THE largest council in the North-East is to cut the amount it spends on mobile phones for councillors.

A new agreed protocol means no more than £150 will be spent on any one mobile phone provided by Durham County Council, typically ‘smartphones’ providing e-mail and internet access.

Last year The Northern Echo revealed how 110 councillors at the authority, along with 917 staff, possessed smartphones with the overall bill – including ongoing costs and line rental – weighing in at £339,562.

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The figure dwarfed that spent by neighbouring North Yorkshire County Council, whose bill was £35,397.

Members at Durham County Council are also entitled to a laptop, although the authority revealed it is now trialling a number of modern tablet computers.

That move was criticised by independent Weardale county councillor John Shuttleworth.

He said: “The way money is at the moment, people should stick with the facilities that they have already got. It is just a total waste of money.”

County councillor Joe Armstrong, a member of the council’s member development and support group, said: “In terms of mobile phones we can’t just go and buy them at ridiculous prices.

“Members will have a limited choice of phones and the training to go with it.”

Coun. Armstrong said the authority was looking to move towards what he called a “paperless” office by introducing tablet computers.

“Members will have the choice of a laptop or tablet so they can download all our council papers onto those devices should they wish.

“This will be cost effective and save a fortune on officers’ time and printing and postage, more than mitigating the initial outlay.

“We can fully justify any expense on IT and mobile phones. In this modern age being a councillor is a 24/7 job and we need to be able to be contacted and kept updated when necessary.

“We are a £1.2bn organisation and the money spent on members’ equipment to make them more effective at the job that they do is a drop in the ocean.”

Phil Jackman, the council’s head of ICT services, added: “The new protocol on mobile phones introduces a limit on the cost of phones available to members.

“The choice of phones includes many models which are free or very low priced. Our network contract also means that the majority of calls from these phones are free.

“We also recently purchased a small number of tablet computers, which members are using on a trial basis so that we can establish whether they are a more suitable and cost-effective way of assisting members in doing their jobs than laptop computers.”