A COUNCIL facing an £8m black hole due to essential coronavirus spending has defended a decision to spend £48,000 extending its corporate marketing team, saying it is vital that the borough is recognised as “a significant player” in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Senior members of Darlington Borough Council’s Tory administration have dismissed a suggestion that the move illustrated a “very odd sense of its priorities” and said instead investing in the communications department highlighted its determination to support local businesses and ensure key public health messages reached residents.

Labour councillor Nick Wallis challenged the authority at a meeting of its corporate board over its decision to establish a “corporate marketing function”, featuring a full-time senior marketing officer and marketing assistant roles and a four-days-a-week marketing officer.

The move will bring the council’s communications team to the equivalent of 7.2 full-time members of staff. This compares with 11.5 and 12 members of staff performing similar roles at Middlesbrough and Stockton councils.

Cllr Wallis said while the authority’s resources boss, Councillor Charles Johnson, had forecast the council would face difficult decisions if the government did not fully reimburse its Covid-related spending, the authority was looking to employ more marketing people.

Cllr Wallis said: “To be clear, the communications team do a good job. But in the environment of rising debt and a funding crisis, is this really the time to be spending an extra £44,000 on PR?

“Given the financial stress the council is under, this is being considered outside of the annual budget round.  Rather than corporate marketing, could not the money be better spent on more useful roles – such as local track and trace, for example?

“To a resident, it looks like the council has a very odd sense of its priorities.”

Cllr Johnson replied the council was “eating into reserves and that will in fact cause us some problems” and that later this year members would be “fully occupied to resolve some of the problems”.

But the meeting was told the council had never been more committed to representing local businesses and the marketing staff would be “absolutely key to this council supporting local businesses in these extemely difficult times”.

The council’s deputy leader Councillor Jonathan Dulston said the council stood ready to make sure local firms had “all the support they need to survive these really difficult and challenging times”.

He said: “It is necessary as the council plays a part in Darlington being recognised as a significant player and a destination to come and invest or live or certainly to come and shop.”

Health and housing portfolio holder, Independent councillor Kevin Nicholson added that the council’s public health messages during the pandemic had been vital and its communications team had been stretched.

He said: “Fundamentally they are the people who will communicate the council’s message to residents and it was very clear looking back to the last year, particularly last summer, that residents were telling us communications from the council weren’t suitable and they didn’t feel the council were connecting to them. It is right that we are now looking at how we can reconnect with residents.”

Cllr Wallis said his research had indicated the corporate marketing team would be looking at promoting messages about roundabouts and car parks, before Councillor Heather Scott, the committee’s chairman and council leader, interrupted him, saying his question had been answered.