Public money handed to local councils to revitalise their high streets has been spent on apparently frivolous items including a £1,500 Santa Claus and £1,000 reindeer.
The Government gave 100 local authorities millions of pounds last March in a high-profile initiative designed to attract shoppers to town centres.
But a year later most councils have spent precious little of the £10m High Street Innovation Fund on creative ideas. More worryingly, they seem to have wasted much of the initial expenditure on short-term and whimsical items, which would typically form part of their overall budget.
In addition to the Santa Claus and reindeer, one council spent £5,124 on a portable stage and PA system, while another spent £37,000 on a salary for a business manager.
Among the 72 councils that responded to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, they have spent just £519,363, or 7.2 per cent, out of the £7.2m awarded to them. Many councils, such as Birmingham, Bolton and London’s Westminster, the heartland of MPs, had not spent a single penny from their £100,000 grant by 31 January.
The figures follow this paper’s revelations about how councils involved with another retail initiative – the 12 so-called Portas Pilots associated with the retail expert Mary Portas – have been similarly slow-moving, with one also spending £1,600 on a Peppa Pig costume for a day.
The slow progress of the High Street Innovation Fund – dubbed “Portas Plus” – comes at a time when many local high streets are in crisis, with a vacancy rate of more than one in seven shops.
Retail expert Paul Turner-Mitchell, who uncovered the FOI data, said: “It’s hard to see how council spending from this fund is encouraging innovation. Councils are continuing to throw taxpayers’ money at the same stale ideas they’ve been peddling for years. They really are just fiddling while Rome burns and the fact that it’s being done under the banner of ‘innovation’ adds insult to injury.”
Despite Ms Portas saying that the money should not be “spent by the usual suspects sitting round a table planning Christmas decorations”, Kingston upon Hull splashed £5,563 on a nativity street theatre, while the Vale of White Horse lavished £1,000 on reindeer and £485 on a children’s farm for a “Christmas Extravaganza”.
Stephen Brady, a councillor at Kingston upon Hull, said: “Last year we attracted more than 70,000 visitors to events in the Old Town area that gave a significant boost to footfall.” Suzanne Malcolm, at South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils, said: “The particular Christmas projects you refer to were a great success.”
A spokesman for North Tyneside Council, which splashed out on the Santa, said: “Our local chambers of trade have been consulted about the use of the funding and supported using a small percentage of it to pay for elements of a wider Christmas events and marketing campaign.”
Tonight a spokesman for Ms Portas said: “The Portas Pilots Scheme has resulted in 400 towns across the country coming together and creating town teams to help reinvigorate their high streets.”