In short, the fund was set up to allow each councillor to spend up to £5,000 on projects in their ward, with the aim of improving engagement and allowing individual councillors to back projects that would benefit their respective communities.
£15,000 of the fund was retained to cover administrative costs, leaving £270,000 for the councillors. Projects had to have a minimum spend of £500.
As of October 2018, just under £233,000 of the fund has been spent by 51 of BCBC’s 54 councillors. The full details are available here (pdf). The scheme has now closed.
I’m not going to list every single project but, by and large, spending has focused on schools, community groups, environmental improvements (i.e. street cleaning, bus shelter repairs), public defibrillators, Christmas decorations and road safety schemes.
“Significant officer time”
The report says that “significant officer time” has been taken up dealing with applications from councillors – something that was apparently not envisaged when the fund was thought up.
“Although designed to be a low-cost scheme, in reality, the administrative burden has been substantial and has involved officer time across the authority including officers providing financial advice and guidance….”
Officers list a number of problems including incomplete application forms, hold ups relating to declaration of interests and slow responses from councillors when queries have been raised.
More worryingly, four applications from councillors (taken from a sample of applications) valued above £1,000 didn’t come with the recommended 3 quotations. However, there were no major concerns about how the scheme has been administered and every councillor attended training on how to use the scheme.
One unnamed councillor, however, attended training but somehow didn’t follow the correct process. They submitted their claim directly to the department having bypassed the official method and, therefore, didn’t having their project properly recorded for some time afterwards.
“Recommended for cessation”
The reaction of councillors to the scheme is said to be mixed. The scheme has clearly benefited local communities, but there were complaints about inflexibility, the “difficult” application process and a struggle to get community groups interested.
Officers believe the money would be better used as part of a wider budget benefiting all residents of the county and asked the Audit Committee to recommend to BCBC’s Cabinet that the fund be scrapped and the £285,000 used to stave off further cuts to council services in next year’s budget.