Alan Castle: Why do we pay for dear consultants?

WHEN the Lib-Dems took over control of Northumberland County Council, one of the first comments I made about the new authority was that I hoped that one item high upon its agenda would be to get rid of dreaded and very, very expensive consultants.

A new party in control, I thought, after years of Labour domination must have new bright ideas for the future. They had already highly-paid staff, they had a reorganisation but in many cases did not seem to pick the local experts for the right jobs. Instead, it appears they went down the well-worn track of employing, yes, you guessed it, very expensive consultants.

Latest figures from the authority, which continues week after week, month after month, to shoot itself in the foot and lower its esteem in the public eye, were revealed this week which show the exact opposite.

These figures reveal that they have paid out £530,000 to consultants in not a year but just one month. It came at the same time as other figures show that the authority which has said it will make hundreds of staff redundant has handed over half a million pounds for agency staff.

For one man alone, the council were said to have paid £1,175 a day while he acted as deputy chief executive and as a strategic adviser. Nice work if you can get it. In fact, the firm that employed him was paid a total of £64,000. If part of his strategy was cost-saving, maybe his first move was to suggest that his services were no longer required.

The unfortunate thing is we do not know exactly what is covered by consultants. Does it all go to the men in suits with bright, shining briefcases who just give advice and then disappear no matter if it is good or bad?

The council claim that Gatenby Sanderson, the firm that employed our £1,175 a day man, also provide interim staff during a massive change and a review of senior management that had saved the council some £1.9million a year.

But I am sure that these exercises could be carried out without paying consultants. Surely the Chief Executive of each department can make cuts to their staff. Surely they know who and what can be dispensed with, and what can not. That surely is why they are paid tens of thousands of pounds sometimes to take such unpalatable decisions. If they are not doing it, why are they in charge?

ONE good bit of news that came out of County Hall this week was the decision by the authority to reduce the number of editions of Northumberland News, the unwanted, unloved and costly monthly magazine that is costing council taxpayers over £200,000.

Now it is to come out quarterly and is not being delivered by the Royal Mail to every home in the county and it was once. Instead, you will have to pick it up from designated spots.

Even this smacks of face-saving. Why not just scrap it altogether and, for once, make a sensible decision? I am sure the residents would be delighted. Although I must admit if this happened I personally would miss it because it has provided so many comments for this column over the months.

However, I am sure that if the County Council continues in a similar vain in the months ahead I will not be at a loss for too long.

A FEW weeks ago, I mentioned the threat to our forests by Government plans to sell them off. The more you hear about it, the more pointless it becomes.

Public opinion, from one end of the country to the other, is against.

I love walking the forests, as I and millions of others have done for years all over the country. It is one of our basic rights, like the right to roam. Time for a Government U-turn and the quicker the better.