Scottish councils have been criticised for using their Common Good Funds to pay for council officials to fly off to foreign countries, including Mexico, France and Germany.

Highland Council spent £2,000 from their Common Good funds on flights in recent years while Aberdeen City Council spent £1,350, according to data gained under freedom of information law.

Common Good Funds are derived from Scotland’s ancient burgh property, such as land, buildings, and investments, and held on behalf of local residents by councils. Both Aberdeen and Highland councils describe their funds as existing to support “projects that benefit communities”.

But the Scottish Greens said that flights should be “adequately budgeted for elsewhere and definitely not at the expense of communities”. The GMB Scotland trade union said it was not “credible” for councils to claim to be “building bridges around the world if people feel they are burning them in their own backyard”.

In 2015, Highland Council spent £1,388 on flights to Paris for then-Inverness Lord Provost Alex Graham and other council officials to attend the 75th anniversary of the battle of Saint Valery-en-Caux. Many Highland soldiers fought in the battle, which resulted in the town’s twinning with Inverness.

Another £337 was used to pay for the University of the Highlands and Islands’ (UHI) then-principal and vice-chancellor, Clive Mulholland to fly to Augsburg, Germany. The trip was made to formalise a commitment for UHI and the Augsburg University of Applied Science “to explore ways they can work together”.

And in 2016, £270 was used to fly Graham and current Lord Provost, Helen Carmichael to Stornoway to attend the Local Organising Committee of the 2020 Inverness Royal National Mòd.

In September, we reported concerns that councils were failing to manage Common Good Funds properly after revealing that many are worth far less now than they were ten years ago. Academics and politicians called for new rules to improve management of the funds and ensure that they are not “frittered away.”

Highland Council, which has one of the country’s largest common good funds, has seen its value decline by £2.5m over ten years.

Common good funds falling value sparks call for reform

The Scottish Greens questioned use of the funds for flights. “Common Good Funds should be used exclusively for community benefit”, said Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie. “If it’s felt that politicians absolutely need to undertake these visits, then they should be adequately budgeted for elsewhere and definitely not at the expense of communities.

“In the face of the climate emergency it would be heartening to see local authorities review the number of flights taken, and ensure that more sustainable forms of transport are used where appropriate.”

A Highland council spokesperson said travel costs were “essential in ensuring that the city is represented at the highest city civic level”.

They said: “The value to the culture of the city and ongoing development of economic links, especially with the City of Augsburg provide strong justification for future investment. Decisions will continue to be taken in an open, fair and accountable manner.”

The council recognises the climate emergency as “a major issue” and “considerable care and attention is given to the most appropriate form of travel”, the spokesperson added.

Aberdeen City Council used £594 of its Common Good Fund to fly the Deputy Lord Provost to Mexico in 2017. A council spokesperson said the trip was a trade development visit to sign memorandums of understanding in Mexico and Columbia.

Some £297 was also used that year to fly Lord Provost Barney Crockett to London to attend an entrepreneurial event as part of his Lord Lieutenancy duties. The Pitch@Palace event held at London’s St James Palace followed a similar local event held in Aberdeen, the spokesman said.

An additional £311 funded a flight for the Provost to visit the HMS Diamond in Portsmouth and a further £155 paid for a flight and rail ticket for him to attend a consultation for HM Lord Lieutenants at Windsor Castle.

A council spokesman explained that the Lord Provost of Aberdeen is an “ancient office with its roots in the 13th century”, who acts as the “Convener of the City Council, Civic Head and Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Aberdeen”.

The Lord-Lieutenant’s “principal duty is to represent the Crown within the Lieutenancy area and to uphold its dignity” but is “also required to attend Lieutenancy meetings, which are usually held in London”, they said.

Crockett travels abroad frequently as part of his role and was the highest claimant of council expenses in both 2017/18 and 2018/19. According to the Aberdeen Evening Express, he claimed £17,134 in expenses in 2017/18, “£10,972 of which was for travel, and £5,196 on subsistence, over and above his £28,514 salary.”

In 2018, Crockett made four foreign trips, costing taxpayers £24,000, and in 2019, visited Houston, Texas three times in five months, according to The Press and Journal.

GMB Scotland’s Aberdeen-based organiser Mel Greenhalgh said there was “an obligation on Aberdeen City Council to ensure all travel and expenses claims by officials and elected representatives demonstrate value for money in a climate where every penny is a prisoner.”

She said: “We are now in a second decade of austerity and the pressures on local government budgets are not easing. Our members are contending with the threat of cuts to terms and conditions and redundancy on an annual basis.

“It wouldn’t be credible for the council to say its building bridges around the world if people feel they are burning them in their own backyard, so some perspective is needed and everything that draws on tax payers’ money must have a purpose.”

Crockett called GMB’s claims of threats to terms and conditions and compulsory redundancies “completely untrue”. Aberdeen council “meet with the unions regularly, including GMB, so we’re surprised that that claim was made”, he said.

Crockett added that he understood the “pressures” faced by trade unions and that the council’s relationship with them was ”amongst the best if not the best in Scotland”.

Aberdeen City Council declined to comment.

Header image: Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

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