Council transport bill shock

URGENT cost-cutting plans have been drawn up after it emerged county council staff drive enough miles every day to go round the world twice - costing taxpayers £27million a year.

By Jonathan Barnes

URGENT cost-cutting plans have been drawn up after it emerged county council staff drive enough miles every day to go round the world twice - costing taxpayers £27million a year.

Employees at Suffolk County Council clocked up almost 20million miles - more than 54,000 a day - in 2005-6, according to latest figures.

The huge cost of mileage is calculated by between £7.5m and £10m in direct costs, such as allowances and the cost of pool and hire cars, and £19m in loss of staff time spent travelling.

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Financial consultants want the council to cut mileage by 1% every year over the next few years, making annual savings of £250,000.

But Reg Hartles, chairman of the Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk, said the cutbacks needed to go further.

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“It's a staggering distance and cost and if they can't make savings on that, we're all done for,” he said.

“Many of these savings are commonsense and I'm amazed the council has taken this long to sort them out.”

Much of the huge cost of business mileage is caused by “essential” trips by social workers and education officials for meetings. About half of all mileage is attributed to social services, with about 30% linked to education.

Staff using company cars have been claiming 8p a mile but those using their own cars can claim up to 81p a mile if they are classed as an “essential” user. The average is 44p.

Plans to cut unnecessary mileage include setting up a team of “business mileage champions”, who will be responsible for generating and following through ideas.

The council, which directly employs 10,000 people, is already planning to cut the number of “essential” car users, review mileage allowances, move to a new, centralised car hire system and make better use of technology such as video conferencing.

The “champions” will look into the council's fleet of vehicles to see where savings can be made and staff will also be encouraged to take public transport to meetings, share lifts in their cars and cycle to work.

The changes are part of a cost-cutting regime that requires the council to make £24m savings in 2006-7 after a “devastating” budget settlement from the Government.

Jane Storey, the council's portfolio holder for resources, finance and performance, said: “We recognise that people have to travel for council business, but we are encouraging them to 'think green' whenever possible.

“Not only can this help us to work more efficiently and save money, it can also help us to reduce our impact on the environment too.”

A council spokeswoman added: “Officers and councillors do have to travel around on council business on a regular basis.

“In many cases we have to meet customers face-to-face, which increases our business mileage, but is an essential service.

“For example, social workers have to visit the elderly in their homes, education advisers have to visit the schools, and road engineers have to get to sites.

“We do recognise that we spend a lot on car mileage, in common with all local authorities. We have already had considerable success in encouraging more of our staff to use sustainable transport to get to work.

“Now we are exploring ways in which they can reduce their mileage when they are at work, for instance using public transport to get to and from meetings, car sharing, meetings via video conferencing and flexible working.”

Members of the resources finance and performance scrutiny committee will discuss the savings plans on Friday.

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