Prominent Conservatives have hit out at Birmingham City Council after almost £1.2 million of taxpayers' money was spent on union activity last year.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles accused the Labour-run authority of burning taxpayer funds after a Freedom of Information request revealed the equivalent of 55 full-time members of staff were devoted to council trade union activity.
Birmingham Tories have called for that figure to be reduced and said the funds should go towards cleaning crews and school crossing patrols.
However, the council argued it was a necessary cost as it had been forced into redundancies through cutbacks – and pointed out union costs were higher under the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat leadership.
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Mr Pickles said: "We will not take lectures from Labour councillors on budget cuts whilst they are burning taxpayers' money on trade union pilgrims at the same time.
"All councils should stay focused on cutting waste, making sensible savings, modernising frontline services and keeping council tax low."
The Conservatives uncovered that hours worked on trade union activity set the authority back £1.18 million last year.
The trade union release arrangements are currently under review and will be monitored on an ongoing basis in line with any changes that impact on the city council.
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has been focusing on cutting government departments' bills for union activity in recent years and the Conservatives claim to have saved taxpayers about £6 million.
Full-time union representatives in government departments have fallen to 20, compared with 200 in November 2011.
Coun Robert Alden, leader of the Conservative group of Birmingham City Council, said: "Unions undoubtedly provide an important service for their members, but this currently comes at a huge cost to council taxpayers in Birmingham. At a time when the Labour-controlled council is slashing services, it simply cannot be in the best interest of our residents to continue funding these union pilgrims.
"Let's be clear – 55 council employees are being paid each and every day to not do their jobs, but instead carry out union work.
"This takes £1.18 million a year away from key front line services. This money could be far better spent."
Coun Alden (Con Erdington) said he would sooner see the money invested in cleaning crews, protecting a rise school crossing patrols, new dog and litter wardens and retaining grit bins.
However, deputy council leader Coun Ian Ward, said the amount of union activity has been cut, as it was 71 full-time equivalents 2011 under the previous administration, of which Coun Alden was a member.
He added that the time devoted ot union activity would be cut to 36.5 full-time equivalents next year, and said the cost of not assisting unions would be greater through strike action.
He said: "As the nation's largest council, it should come as no surprise that Birmingham has an apparently high number of full-time equivalent staff involved in trade union activities. Given the significant changes taking place in the council and the legal requirement to consult with employees and trade unions when making redundancies, which has to be meaningful, we have to have trade union capacity to engage with staff in this way.
"Under the Employment Protection Act 1975, trade union representatives have a statutory right to reasonable paid time off from employment to carry out trade union duties and to undertake related training."