Council halves its bill for trips across world
County councillors making less visits to foreign shores but still cost the taxpayer more than £20,000
TRIPS abroad by senior county councillors, including visits to China, America and Hungary, cost the taxpayer more than £20,000 last year, we can reveal.
The details of more than 20 foreign visits made by senior councillors were released to the Kent Messenger Group under the Freedom of Information Act.
They show councillors travelled to a series of destinations for various conferences, summits and fact-finding missions and to drum up business investment.
But the number of visits abroad fell by about a third compared with the previous year, with far fewer elected members leaving these shores on council business.
Half of KCC’s 10-strong Conservative cabinet made no trips at all, compared with just two who did not in 2005. The costs have also fallen significantly from about the £50,000 that was spent in 2005.
Council leaders have again insisted that forging links with other countries is bringing investment into Kent and helping to improve services.
The travels of leading county councillors included a six-day trip to China in October by education cabinet member Cllr John Simmonds and four council officers that cost £2,850.
During their stay, the group visited various cities and provinces including Shanghai and Chongqing.
According to KCC, the visit enabled “the exchange of information and experience at all levels as a contribution to the enrichment of school education and [the] dissemination of best practice on educational issues”.
Cllr Simmonds was accompanied by council leader Paul Carter and schools boss Graham Badman for a three-day trip to Lisbon at the start of 2006. The group was there for a forum for European local government leaders organised by Microsoft.
During their stay, which cost just under £1,000, KCC secured a pledge by the company to contribute £250,000 to plans for a new secondary school academy in Romney Marsh.
A three-day visit in March to the popular holiday resort of Cannes in the south of France by Cllr Alex King, deputy council leader, and Cllr Graham Gibbens, former cabinet member for regeneration, cost £2,033.
According to KCC, it provided “a cost-effective method for promoting Kent’s inward investment opportunities” and an opportunity to forge “new contacts of interest for Kent”.
KCC’s efforts to build on links with Virginia in America saw senior councillors make several trips across the Atlantic. They included visits to discuss the ultimately failed plans for direct flights from Manston’s Kent International Airport and KCC’s involvement as a sponsor of the Smithsonian Festival in Washington.
In October, Cllr King spent five days in the capital holding meetings with representatives from the authorities in Virginia to discuss the flights plan, which has now been scrapped. The trip cost £3,263.
In December, Cllr King spent five days in Hungary meeting regional government leaders to discuss KCC’s links with the council of Bacs-Kiskun. The trip, also attended by two council officers, cost £1,030.
In the same month, county councillors Mike Hill and Richard Long, along with five council officials and journalists, attended a launch event detailing the route of this year’s Tour de France through Kent. The trip, which was subsidised by SEEDA, district councils and the Office of The Deputy Prime Minister, cost £2,074.
PLANS for a revamp of Kent County Council’s chamber could cost the taxpayer more than £60,000.
County councillors have backed a makeover to equip the council chamber at Maidstone’s Sessions House with the latest technology, including 50in plasma TV screens and high-tech retractable display screens.
KCC insists that the investment will help its efforts to get more people interested in council meetings, at the same time as replacing out-of-date audio and computer equipment installed 20 years ago.
County council leader Paul Carter said: “We have got to go about our business in a professional way.
“We are running a big business here and we need appropriate facilities.”
A report setting out the background for the investment, considered by councillors on Friday, states: “This is part of a process of modernising the authority and bringing the democratic process nearer to the public.”
The council’s shopping
list includes two 50in plasma screens, which KCC says will allow councillors and those watching council meetings via the Internet to view reports and presentations.
The screens, together with two new clocks, will cost an estimated £7,195.
But the most costly element of the revamp will be the estimated £27,000 to equip the chamber with three retractable screens and projectors, allowing county councillors to see the wording of amendments and motions they are debating.
The screens would also be used to show presentations by guest speakers.
A further £8,831 will be allocated for a video conferencing facility, allowing the council to “interact with other councils and agencies”.
A report presented to the council’s cross-party selection committee says that councils are being urged to do more to involve residents in their activities.
It states: “It [the modernisation] needs to be seen in the context of the Local Government White Paper, the drive to create more visible and effective leadership, to enhance democratic legitimacy, improve public access and engage citizens.”
One councillor made it as far as China
Glamorous Cannes was the destination for one councillor