Northumberland council official claimed thousands of pounds in taxpayer cash for air travel

One of Northumberland County Council’s top earners has claimed thousands of pounds in expenses flying between London and the North East since being appointed in November, new figures have revealed.

By James Robinson
Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 12:38 pm

A freedom of information request by the local democracy service has uncovered that the council’s interim monitoring officer, Suki Binjal, received £3,501.68 to cover air travel expenses in just five months since she was appointed.

According to the council’s senior management structure as of April 1, Ms Binjal is in Band 17 of the council’s payscales, earning between £120,000 and £124,999 a year on a pro-rata basis.

A Northumberland Labour spokesman said: “Given the cost of living crisis and the perceived waste of money at the county council already, plus the millions cut this year from frontline services, it’ll be difficult for people to understand why thousands have been spent on flights when rail tickets are far more cost-effective and work can be completed easily during the journey.

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County Hall in Morpeth

“These temporary posts from London should be short, but given the disarray in the political administration, they seem prolonged costing huge amounts of money. We see this as a precedent being set now.”

The figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act also revealed the monitoring officer’s expenses for rail travel during the same period totalled just £231.50 – despite the fact rail has a significantly lower carbon footprint.

According to data from BEIS/Defra Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors 2019, domestic rail produces 41g of CO2 emissions per passenger per km travelled. In comparison, domestic flights produce 133g of CO2 per passenger per km, as well as 121g of non-CO2 emissions caused by secondary effects from high altitude.

Coun Nick Morphet, who represents the Humshaugh ward for the Green Party, said there was “no excuse” for internal flights.

Coun Morphet said: “We are in the jaws of a climate crisis. Of all forms of public transport, air travel emits the highest amount of carbon.

“There is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for domestic flights. We should be travelling around the country by bus and train.

“If buses and trains don’t go to the area we need to be in, we have options like electric cars – and we should be cycling or walking short distances.

“It is also taxpayer’s money. You can get from London to Newcastle in about three and a half hours now. I see no possible excuse for internal flights.”

Asked why air travel had been used, a spokesman for Northumberland County Council said: “This is a key senior role within the council with a high and complex workload.

“While this is an interim post, the Monitoring Officer spends most of her time working remotely, based in London, and using air travel is much quicker and allows her to spend more time working in the county when required to attend for face-to-face meetings, and less time commuting.”

It comes just weeks after shocking figures revealed the council was paying 20 high-up employees more than £100,000 a year – the highest number of any council in the North East.

At the time, council leader Glen Sanderson pledged to cut around £1 million from the council’s wage budget by reviewing the management structure and bringing in new permanent staff to replace interim officers.