing schemes.

      Without an ongoing pipeline of these projects, a borough council is not going to have a requirement for all of the architects, planners, engineers of many disciplines, environmental specialists of many disciplines, and so on, that these projects need.

      Indeed, many of these specialists will only be required for part of their time on a one-off, or sporadic basis.
      I’m sure complaints would be made if the council took on permanent staff who were only partially utilised.

      The use of agency staff or contractors for routine work, on a short-term or permanent basis, is a separate issue.

  3. Lisa Wright Reply

    June 9, 2022 at 9:23 pm

    Hang on! If GBC regularly spends that yearly amount on external consultants why don’t they just employ more people?

    £13 million sure buys a lot of staff. Even if consultants earn a generous £1000 a day, that’s still about 40 they could employ full time.

    Alternatively, I’d like to know what the 1,300 days’ worth of consultants actually did and what the ROI is.

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