In Defence of Councillor Allowances

Simply after the plastic money?

I told my WLLG compadres that I was about to write this piece and they expressed a certain trepidation. In fact one wrote back:

Wow, you’re not going to make friends with that post! 

The exclamation point was a definite sign that I was planning to tread on some dodgy ground.

Because there is nothing that collectively raises the ire of officers, trade unions, the press and the local population to such an extent as the ‘councillor allowance’, or specifically the increase of the councillor allowance.

In particular, it seems that the decision by Cambridgeshire County Council to adopt a 25% increase in their council allowances has annoyed (I love a good understatement) many of the local folk.

The council allowance varies between many local authorities but in most cases provides a pre-specified amount of cash to compensate councillors for expenses incurred in the carrying out of their official duties. This is usually a lump sum that despite being paid for recompense bears no relationship to the specific tasks carried out and is thus not dependant on attendance, contributions, ability or even travelling time. (how that differs from a salary has always been a mystery to me). The allowances are taxable and taken together it is not hard to see why these allowances are seen as basically a councillor salary.

From the way some people speak you’d think that councillors were firmly on the gravy train.

And yet, if we are to consider the allowance to be the equivalent of a salary, and even if we don’t, this is simply not the case.

Admittedly, if you are a councillor in a large council and are selected to be a member of the Cabinet you might find yourself ‘earning’ enough from being a councillor to give up your day job but in general the amounts paid are pretty small.

In Cambridge, and I’m only picking on them because they are in the news, the allowance is currently £7,610 per year (they are looking to increase it to £9,500; hence the controversy).

I know that £7,610 (and £9,500) is a lot of money to a lot of people.

However, I would argue that the amount of work and responsibility we expect from our councillors more than justifies what is a relatively small recompense from the local budget.

The councillors in my authority are not necessarily paradigms of political virtue but they, almost without exception, work damn hard. There are a lot of evening meetings all with piles of papers to read and lots of important decisions attached. Likewise, there are huge demands from their constituents and the councillors, judging from the caseload they generate, spend a lot of time out and about meeting with them and pursuing the issues raised by them.

This is neither a ‘part time’ job nor adequately compensated by the allowance.

Put it another way; if my council was to employ staff to carry out the roles of councillors it would cost us a small fortune. We’d need community engagement officers, case workers, boards of directors, a senior director or two and quite a few other roles besides. They’d all work long hours and be impeccable local representatives. They’d also be expensive.

Councillors are cost effective from this point of view.

But that’s not even the point. More importantly; councillors provide a function that a simple officer could never do. And whilst we wouldn’t expect to pay them a full amount for that role (I’m not talking board of directors salary here) we want to ensure that every impediment from people taking part is removed and even more that this valuable contribution to democracy is encouraged.

Evening meetings and weekends ‘working’ on constituency business mean childcare costs, travel expenditure, giving up on overtime opportunities, sacrificing family time and often career opportunities. It’s not just helpful to offer some form of payment to recognise this; I’d say it is our duty as a society to cover the costs and reward something we value.

The councillor allowance does this.

If I had my way I’d pay councillors MORE and try to free them up to spend more time deliberating, scrutinising and making the big decisions we expect of them. If we paid them enough some might be able to go part time from their ‘normal’ jobs and devote more time to overseeing a complex local authority.

In general (but not always) attacking councillors for the size of their allowance is usually shorthand for attacking politicians who people don’t think are any good. In that case, let’s criticise the politician and not the allowance which might be better paid to another councillor who might do a good job.

Councillor allowances are, in my view, a positive thing.

For what it’s worth, the politicians in Cambridge should have a better political nose than to increase their allowances during what is probably the largest local government financial crisis ever. The substance of their argument might be right (do it once, have the decision made independently, and have the change last for nine years) but the actual decision is, in my humble opinion, imbecilic in it’s execution. If an officer can spot that surely the politicians could have?

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8 Comments on “In Defence of Councillor Allowances”

  1. Roy Naylor Says:

    Very well put, someone who understands. I made the decision to stand down at the last elections because I was unemployed and my allowance penalised my family to the point we couldn’t get help with our rent or council tax we were expected to meet it from my allowance. What a joke.

    I as you say was one who put in many long hours including weekends fr my constituents.

    So as you can see not all councillors are in it for the money.

    Thanks for writing such a true and honest blog.

  2. Thank you for that.

    I agree with the majority of what you said. And I voted “no” to the policy (and lost) and am not keeping the additional allowance that has been granted. Primarily for the same reasons you put in italics.

  3. @alexsbacon Says:

    Completely agree. I’ve often thought the small allowance is the reason (in my former council at least) that many of the councilors come from privileged backgrounds, those needing to work full-time can’t afford the time/money.

  4. DSO Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I was on the verge of submitting almost exactly the blog. I’ve been watching in shock some of the outlandish and flat-out wrong comments being made (like there being no legal basis for an Independent Remuneration Panel and allowances are the remit of the Standards Cttee- this from an ex-councillor!) and knew that something had to be said in defence of allowances.

    First of all, I strongly feel that standing for election as a councillor or an MP should be open to anyone, not just the independently wealthy. The demands made on local councillors, and the possibility of further responsibilities through the Localism Bill, means that for many councillors, doing it full-time is the only way for many to be able to keep up with all that they need to do. If the only people who stand for election are those who already can afford to, then they’re hardly representative of the wider community.

    Secondly, a lot of the arguments being made against the allowances seem to focus on meeting attendance. I appreciate that this is often the easiest criterion to find as it’s on almost every Council’s website, but that makes the assumption that the only requirement to be a councillor is to attend lots of meetings. As part of most allowances-setting procedures, councillors from all parties and varying responsibilities, like Executive, committee chairmen or backbench members, keep diaries for the independent panel to consider. The panel also interviews a range of councillors. The information coming from these diaries and interviews came as a real shock to me in my first year: dealing with 2am phone calls about dogs barking, hours spent visiting residents, meeting with local businesses and such. Constituency work forms the majority of the role, and is the least easily measured and therefore the most quickly overlooked when anyone comments on allowances. Like most officers I only saw councillors when they were in the office to attend meetings, so had in error written off a number of them as barely participating, only to find out that they couldn’t attend meetings because they were too busy doing work in their wards.

    Travel is another major consideration. Our here in the rural hinterlands it can add an hour or more to a councillor’s day to attend a meeting, and longer if by some quirk there is actually public transport available from where they live to where they need to be. I’m not aware of any allowances scheme which compensates for the full cost of petrol for councillors (or officers). I’m sure if we broke down the annual allowance to an average hourly rate, we’d struggle to find anyone to stand for election because it is so far below the minimum wage.

    So while I may not agree with many of our councillors or the things they say, I’ll always respect them for putting themselves through all they have to put up with.

    Though like the poster said, maybe this really wasn’t the best time to go ahead with a rise…

  5. Will Says:

    Excellent Post. I’d agree with all the points made. I once provided the research and draft for a Remuneration Panel at a now defunct District Council. I still work closely with Cllrs now in another place. What is clear is that Cllrs that are time rich are better able to meet the requirements of being a Cllr. Having an allowance recompenses Cllrs for the time they give and enable some to reduce their hours at work. This I think help ensure a better social mix of Cllrs thusmaking them more represenative and importantly good quality.

    What I would argue, perhaps simply to be a devils advocate, is the following:

    “Why is being a Cllr different to other voluntary rolls that it requires remuneration?”

    Lots of people volunteer for charities, schools, community groups putting in significant time and taking on big responsibilities. I’d assume the vast majority of these people don’t get any remuneration. Why makes Cllrs different?

  6. Ed Hammond Says:

    Excellent post, completely agree in all respects.

    Will – I could cobble together an argument about why cllrs are different from others that is something about “democracy” or “community leaders” or “expected to take responsibility for a multi-million pound business” but it’s getting late and I want to go home!

  7. Will Says:

    Ed – Charity Trustees vs Councillors – Both are voluntary positions. Both are elected (trustees by the membership of the charity). Both (often) are responsible for delivering complex services. Both represent communities (communities of interest for trustees & communities of geography).

    Spot the difference? : )

    p.s. I should declare my interest in this matter as a Committee man and a Chair of a Charity.

    p.p.s. Isn’t CfPS a Charity?


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