Anger at Defra's top hotel stay

With antique furniture, velvet bedspreads and sparkling chandeliers, the Ickworth Hotel, near Bury St Edmunds, is one of the best in the region. It was also the place Defra staff turned to - at taxpayers' expense - when they needed somewhere to stay while tackling the bird flu outbreak near Diss.

With antique furniture, velvet bedspreads and sparkling chandeliers, the Ickworth Hotel, near Bury St Edmunds, is one of the best in the region.

It was also the place Defra staff turned to - at taxpayers' expense - when they needed somewhere to stay while tackling the bird flu outbreak near Diss.

The property, on the National Trust's Ickworth estate, is a grade II listed building which describes itself as “the sparkling gem in the Luxury Family Hotels' crown”, with “lavish décor”.

But the decision to spend thousands of pounds putting staff up there has been described as a “grotesque extravagance”.

Defra yesterday refused to say how many staff stayed there, for how long or at what cost to the taxpayer. Its staff have also stayed at other hotels, including the four-star Angel Hotel in Bury, but the department would not say which ones were being used. It said its accommodation needs had been handled by a private company called Expotel.

Standard double rooms for dinner, bed and breakfast at the 27-room hotel cost £310, with interconnecting rooms fetching more than £600 a night. The bed and breakfast rate starts at £185 per room. The menu features starters such as carpaccio of Suffolk Red Poll beef with parmesan and wild rocket for £7 or mains like organic roasted salmon with herb butter for £15.50.

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West Suffolk MP Richard Spring said: “It is just appalling. This is a grotesque extravagance. These are wonderful hotels which are very luxurious and appropriately expensive. These are also more than 20 miles from the site of the outbreak and the officials should be nearer the outbreak and staying in much more modest accommodation at a time when farmers are under real financial stress.

“This is spending by government bureaucracy on a totally inappropriate and offensive scale.”

Maureen Ling, who runs a farm and a bed and breakfast at Wortham, near Diss, said: “I am quite shocked that they have booked places at those sorts of prices, particularly when there are places more locally which offer excellent accommodation.”

Shadow farming minister, Jim Paice, who is MP for south-east Cambridgeshire, said: “This is yet further demonstration that Defra is incapable of managing a budget after spending £1bn on consultants over five years and this week admitting a £300m overspend to front-line services. This is yet further embarrassment for a failing department.”

Canon Sally Fogden, agricultural chaplain for the St Edmundsbury Diocese, said Defra were “missing a trick” by not staying in bed and breakfast accommodation in the Redgrave area.

She said: “It is astonishing. They would be helping the local economy and are missing a huge opportunity to find out what people there are thinking and what they might know.”

But the National Farmers' Union said the most important thing was that enough staff were in the region to get the job done.

Brian Finnerty, for the NFU in the eastern region, said: “Where they accommodate their staff is obviously a matter for Defra.”

A spokeswoman for Defra said: “During a disease outbreak, it is important that officials from Defra and Animal Health are accommodated, at very short notice, close to the sites they are working on.

“We work closely with an external service provider to ensure the most appropriate accommodation is found at the time, and ensure that the accommodation provides the best value for money possible in the circumstances.”

But the Ickworth Hotel is by no means the closest to the bird flu outbreak in Redgrave. It is 22 miles away. Hotels in Diss would have been much nearer, as would bed and breakfasts in villages around Redgrave, including Wortham two miles away. Nobody from either hotel was available for comment.

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