Bourne Diary - March 2011

by Rex Needle

Saturday 5th March 2011

The payment of councillors has been the subject of a great deal of discussion recently and there is a distinct feeling that they are getting too much. Members of Lincolnshire County Council obviously do not agree because they are actually planning to give themselves a hefty increase.

All 77 elected members receive a basic annual allowance of £8,184 with extra cash for those who serve on the executive and on committees but the authority has now set aside the sum of £250,000 for an increase which will boost allowances by 22% to £10,000 a year. This comes at a time of massive budget cuts of around £57 million for the authority caused by the curb on public spending with 818 jobs facing the axe and a total of 3,200 staff currently undergoing consultation about their future.

The increase in allowances will need a majority vote by councillors, due to be held on May 20th, just five days before redundancy notices are handed to employees. But the protests are already rumbling because John Sharman, secretary for the county branch of Unison, told the Lincolnshire Echo (February 21st): “I would have thought that councillors would want to be extremely careful about the message they give to their employees as well as the people of Lincolnshire.”

There have also been misgivings about payments to councillors on South Kesteven District Council, also Conservative controlled, with a complaint about the amount collected by the leader, Councillor Linda Neal (Bourne West). The 58 elected members get a basic allowance of £4,373.50 plus expenses with cabinet and committee members receiving more through special responsibility increments.

The list of payments for 2009-10 was published by the Stamford Mercury on February 11th which showed that the highest sum went to Councillor Neal with £22,378 while other Bourne members of the council received lesser amounts, cabinet member John Smith (£14,344), Judy Smith (£5,943), Trevor Holmes (£5,074), Bob Russell (£4,851) and David Higgs (£4,557). This prompted a letter from Miss M Sibborn, of Fir Avenue, Bourne, who wrote that she was astonished by the amount paid to Councillor Neal (February18th).

“She claims a special allowance of more than £14,000”, wrote Miss Sibborn. “Add to this her other claims and the total adds up to more than my yearly income yet not only am I required to pay council tax but also income tax. All of this money comes out of our council tax and government allowances which essentially means that the council is employed by us. Are we therefore not entitled to see the job descriptions and why this amount equals in expenses and allowances more than many people’s income?”

Councillor Neal replied with a spirited defence of her take home pay in a letter to the newspaper the following week (February 25th) explaining that she put in more than 50 hours a week for her allowances which worked out at less than the minimum wage. “The leader’s responsibilities are many and varied”, she wrote, “and require me to be available at any time and travel significant distances. There is an immense amount of reading and it is not unusual to be responding to emails well into the early hours, past 2 am, as there is not time during office hours. As far as expenses are concerned, they are not a perk but a refund of travel costs incurred while on official business. To fulfil my role, I had to buy a small vehicle and as I nearly always travel alone and often in the dark, it needs to be reliable.”

No one can deny Councillor Neal’s dedication to duty but it does seem unsatisfactory that she should be working such long hours and many will wonder what the other 57 members are doing while she is burning the midnight oil, not to mention the salaried officers, remembering that the authority’s eleven-strong management team are currently being paid a whopping £843,000 a year between them which, with their pension entitlements, is 6.25% of the authority’s entire budget, while the authority employs more than 700 other staff and a small army of consultants who command exorbitant fees. Do they all clock up 50 hours a week and work into the early hours?

If there is so much to be done to keep the council ticking over, then many will ask why Councillor Neal and her colleagues approved a five-month leave of absence in 2008 for the then chief executive, Duncan Kerr, to enable him cycle around Europe? There is a moral here because in the event, he was not even missed, thus proving the old adage that no one is indispensable.

The payment of councillors is comparatively new. Our present council system dates back to the Local Government Act of 1894 which was championed through Parliament by the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, thus putting the administration of our affairs at local level in the hands of councils with elected members to run them. There have been many changes since, notably the reorganisation of 1974, and we now have a three tier system at county, district and parish or town level, each authority with its own elected councillors, although many belong to two, sometimes even all three, a massive and unwieldy combination of bureaucratic control in the hands of an army of local members and salaried officials.

They were originally unpaid, undertaking the work willingly, a role which produced men of outstanding talent. Most worked tirelessly for the greater good, such as William Wherry (1841-1915), a local businessman who became a councillor and county alderman, whose service to the community was activated by the highest motives and has been unequalled since. He took every opportunity to promote the welfare of the town and its people, being such a busy man and so dedicated to serving the community that shortly before he retired from public life because of ill health, his numerous offices and positions of responsibility numbered almost 100 and he did not receive a penny for any of them.

Councillors were first allowed to charge expenses in 1972 and the system of a regular allowance was introduced in 1995, mainly to reimburse them for their time but the effect in many places has been to create a generation of professional town hall politicians. In the past five years, thousands have seen their allowances soar, in some cases up to 150%, much to the dismay of central government.

The local government minister, Grant Shapps, told the Daily Mail (February 15th) that it was not justifiable for hikes in councillors' allowances when public sector workers are facing a two year pay freeze. He added: "We’re all in this together and those who hold public office need to lead by example. Councillors must remain arms length volunteers. It will be harmful for local democracy if they become the bank rolled staff of the town hall dependent on the municipal pay packet."

Many regard the payment of elected councillors as a retrograde step and indeed those who serve on the town council do not receive anything although there have been suggestions that they should and so that time may not be far off. Like Members of Parliament, they know what their allowances and expenses are before being elected but the evidence is that once in office they try to manipulate the system to their own advantage. The problem is that this trend may be turning our local authorities into a gravy train rather than a vehicle for the delivery of public services with many retired people seeking office as a means of supplementing their pensions and it can be no coincidence that the majority of those who fill the council chambers throughout the land are old age pensioners.

In the past, service was of prime importance and that was the reason for standing but times are changing and because being a councillor takes its toll on their time and pocket, many good people would be unwilling to seek election without some form of remuneration for their trouble. What is needed, as in all things, is moderation, and once the electorate become dissatisfied with what they are hearing, then they are likely to seek a change and the place for that is the ballot box at the local elections.

Thought for the week: The total amount of allowances and expenses paid to the 77 members of Lincolnshire County Council during 2009-10 was in excess of £1.3 million while the 58 members of South Kesteven District council collected more than £375,000.