In Defence of Councillor Allowances
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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