CRITICS have questioned why the city council decided to pay a think tank almost £56,000 to arrange a conference on democracy.

The ‘Tomorrow’s Democracy’ conference, held in the Riverfront Theatre in Newport on Monday, November 5, following the 179th anniversary of the Chartist uprisings, was arranged by think tank ResPublica.

Guest speakers included council leader Debbie Wilcox, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts Matthew Taylor, political commentator Paul Mason and King’s College London’s policy institute director Boddy Duffy.

Conservative MP and minister for the constitution Chloe Smith was also on the speaker’s list, but had to cancel her appearance on the day.

The speakers discussed topics including increasing participation in politics, the devolution of powers to councils and local authorities and the impact of the internet on modern democracy, with attendees given the opportunity to quiz panelists.

But Caerleon’s conservative councillor Joan Watkins, who attended the conference, said she was “outraged” when she discovered the cost of the conference was £55,850.

“We have been told there is no money in the pot and we couldn’t find £20,000 to keep some public toilets open, including in Caerleon which is the area I represent, and yet there is money for this.

“I would say there were a maximum of 60 people there, 10 of whom were labour councillors.

“If you take away them then you are looking at over £1,000 a head.

“I despair.”

This is not the first time Newport City Council has been criticised for paying for the services of ResPublica.

In 2017, it was reported the council had paid the same group between £50,000 and £60,000 to publicise the ‘City of Democracy’ scheme.

The council eventually backtracked over the £100,000 branding idea aimed at commemorating the city’s Chartist history, which would also have included an annual Festival of Democracy.

At the time, council leader Debbie Wilcox said the project would still go ahead, but without the need for public investment.

A council spokesman said November's conference was held as part of their "corporate plan commitment to develop an exciting programme of local events, raising the profile of Newport on the national stage, and in turn encourage more visitors and investors into the city."

They added: "This was the first time we held this event and it was more specialist in nature than previous events held.

"The total number of participants on the day was approximately 120 and it attracted some very high-calibre speakers and attendees from all across the UK. We received very positive feedback on the event, the content and the location.

"However, as is the case with all events held or supported by the council, we will thoroughly review the outcomes and legacy of the event. Our considerations will include the cost compared to wider benefits, and how this type of event fits within the wider city events programme."

Councillor Matthew Evans, leader of the conservative group on Newport City Council, commented: “They could have given members of the public an opportunity to ask questions to cabinet members in the council chamber at next to no cost.

“That would have been real democracy.”