Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Should Councillors be paid?

I sit on a Council and get ten grand a year for my trouble. Yes, ten grand. I actually think that's quite reasonable. Plus we get a 14% pension contribution. The public are often surprised when you tell them. They think, bless 'em that we all do it for nothing. Add on mileage and lunches and it's a cool 12k-15k for a part-time job.

I find myself split on the issue of Councillor pay. While I don't claim the mileage, I feel a bit odd being paid for what is essentially community service. Ten grand is a lot of money for some people. It costs our Council £0.75m in allowances alone, probably a million when you add on mileage, pensions etc. OK, that one five hundredth of the budget, but it is a cost.

Aggregrate the cost of all our councils in Suffolk - there are six district Councils all with about 40 Councillors each, all getting about £5k allowances plus expenses and you've got a further cost of, all in, about £1.5m. So costs of democracy are about, all said £3m for a typical Shire County.

Is this worth it? And could we get more some other way? There are two possible approaches to this. One is to ask whether having no pay or expenses would get us at least as good as we have now. I suspect, looking around the chamber, that the allowance is probably supplementing quite a few pensions. Pull it and I would bet about a quarter would be gone at the next election. However the other side to this is that the allowance does make it possible for low earners to do the role.

Part of me - the mischievous side - does feel attracted to the idea of cutting allowances altogether. We'd soon see how many community champions were left. It would also mean, now that the benches were no longer silted up with jaded Allowance-takers, that the parties would need to go looking for talented new people who were not motivated in any way by the money.

Another possible approach is to go the other way - to have far fewer Councillors, perhaps 25 for the County and 10 each for the Districts - two thirds fewer - but make the job a proper job, rather than a half-job. This would mean a £15-£25k role rather than a £5-10k one - but would effectively make being a Councillor a proper job. The upside would be that the role would attract people who would do it but can't afford to do it and hold down a job - the downside is that it would mean that anyone with another career would be deterred.

There's no really perfect answer to this. There are clearly too many Councillors. There are far, far too many crappy Councillors who do very little for anyone. The party system keeps talented people at bay and protects people who couldn't get a job at Tesco. We know all of that.

But I can't, at the moment, think of a new way to do local government which convincingly rectifies these problems. Fewer, smaller Councils sure. Quotas maybe? I would personally be in favour, even if I lost out as a middle-aged man (but youthful in council-terms). PR for local government? Certainly. But I might as well make an argument for leaving our doors open when we went out to work. All of this is idealism.

These turkeys are smart enough not to vote for Christmas.

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