£150,000 cost of promotion trips by city council

YORKSHIRE'S largest council has spent more than £150,000 on flights and hotels for its staff and elected members over the past three years including trips to China, Milan, Amsterdam and Nice.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal Leeds City Council has funded a host of trips across Britain, Europe and beyond since 2007 against a background of public sector job losses and an ever-tightening squeeze on local Government spending.

The authority said the 150,000 figure should be taken in the context of its annual 2.1bn budget, and that spending "small amounts" on training sessions, conferences and civic visits can improve staff competence and helped to promote Leeds at a global level.

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But spreadsheets cataloguing the council's travel expenditure reveal the cost to taxpayers of certain flights alone has run into many thousands of pounds.

For example, the authority spent a total of 11,500 on flights for two trips to the city of Hangzhou in eastern China for the Lord Mayor of Leeds plus his entourage in 2009 and 2010. The civic visits were organised because Leeds has been twinned with the Chinese city for the past 20 years.

The council did not specify whether the Mayor flew in economy or business class – but the cost of the flights alone for the Mayor and partner was 4,929 for the trip in 2010, and 3,704 for the trip in 2009.

In 2008 the authority spent 2,000 flying the Mayor plus partner and the Sergeant at Mace to Brno in the Czech Republic – another city with which Leeds has established a formal partnership.

The travel documents reveal taxpayers have been funding expensive foreign trips for council officers as well as its elected members,

In October last year, just days before the Government was due to announce savage cuts to every council's budget in its comprehensive spending review, Leeds spent 5,500 sending a large team of officers from its city development team to a conference in Milan. The flights were economy class tickets with budget airline Jet2.

Officers from the same department have flown to destinations across Europe over the past three years to attend conferences and attempt to raise the city's profile on the European stage.

Other expensive flights funded by local taxpayers include 909 on flights to Nice in the south of France, and a 447 return flight to Amsterdam.

Officers from the council's children's services department also made frequent trips abroad, though this can be a necessary part of vetting adoption and child safety cases.

However, one flight to Greece cost the taxpayer 1,500.

And the council also paid 350 for a flight from Leeds to Edinburgh on three separate occasions. An off-peak return train ticket costs 88.

Other trips within the UK funded by Leeds City Council included spending 1,365 sending two elected councillors to a conference in the seaside town of Bournemouth in June 2008.

Council officers spent three nights at the 214 a night Plaza Riverbank Hotel in London, a "four star deluxe" establishment which offers "stunning views of Big Ben and the London Eye" from its location on the South Bank of the River Thames.

The authority also paid out 3,600 for seven executive members of West North West Homes, the arm's-length body which runs council housing on its behalf, to attend a single-night conference in Manchester in July 2010.

Staff attending included the housing association's chief executive plus five of its directors.

Leeds also paid nearly 900 to send two delegates from West North West Homes to a conference on cleaning.

In a short statement, the city council reiterated that the 150,000 spent on flights and hotels since 2007 was a tiny part of its overall budget.

A spokesman said: "While the council is under financial pressure now, when taken against the council's overall budget of more than 6bn over the last three years these small amounts actually pay great dividends – both making the council a more professional organisation, and ensuring the city of Leeds is known nationally and internationally as a good place to do business."

The council's has been backed by the Local Government Association, which represents councils across England and Wales.

On Saturday it told the Yorkshire Post: "Forging links abroad is an important way of generating investment, developing cultural ties, boosting trade and creating jobs in the UK."