PUBLIC spending watchdogs have criticised a cash-strapped Hampshire council for planning to upgrade members' home computers at a cost of up to £80,000.

Local authorities across the county have been badly affected by the lockdown, which resulted in the closure of leisure centres and the suspension of car parking charges.

In May it was revealed that the coronavirus pandemic was costing New Forest District Council more than £1m a month in lost income.

The authority's head of finance, Alan Bethune, told members that the council's £3m reserve would be eaten up by the end of August.

Last month the council confirmed that the closure of leisure centres had cost it more than £800,000.

But £80,000 has been set aside to cover the cost of providing members with new laptops and improved broadband.

It follows the decision to suspend council and committee meetings and hold debates online.

Members of the ruling cabinet say the computer upgrades will help preserve the democratic process during the pandemic as well as ensuring the security of the council's systems.

But the move has come under fire from the TaxPayers' Alliance, which monitors the way public money is spent.

Joe Ventre, the organisation's digital campaign manager, said: "A lot of residents will be angry at this incredibly costly taxpayer-funded perk.

"Many people have had to adapt to working digitally from home and doing so out of their own pockets.

"While it’s reasonable for councillors to have access to equipment they need, they must use taxpayers' cash properly and avoid it being seen as a personal equipment slush fund."

The plan was also queried at the cabinet meeting.

Tory councillor Derek Tipp described £80,000 as "rather excessive". He argued that only 20 of the authority's 60 members might need help, which meant £20,000 would be "more than enough".

Cllr Jeremy Heron, cabinet member for finance, said it was vital that members could represent the public by taking part in online debates.

Speaking after the meeting Cllr Jack Davies, a member of the Liberal Democrat opposition group, said: "£80,000 is an excessive amount for 'smarter working' when budgets are strained.

"I tried to ask the Conservative portfolio holder if the amount would be reviewed on a monthly basis and any surplus used to support frontline services.

"However, I was cut off by the chairman of the council and never got to finish my question."


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