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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Councillors' Allowances

With the thorny issue of Councillors' allowances coming up at next week's full council meeting there has been a very interesting Twitter debate today. There are many different views and opinions about how much councillors should be paid - if at all.

Currently councillors (who have no special responsibility alowances) get just over £12,000 per year. An independent review has looked at councillors' allowances and has recommended that this should be increased to just over £16,000.

At first this seems like a massive jump but it should be remembered that our councillors have consistently voted to freeze their allowances and their has been no increase for the life of the Unitary authority.

The issue of allowances is thorny because no-one really knows exactly what is expected of a councillor. The role is one that combines official duties and voluntary work. At the same time there are vast differences between the level of dedication that some councillors show compared to others. Some can put in 60 -70 hours per week or even more whereas others have poor attendance records at even the basic meetings.

If you distill the essence of what a councillor is there for I would say that they have been elected to look at the decisions that need to be made by the council, consider the options and vote for what their preferred option is given the objective evidence. In this way our communities are able to move forward with community decisions being taken in a democratic manner by people who have been elected to fulfill this responsibility.

At Cornwall Council level the sort of decisions that are required to be taken can often involve complex matters requiring comprehensive study of the evidence and alternatives presented. So I would imagine that the basic allowance is there to reimburse the councillor for the time it takes to consider the matters before them and then to attend meetings.

On top of this there would be certain other duties - mainly related to representing or helping individuals or organisations in their area to interact with the council and find solutions to problems.

If you look at the time and commitment that an 'average' councillor should make then £16k per year looks like a pretty reasonable sum as a remunerative allowance. The question is should we remunerate councillors or should they do it on a voluntary basis to serve the community. There is also the question of those councillors who don't come up to the average and also those who do more than expected.

My take on these questions is this.

It is important to remunerate councillors for the time that is needed to do a good job. If we don't remunerate fairly then it means that only those people who can easily afford to give their time will act as councillors and democracy will suffer as a result. We need a good cross section of councillors from all areas of society. If councillors are not paid fairly then we end up with people who (if not wealthy) are certainly well off and have lots of free time. In other words lots of older retired or financially independent people.

At the same time, those councillors who don't match up to objectively defined levels of performance should not be remunerated for work they haven't done.

In the meantime the councillors who take on lots of extra work because they work hard for their communities are not losing out. The people who do work hard will tell you that they do this because they feel that it is the right thing to do. They enjoy helping people and organisations and they do their work on a voluntary basis because it feels right. Just as people volunteer for charitable work some councillors undertake voluntary civic duties.

As people have pointed out on Twitter, it is the electors that are the final arbiters of performance and those councillors who are just along for the ride are unlikely to last past election day.

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