Exclusive: Parish council pays chairman £20,000 for cutting the grass

The Dales village of Long Preston, near Settle
The Dales village of Long Preston, near Settle
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A PARISH COUNCIL in North Yorkshire paid its chairman more than £20,000 over three years to cut the grass and maintain roadside verges.

Long Preston Parish Council awarded both the grass cutting contract for its ten village greens and playing fields and the lengthsmen contract for maintenance of roadside verges to Tory chairman Nick Thwaite.

Coun Thwaite was awarded the contract in 2007 shortly after being elected. Previously, Trevor Shuttleworth had carried out the work for nearly 20 years.

According to the authority’s accounts Mr Shuttleworth was paid around £1,000 a year for grass cutting, and would negotiate costs for additional maintenance on a case by case basis.

The accounts show that he was paid £2,887 in his final year of work in 2007.

Coun Thwaite denied there was any conflict of interest, said he declared his interest ahead of any discussions about the contract and did not take part in them. The contract was awarded by Coun Thwaite’s deputy, Coun Keith McBride.

However, Craven District Council said it was aware of a number of complaints from residnts.

The chairman of neighbouring Cowling Parish Council Alan Perrow said they employ a lengthsman rather than use outside contractors, paying £8 per hour.

Coun Perrow said they had 11 applications for the job. Stephanie Wheelhouse, clerk to Long Preston Parish Council, said Coun Thwaite’s bid – £18 per hour for lengthsman duties – was the only one they received for their latest contracts in 2010.

Emma Boon, campaign director at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said councils should be focused on “cutting spending not spending on cutting”.

“If neighbouring parish councils can get their grass cut for a fraction of the price, taxpayers in Long Preston will be angry that they are paying more,” she said. “It will only add to their aggravation that it’s the council’s own chairman that’s managed to bag the lucrative contract.

“The price Cowling Parish Council pays suggests that Long Preston could be getting it done about £10 an hour cheaper. The council should focus on cutting spending not spending on cutting.”

According to Long Preston’s accounts, after Coun Thwaite took over the work, annual spending on “open spaces” increased by nearly £4,000 to £6,690 for 2008.

In 2009 they increased to £14,863, mainly because the council paid for a new mower costing £5,557.

That year there was also an additional cost of mowing the village playing fields – previously this was undertaken by volunteers, but in 2008 the council paid Coun Thwaite more than £3,000 for the work.

Ms Wheelhouse said the decision was taken prior to her employment at the authority, but thought it may have been for insurance purposes.

The remaining costs were nearly £2,000 for the village greens, and more than £4,000 for lengthsmen duties.

The 2010 accounts reveal that £4,275 was spent on grass cutting and lengthsmen duties, representing 15 per cent of the authority’s £28,000 income.

Coun Thwaite said he is standing down from lengthsmen work from next year.

“The tendering process was put out publicly, advertised in the local paper,” he said.

“This time there were no other bids.

“I don’t see any conflict of interest at all – I declare my interest at any meetings about the contract and leave the room while discussions are taking place.

“The grass cutting is a two year contract and I use my own equipment for the lengthsmen work.

“I set the rates when I tendered for the contract, I am not employed by the council – I am a contractor.”

Ms Wheelhouse, said: “There is nothing unusual about the contract that Long Preston have. The standard advice is to contract out and not to someone directly.”

Craven District Council said it was “aware” of complaints.