MORE than £5.5 MILLION was spent on redundancies - including a £343,000 payout to the former chief executive - at the former Taunton Deane Borough Council, it has emerged.

And hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money is to go on employing scores of staff after the authority splashed out millions under a massive redundancy programme - with the new chief executive looking into 'what went wrong'.

The former Taunton Deane Borough Council's bill for laying off 191 workers last year hit £5.6 million - and could possibly rise by another £600,000.

Chief executive Penny James, who also headed up West Somerset Council under a joint working agreement, pocketed £343,000, while five other staff picked up more than £100,000.

The sums were calculated under a policy adopted by the council and are way above the statutory national minimum.

But in a sign the lay offs went too far, the new Somerset West and Taunton Council - formed after the Deane and West Somerset were scrapped - is already talking about taking on 40 employees in its parks and open spaces department.

James Hassett, chief executive of the new authority, said the redundancy payments are dependent on salary, terms and conditions and age.

He added: "We have had some pressure on us, particularly in customer services, but we have made sure staff are available there. We were struggling a little, but we've dealt with that through recruitment.

"It was also the case with the direct labour section, which is responsible for parks and open spaces, where we are filling 40 vacancies."

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Mr Hassett said issues have been created because more employees than expected took redundancy, adding no-one who had left had been re-appointed or was likely to be and that none of them had been paid for consultancy work.

The job losses were part of a package of measures aimed at saving £3.6million a year.

He added that the authority has "healthy reserves" and allocations of cash have been put aside "for growth projects to help stimulate development locally".

Cllr Federica Smith-Roberts, Lib Dem leader of the council - the two previous authorities were Conservative-led until last month's elections - said: "I've always said this council needs to transform.

"We want to provide efficient services to our residents and as such I have always campaigned for us to go digital.

"Yes, we have been critical (of the previous administration). I've asked James to to carry out an audit to look at went went wrong and why.

"There are service issues. We have lost more staff than the transformation plan set out to do.

"We want to get the services back to where they were before and even better."

Last July, then-leader of the council, John Williams, said the changes were needed to combat funding cuts from central government.

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He said joint working with West Somerset has saved £1.8 million annually since 2014 and helped avoid service cuts.

"We've seen our funding reduce substantially, so we have to look how we can maintain efficient and cost-effective services our residents value and make the council fit for purpose," he added.

"It's delivering better for less. We're modernising today so that we're ready for tomorrow. We're ahead of many councils in that respect."

But Gideon Amos, the party’s Taunton Deane Parliamentary spokesman, slammed the previous administration's 'mismanagement of epic proportions'.

"While we flagged up the costs of this unwanted merger project as early as 2016, the redundancy bill our councillors have now uncovered, inherited from Conservative-run Taunton Deane, is double what they originally budgeted and it’s going to take time to deal with," he said.

"The Conservatives’ mistakes, alongside what the Local Government Association report as an unprecedented 77% reduction in council funding since 2015, together represent a far bigger cut than anything seen in the past."