Belfast Telegraph

If only council rates were as cheap as celebs

By Gail Walker

How are we meant to react to the scale of the fees local councils pay to celebrities to front up entertainments in their boroughs? At a guess, it's meant to be with shock and outrage.

We're supposed to be appalled that Derry City Council paid £15,000 to West Ham chief executive Karren Brady and that Craigavon thought Pamela Ballantine was a snip at £1,200 for two events. As for Coleraine paying £1,200 to Grimes and McKee for switching on their Christmas lights? Or the BBC's William Crawley getting the same amount to facilitate a Poverty Conference in Banbridge? A terrible squandering of ratepayers money!

Meanwhile, over on the Gold Coast, the good citizens must be reaching for their pitchforks because North Down shelled out a total of £11,564 for guest speakers at its Aspects Festival, with individual fees ranging from £2,600 each to historian Max Hastings and Woman's Hour's Jenni Murray, to Nuala McKeever and Leesa Harker's £200 apiece.

I mean, wherever you look, our councils are going doolally with our hard-earned pounds. Well, that's the story anyway ...

But the truth? Move along folks, nothing to see here...

Because it seems like a very good deal to me. Yes, we Ulster folk are supposed to be dour and to know the value of a pound, but isn't this sort of begrudgery taking things to extremes?

The fact remains that our councils don't have any power over housing, education, roads and many other vital public service areas. Bins and burying the dead is their lot, to rehash the old cliche.

Except, of course, for one other important role – to promote the image of their borough and support local business and a myriad of voluntary and local organisations. In other words, to give us all a lift.

So, let's not wave our hands in mock horror at Country 'n' Irish singer Derek Ryan getting £1,000 for performing at Omagh's Christmas Lights Switch On. Or for Paul Rankin getting the same amount for an Ulster Scots Cookery demonstration for the good people of Ards. Not having been at either, I can't tell you if the events were triumphs, but in all probability they were thoroughly enjoyed by the good burghers and might even have brought in a few people to spend a couple of bob in local businesses.

Who would you want to be the face of your Community Relations Week? Alderman McFettridge or our own May McFettridge – a snip at £500. No offence to our hardworking councillors but most them would have difficulty being recognised in their own living rooms. Yet TV commentator Jackie Fullerton? UTV's Paul Clark? Hole in the Wall gang stalwart Olivia Nash? Now you're talking ...

It sounds ridiculous to suggest that our local celebs add 'glamour' but let's just say they do add a much needed dash of sparkle to life in dull old provincial Ulster. Of course, people will turn out to get a gander at him or her off the TV or radio.

Who do you get for a 'meet and greet' at your Theatre at the Mill? Why not ex-Army man turned TV presenter Dick Strawbridge who, for £3,500, also provided a cookery demonstration. I'm sure he attracted more Press and punters than the Arts Committee of Newtownabbey ever could in their wildest dreams (until, that is, staging their own short running farce).

We like to sneer at local celebs, imagining they lead sad Alan Partridge-esque lives of vanity, self-deception and quiet despair. (Pretty much like the rest of us then). But where would we be without them?

And why shouldn't they make a few extra quid if the opportunity arises? Let's face it – the majority of fees cited represent not that much extra cash for doing what the rest of us can't. Oh yes, we all like to think that we could jolly along a crowd, chair a Peace 3 conference or MC an awards ceremony. But the sad truth is, we'd be stammering idiots. That's why they – and not we – have carved out careers in the entertainment business. They know how to cheer, how to put people at ease in the spotlight, how to be, er, entertaining when there's a power cut. And it's not just the gig – most of these events will involve hours, if not days, of prep. The fact is, in the sticking-yer-arm-in stakes, none of the published fees are on the eye-watering scale of pay packets demanded by anonymous solicitors, consultants and other 'facilitators' recruited by the yard for advising councils.

What should surprise us, rather, is the very low return many of these professionals are prepared to accept for marketing their wares for the public benefit.

And yet, we'd expect them to give their name, time and effort either for a few tray bakes and a cup of tea or for nothing at all.

Now who's having a laugh.

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