Special report: Council defends using luxury hotels

A COUNCIL in charge of one of Yorkshire's largest and most deprived cities has spent up to £9,000-a-month on flights and hotel bills since 2008 despite looming cuts to its multi-million pound budget.

Bradford City Council, which is having its funding slashed by nearly a quarter by the Government over the next four years, has repeatedly paid for hotels costing more than 150-a-night for officers and councillors as well as sending staff on trips to destinations including Tokyo, New York and Abu Dhabi. The council is the highest-spending of all the Yorkshire authorities who responded to Freedom of Information requests for a breakdown of their expenditure on hotels and flights.

It said around a quarter of the 102,000 it has spent on flights over the past two years, and a fifth of the 105,000 it spent on hotels, can be claimed back from the West Yorkshire Pension Fund, a public sector scheme its officers run on behalf of five local authorities across the county.

The council said some of the most expensive foreign trips undertaken by staff since 2008, including a 7,000 tour of the Far East in October 2009 and a 5,000 Club Class flight to Hong Kong in October 2010, were an "important and integral part of the job" for pension managers and had been repaid by the fund.

Using Freedom of Information laws, the Yorkshire Post obtained a list of every hotel used by Bradford staff and members over the past two years. The list of almost 800 different stays includes a total of 137 nights at establishments costing 150-a-night or more. These include stays at the Grange City Hotel, a "luxury five-star hotel" overlooking the Tower of London and offering a choice of three restaurants, 24-hour room service and bathroom complete with "monogrammed bathrobes", and the 220-a-night Park Plaza Hotel, situated beside the London Eye on the South Bank of the Thames.

Other costly items included more than 2,500 at London's Malmaison Hotel in August 2009, and 1,100 for six staff to spend the night at the Shaftesbury Hotel in Covent Garden.

And in June and July 2010, as the new Government announced it was cutting Bradford's in-year budget by 7m, the council paid more than 3,750 for staff to stay at the four-star Rubens Hotel in Buckingham Palace Road.

The authority has defended its spending and said it "always tries to obtain the best possible price."

A spokeswoman added: "Staff and councillors do not regularly stay in luxury hotels. In London standard hotels are costly and it is sometimes necessary for staff to stay in central London – for example, when they have to close financial deals with international banks and lead solicitors on major projects."

The city council also spent 800 at the Sheraton Grand Hotel and Spa in Edinburgh in March 2009, and in October 2009 spent 1,300 on rooms in Harrogate, less than 20 miles from Bradford.

It said officers had been attending a conference in Harrogate and "stayed overnight due to evening meetings and briefings". But it added: "This practice is under review, as are all our expenses to ensure best value."

The authority said the most far-flung trips were made by staff working for the pensions fund. These included a 4,000 flight to Japan and subsequent tour of the Far East incorporating a 1,400 week's stay in Tokyo, a six-night 1,000 stop-off in Seoul, and 500 for four nights in Kuala Lumpur.

Other foreign trips included an 8,500 flight to Dubai, a 5,000 Club Class flight to Hong Kong plus trips to Chicago, New York and Abu Dhabi.

However, the council stressed such visits are paid for by the public sector pension fund it runs.

The spokeswoman said: "West Yorkshire Pension Fund (WYPF) expenses are not charged to council taxpayers – the costs are fully recovered from the WYPF."

Fund director Rodney Barton added: "The fund manages its investments at a cost of 7.97 per member, compared to 68.41 per member for the average local government fund which employs London-based managers at much greater cost."

The council said some of the other flights making up the 105,000 total were for school trips. This included nearly 10,000 on flights to Poland in March 2010 to visit Auschwitz, and nearly 4,000 on flights to Amsterdam to visit the Anne Frank museum.