FURIOUS borough councillors have clubbed together to criticise the £200,000 Essex County Council has spent on free meals for its members in the last four years.
Following last week's Gazette investigation , members of Brentwood Borough Council have expressed anger at the £192,613 food bill , painting a picture of political "haves" at County Hall and "have-nots" at the Town Hall.
Borough council leader Louise McKinlay said she was "surprised" at the amount that had been spent and was keen to contrast it with the zero expenditure on members' meals at Brentwood's civic centre.
However, other members of her Conservative group were more forthright with their views about the free food, which is given to county councillors who attend County Hall on "approved duties".
Referring to the cold cuts of meat, cheeses, soups, pies, roasts, crumbles and fruit on offer, Hutton North borough councillor Russell Quirk said: "At first glance, it smacks of gluttony at the taxpayers' expense.
"I am not quite sure how there is justification for councillors spending taxpayers' money on any food at any level, given that Brentwood Borough Council does no such thing."
He added: "There is a big divide between the political haves at Essex County Council and the have-nots at Brentwood Borough Council."
Fellow Tory Nigel Clarke, a member for Brentwood West, described the amount of money spent on complimentary dinners as "ridiculous".
"I don't think they should be spending money on food at all," he said.
"They should be buying their own."
He added: "You can't go wasting money on things like that."
Brizes and Doddinghurst councillor Keith Parker said: "We must not give the impression that councillors are using taxpayers' money as though it is their own."
Meanwhile, Linda Golding, elected in Herongate, Ingrave and West Horndon, said: "It is a lot of money.
"This is the sort of thing that gives us a bad name."
Brentwood North Lib Dem councillor Philip Mynott said: "£200,000 is certainly a lot of money and I don't really see why they should be eating for free."
Meanwhile, the council's sole Labour member Mike Le Surf fumed: "Taxpayers should not subsidise our food in any way at all. We all have to eat and we all have to pay for our own lunch."
Mrs McKinlay explained that the canteen at the Town Hall in Ingrave Road was closed in 2009 but even when it was open, borough councillors still had to pay for their own food.
She said: "Members know that they have to provide for themselves if they want food whilst in the Town Hall, just as anyone else would.
"Refreshments for meetings are limited to tea and coffee and, at official council meetings in the chamber, only water is provided.
"A £200 budget is realistic for us as a small organisation and austerity measures cover councillors as well as staff.
"I've got to commend all of the council for helping to keep the costs down, which has played its part in allowing us to deliver a council cut and more investment in front line services."
Mrs McKinlay added that she welcomed a commitment from Peter Martin, the leader of Essex County Council, to "continue to scrutinise spending".