THE near £600,000 annual cost of employing two temporary bosses to turn Somerset’s failing children’s services around has been called “astonishing”.

The salary and agency fees for Peter Lewis, an interim director at County Hall since 2013, total £318,500, compared to the Prime Minister’s £142,500 salary, while interim deputy Kate Lovell’s pay and agency fees add up to £275,000.

It is seen as a slap in the face for staff who recently went on strike over pay as the council slashes £18million from its budget with jobs axed.

The remuneration for Mr Lewis, hired through an agency after being employed in a similar role at Haringey Council in the wake of the Baby P scandal, is among the highest for a local authority employee in the UK.

He was employed after OFSTED judged Somerset’s children’s services “inadequate”.

Unite union’s Nigel Behan said: “It seems excessive that senior managers get accelerated pay inc-reases while everyone at the bottom has an 18% to 20% real terms pay cut over four years. It widens the gap and is disappointing.”

Cllr Jane Lock, LibDem opposition leader, said: “His fees would employ an extra ten social workers alone. There are currently 40 vacancies in frontline social services and staff are demoralised and worried about the lack of direction, information or support.”

Independent councillor Mike Rigby said: “I find this level of remuneration astonishing at a time of supposed austerity.

“I know that the service hasn’t been running well in recent years, being rated by OFSTED as ‘inadequate’, and that drastic action is required, but I question whether the improvements seen in the service are commensurate with the salaries being paid here.”

A county spokesman said Mr Lewis was appointed to ensure the safety of children after two damning OFSTED reports.

He said: “We took the decision to invest in high-quality temporary directors with a proven track record to ensure that improvement was immediate.

“We’re pleased to see improvements have been made since the appointments and we’re now in a position to advertise for full-time replacements for the two positions.

“We’ve also significantly boosted numbers of social workers in this crucial area as well as increased the budget.

“Somerset County Council quite rightly puts a premium on our children’s safety.”

- Somerset County Council was accused of paying “bloated” sal-aries earlier this year when it emerged that 15 posts were costing taxpayers more than £96,000 each.

- Top of the list was former chief executive Sheila Wheeler, who was on £160,000 plus pension contributions of £21,600.

- She has since left “by mutual consent” with a £40,000 pay-off after being on paid leave for three months, and now works for an anti-trafficking organisation based in India.