The North-East's largest council has come under fire for refusing to scrap  a  £12,000-a-year “clothing allowance” shared by its chairwoman and vice chairwoman

Critics have called on Durham County Council to axe the perk, pointing out  the cash - more than some people have to live on a year - could be better used to fund vital services.

The row over the allowance comes as the Labour-controlled authority is having to made huge cuts – more than £200m by 2018 – and is shedding 1,600 jobs.

Current chairwoman Councillor Linda Marshall receives a £13,300 basic allowance paid to all councillors, a special responsibility allowance of £6,650 – and a clothing allowance of £8,580.

The vice-chairwoman Pauline Charlton receives the basic allowance, a special responsibility allowance of £3,325 and a clothing allowance of £4,280.

Kevin Rowan, regional secretary of the TUC, said: “Everybody knows the financial pressures that councils are under and trade unions have encouraged councillors to take decisions that prioritise protecting services and jobs.

“Councillors need to take the lead by making sure that there aren’t any unjustifiable allowances or other perks that they receive.

“Durham County Council workers and tax payers will look at this and find it a bit unnecessary.”

Councillor Mark Wilkes, a Liberal Democrat councillor representing Framwellgate Moor, said: “You can find a reasonably priced suit for a man or woman for about £100.

“So the £12,000 plus that is paid to councillors Marshall and Charlton would pay for the equivalent of 120 suits.

“We should scrap this waste.

“Labour are fleecing Durham residents and opposition councillors and we have had enough of them trying to pull the wool over our eyes."

Deputy leader Alan Napier, the council’s cabinet portfolio holder for resources, said that the allowance had been in place for nearly 30 years.

He said: “[It] covers all expenses associated with being the chairman and is not solely a clothing allowance.”

He added that the chairwoman had very important civic responsibilities and was bound to incur “significant expenses” and that the workload had increased significantly since the council became a unitary authority in 2009.

He added that most council chairmen received expenses of this nature.

However, Nigel Martin, the council's Liberal Democrat leader,  said money saved by axing the clothing allowance could used to part-fund the county's Citizens Advice Bureaux which are having their funding contributions cut.

“We don’t believe there should be an enormous allowance like this for clothing," he said.

“£8,580, let alone £12,000, is more than a pensioner gets to live on during the course of a year.”

Council tax payer John Marshall (no relation), who lives in Shildon, contacted The Northern Echo to complain about the allowance.

He said: “I think this is a ludicrous amount for clothing and something should be done about it.”

Coun Marshall, who represents Chester-le-Street West for Labour, did not respond to calls to her County Hall office.

The councillor, who lives in Craghead, near Stanley, was previously vice-chairwoman and took over the post in April last year.

Her colleague – the current vice-chairwoman – Coun Charlton said: “I don’t think it is my place to comment.”

A spokesman for North Yorkshire County Council, which also has a chairman and vice-chair, said: “We don’t pay any additional sums beyond [the] special responsibility allowance.”

Hartlepool and Middlesbrough councils also confirmed that while special responsibility allowances are paid to its chairmen, no additional allowances are paid.

Meanwhile, Surrey County Council, which previously paid a clothing allowance to its chair and vice chair, scrapped the payments three years ago.