Southend council free meal plan criticised amid £12m cuts

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A council which scrapped subsidies for meals-on-wheels has been labelled "out of touch" after deciding to give a free meal to councillors before a meeting.

The two-course tea will be served to members of the Conservative-run Southend Borough Council before its meeting on Thursday evening.

Those who approved the free meal said they hoped it would improve "camaraderie" among members.

But opponents have called for the idea to be dropped.

It is understood the decision to offer the free meal was made at a meeting of all four of the council's group leaders.

Is council tea an indulgence that leaves a bad taste in the mouth?

Well, not for most of the history of local government, when it was universally provided for councillors who had to attend evening meetings straight from work.

Dinners at taxpayer expense have now largely become a thing of the past. Council teas are regarded as a waste of public money at a time when budgets are stretched.

We are in an era when councils are axing public sector jobs and reducing funding for social care and charitable organisations.

Questions over whether providing council teas shows the right attitude at a time when taxpayers are tightening their own belts, have proved overwhelming.

With the passing of traditions, some things are lost. It is argued that civilised conversation over a cuppa has been the casualty of these decisions.

But Labour councillor Julian Ware-Lane said: "It is extremely poor political judgement. It amazes me it could even be suggested."

'Camaraderie gone'

He said the free teas - which were scrapped three years ago - sent out the "wrong signal" to residents.

Nearly £12m in savings are being made by the council this year.

The savings include scrapping the £168,000 meals-on-wheels subsidy - which has meant the cost going up from £3 to £4.50 a meal - and shedding about 120 posts.

Council leader Nigel Holdsworth said the meal was "being offered as a one-off" which would be reviewed after Thursday's meeting.

Liberal Democrat group leader Graham Longley said: "For many, many years there was a pre-council tea that gave the members from different parties the chance to talk and discuss items in a calm and efficient manner.

"That camaraderie has gone - since we cancelled the pre-council teas there's a flatness to proceedings.

"This is partly for the people coming straight to the council from work and, if they feel it's appropriate, they can pay for it themselves."

He added the meal would be "something basic" and "of minimal cost".

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