News and Comment

If councillors were better paid would local government be better off? Part 1/2

Tuesday 26 February 2013

By:

It’s an old question given new impetus of late: should the allowance of councillors be increased?

As it stands, councillors are compensated through an allowance estimated by the Local Government Association to be around £7,000 per year on average. But the recent Councillors on the Frontline report, produced by the Communities and Local Government cross-part committee, stated that the current level of allowances paid to councillors is too low and acts as a deterrent to many people who might otherwise stand for election. Moves to increase the allowance however run contrary to the thinking of many in Government, including the DCLG itself, which has unequivocally declared that: “Councillors should be volunteers, not the bankrolled staff of the municipal state”.

It’s an issue which throws up strong, passionate arguments on each side. In this guest blog, the first of a two-part series of this issue, Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, puts forward his view. We’ll be publishing the second part next week, but in the meantime we’d love to hear your comments.  

“On 10 January, I appeared on the Today programme to debate the findings of my Committee’s report,Councillors on the Frontline, with Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman.  The discussion centred upon councillors’ allowances. My Committee had concluded that councillors, especially those taking time off work, should receive an appropriate level of compensation. Grant rejected this: he insisted that councillors should be volunteers, and went as far as to liken them to scout leaders. I think that this view is wrong and flies in the face of the Government’s expressed commitment to localism. Now more than ever, we need a debate about who councillors are and what role they perform. This debate is not possible without also considering the remuneration they receive.

Let’s remember why the Committee decided to launch the inquiry. It followed the publication of the National Census of Local Authority Councillors for England, which found that the average age of a councillor was now 60; that only 31% of councillors were women; and that 96% were white.  Absolute “reflectiveness” would be impossible to achieve, and you don’t need to come from a particular section of society to represent that section effectively. But healthy local democracy depends on people from different backgrounds being able to see people ‘like them’ in their council chambers; this does not happen at the moment. We need to find ways of increasing the numbers of women, younger people and black and minority ethnic people serving on local authorities.

In some areas it is a challenge to find any candidates at all, let only any from under-represented sections of society. If councillors are to be unpaid volunteers, the pool is going to be even smaller.  It is clear that remuneration, along with time commitment and the attitude of employers, is one of the key barriers preventing people standing for election. People are put off becoming councillors because the money does not adequately compensate them for the work involved, and in the case of councillors in employment they may lose more from taking time off work than they receive in allowances. As localism, with increased local responsibilities, makes the job more complex and demanding, the workload on a councillor will become greater and the case for appropriate allowances stronger.

We heard two recurrent concerns about the system for determining allowances. First, that councillors are reluctant to vote for an increase in allowances for fear of the negative public and press reaction. Second, that at present, because a large proportion of councillors are retired, they do not have the same need to vote for increase in allowances as employed councillors.  A vicious circle follows: allowances are frozen and only those who are retired or some other support come forward to stand for councils.  To tackle the problem the Committee recommended that councils have the option to transfer responsibility for setting allowances to independent local bodies; this would be similar to the approach Parliament has taken to MPs’ pay and allowances. Second, we proposed that these bodies (or councils) should have that power to include a capped element to compensate for loss of earnings. All this would be for local determination, not a central requirement.

The Government response to our report is due in March. I hope that Ministers will have looked carefully at our recommendations and decided that, unpopular though they may be, councillors’ allowances are vital if local democracy is to thrive. It is vital for local democracy that the debate is raised beyond the level Grant Shapps seems to want to take it down to.”