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The Guardian (London) – Final Edition
February 1, 2007 Thursday
“Because they are worth it Councillors’ tasks become ever more difficult, and those willing to do the job drop in number, so why begrudge a decent rate of pay, asks Rodney Brooke.”
BYLINE: Rodney Brooke
SECTION: PUBLIC; Pg. 35
LENGTH: 815 words
Councillors’ allowances have long been a bone of contention, kept fragrant in the public nostril by the press. Local newspapers headline the sums of money received by councillors in their area. The result is that politicians exhibit extreme nervousness on the topic. Famously Jo Moore, press secretary to Stephen Byers, advertised September 11 as a good day to bury the decision to allow councillors to make pension contributions from their allowances. Hardly earth-shattering news n but anxiety about public reaction to rewarding councillors prompted the famous gaffe.
Local politicians n the people who receive the allowances n are even more nervous. The size of allowances often features in the run-up to elections, as opposition parties attack each controlling group for the size of their allowances.
Six years ago, following a trial in Camden, the government required every local authority to appoint an independent panel to make recommendations on allowances to its members. Only an independent panel can authorise pensions for councillors n but otherwise councils are obliged only to have regard to their panel’s recommendations. But few have the boldness to increase allowances above the level recommended by the independent panel. Where they have, the panel has usually resigned n causing a local scandal.
Panels are aware of the need to attract able people to serve as councillors. Clear evidence shows that the performance of a local authority is closely linked to its political management.
The supply of councillors is drying up. All parties complain of the difficulty they have in attracting good candidates. Desperate to find an able contestant, they search beyond the ranks of the party faithful. Having identified a candidate, they persuade them to join the party.
When I joined local government 51 years ago things were different. The foundation stone of the Victorian town hall proudly recorded the names of the aldermen and councillors in 1892. They were the woollen manufacturers who created the town’s wealth. Sixty years later half the members of the council were their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The council was simply part of their responsibilities.
Since 1945 they faced political opposition. Almost all the Labour councillors were in public employment or worked for trade unions. The nationalised industries were a prolific source of manual workers who left school at 14 and used their abilities in town and county halls. A financial loss allowance compensated them for any cut in pay. Not surprisingly, they preferred the corridors of power to the shafts of the pit.
Outside his grand office, the great Sir Bernard Kenyon, gigantic former chief executive of the West Riding county council, once challenged a rough-looking person, coal dust still under his fingernails. He told Sir Bernard that he was a newly elected councillor. “And who art thou?” enquired the councillor in return. Sir Bernard told him with some asperity. “Nay lad”, said the councillor, putting his arm round Sir Bernard, “I’m thy boss”.
Time and money
These two sources of supply have dried up. The mills closed long ago. Businesses are run from London or Cincinnati. The pits are no more. Public employees are on a treadmill of promotion: they cannot easily step off to serve as a councillor. Some of the most able trade real power in the council to become backbench MPs. Meanwhile the job of councillor becomes ever more difficult and time-consuming.
The consequence is that councillors are now mostly male and elderly n average age 58. In many councils the average age is over 65. In some cabinets the average age is over 70. One councillor told me that he was the youngest councillor when he joined the council and he still is 28 years later.
Money is not the biggest problem. Time is the bugbear. Research consistently shows that frontline councillors (the PC term for backbenchers) spend 80 hours a month on the job. The independent remuneration committees have lifted councillors’ allowances to levels undreamt of in former years. But it is still no way to get rich quick. The frontline councillor in a big authority might expect an annual £10,000 for half-time work. In some major authorities, like the London boroughs, remuneration committees have lifted allowances for leaders to £60,000, the level of a backbench MP. Elected mayors might get over £70,000.
These are not earth-shattering amounts. But they can enable people without private means to serve as councillors. Some can take job shares or work part time. The self-employed can pay allowances into their business, accept a reduced share of profit or employ an assistant. And if councillors are spending all their time in the town hall, why shouldn’t they use the allowances to employ a cleaner?
[Rodney Brooke, former chief executive of Westminster, was chair of the London Councillors' Independent Remuneration Panel]