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Public foots bill for top hotels

PUBLISHED: 09:00 02 April 2011

eadt news west - mariam ghaemi - photograph Tudor Morgan-Owen 23/11/10; Suffolk County Council Chief Excecutive Andrea Hill visits the Newbury Community Centre in Bury St Edmunds to talk to local residents.; EADT 24.11.10; EADT 27.11.10; EADT 2.12.10

eadt news west - mariam ghaemi - photograph Tudor Morgan-Owen 23/11/10; Suffolk County Council Chief Excecutive Andrea Hill visits the Newbury Community Centre in Bury St Edmunds to talk to local residents.; EADT 24.11.10; EADT 27.11.10; EADT 2.12.10

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Suffolk County Council chief executive Andrea Hill has stayed at two of Suffolk’s most upmarket hotels at the taxpayers’ expense.

In the last year, she has twice stayed at Milsom’s at Kesgrave, and once at the Brudenell in Aldeburgh, and on each occasion she has claimed the cost on expenses.

But her stays at taxpayers’ expense ended after she was asked not to put any more bills on her expenses.

The figures were revealed in a Freedom of Information request, lodged by the East Anglian Daily Times, that showed the county council spent £85 on two occasions for Mrs Hill to stay at Milsom’s Kesgrave Hall hotel and £120 on a night at the Brudenell, in Aldeburgh.

The hotel stays meant Mrs Hill did not have to drive to or from her home in Cambridgeshire before or after the meetings or dinners.

The stays at Kesgrave Hall were in May and June last year. On the first occasion Mrs Hill stayed there, she had a late evening meeting followed by a 7.30am breakfast meeting.

On the second occasion, she was due at a business breakfast meeting at Ipswich Town FC, which is next to the county council’s Endeavour House offices.

County council deputy leader Jane Storey said Mrs Hill had stopped staying at Kesgrave Hall at the authority’s expense after members of the cabinet became concerned.

She said: “Certain members of the cabinet had been made aware of some of the expenses and we were not happy so we talked to Jeremy [Pembroke] and he talked to Andrea.

“She was not going over the top so far as I am aware, but we were very aware of the sensitivity of the situation and said this is not a good image.”

Mrs Storey said that the climate had changed over the last year.

She said: “To be fair to Andrea, I think she has changed some of the things that she does and puts in for. I feel she has changed some of her expenditure.”

The council picked up the bill for Mrs Hill to stay at the Brudenell after a dinner organised by the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality in the town. Mrs Storey said the decision to stay at the Brudenell was different because it had given Mrs Hill the opportunity to meet other people from Suffolk well into the evening.

She said she would have expected that stay to have been agreed with Mr Pembroke.

Mrs Storey said that when the council recruited Mrs Hill they knew she lived outside the county and that there would be times when she may be at a late-night dinner and at a breakfast meeting.

Geoff Dobson, the county council’s head of finance, said: “The role of chief executive at Suffolk County Council often requires Andrea Hill to attend early, back-to-back, and late meetings on behalf of the council.

“In the vast majority of cases, she travels home between working days. On three occasions in the last year, the requirements of particular meetings have meant that she has stayed in a local hotel paid for by the county council.

“These figures demonstrate how rare an occurrence this is. This option would be available to other members of staff in similar circumstances.”

The total cost of Mrs Hill’s hotel bills to council tax payers during the year was £1,784.72.

That included three nights at the Haven Hotel, in Poole, at a cost of £615 during the Local Government Association conference in October. The same month the council spent £341.41 on four nights at the St David’s Hotel, in Cardiff, during the Society of Local Government Chief Executives conference.

The county also spent £320 on a two-night seminar with the Association of County Chief Executives, in Beardsall Priory near the Peak District, which included the seminar fee.

A one-night stay at the Thistle Trafalgar after a London 2012 dinner in the capital cost £143.31 and a stay at the Belfry Hotel, in Cambridge, between a two-day public sector leaders conference cost £75.

Opposition Liberal Democrat leader Kathy Pollard was concerned at the use of council funds to pay for hotel accommodation in the county.

She said: “The former chief executive Mike More also lived in Cambridgeshire, but he bought a small home in Ipswich at his own expense where he stayed if he had an early or late meeting.”

Labour group leader Sandy Martin said it would be acceptable for Mrs Hill to stay in an hotel in Suffolk at the council’s expense – but only if there were meetings continuing at the hotel well into the night or early the next day.

He said: “Generally, I would say it is either up to the person, whoever it is, to go home or to stay at their own expense.

“There was one occasion when I stayed at an hotel in Sudbury because people staying at the hotel were in meetings well into the night and from early the next morning, and I think it was acceptable for that kind of thing to be paid for.

“But if you are just staying in an hotel as a matter of personal convenience and there are not meetings going on, then that should be paid for privately and not by the authority.”

Mrs Hill has been at the centre of controversy since her appointment three years ago, when it was revealed that her salary was nearly £220,000 a year, £70,000 more than that of her predecessor.

In recent weeks, she has been criticised over public money being spent on publicity photos, and also over the cost of coaching 
sessions for her and leading councillors.

Last weekend, two Lib-Deb councillors, including Kathy Pollard, used a complete page in a national Sunday newspaper to launch a withering attack on Mrs Hill.

As chief executive of the county council, Mrs Hill is spearheading the introduction of the New Strategic Direction, which is Suffolk’s response to swingeing Government cutbacks.

There has been a furious response to threats to the future of many libraries, axeing school crossing patrols, and closing some waste recycling sites.

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