On voting on our own remuneration

Last week the 70 Councillors in Bristol held a vote on whether or not to increase their own remuneration. Of course there was a fuss in the press about this. So why did it happen and what was the result?

Being a politician of course means making political decisions. But when councillors get asked to vote on their own remuneration (it’s not actually pay), things get messy. Is it a win win, to agree how much we are worth, or a lose-lose, to create a storm of opprobrium from all around us who are aghast that we can justify more money while staff are made redundant or sacked due to government austerity cuts….?

“we are making it even more likely that the people

deciding vital changes to our essential services …..

are not the diverse mix of residents typical of our city”

In the end we voted this down, with a whipped vote against the motion to agree the Independent Remuneration panel’s recommendations (for a rise) by the largest group, and many of the rest of us abstaining. But it wasn’t even the first time. The dilemma facing the 70 councillors this month (again) is that we’d already received the report from our independent body and we’d already sent it away.

Last year at a lively debate the then city councillors rejected our own Independent Review Panel’s recommendations for a raising of the basic Councillor allowance (received by all elected members) and for a new formula to cover additional “Special Responsibility Allowances” (SRA) for all the extra posts that exist, like Lord Mayor, Cabinet Members, and committee chairs, plus the elected Mayor. We said come back with something else. They have, and the report has been postponed for another year,  but were we ever going to be happy?

Our basic allowance

The last time allowances were adjusted was 2011 and it’s true to say they are now quite out of line with other comparable cities. In Bristol an elected Councillor currently gets just over £11,500 for almost every single aspect of being a local ward Councillor – ie there are minimal extra expenses, allowances for meetings, or support for travelling, or late meetings, or for the 24/7 nature of ward casework – apart from an offer of broadband or a phone line, plus a large I Pad for each member to use. Some of the similar cities Bristol gets compared to get £13000 basic allowance.

As of 2014 there is also no pension at all, as the coalition’s local government Minister, our then Bristol West MP, removed the pension allowance. So from this basic allowance, minus National Insurance, we get a monthly income but nothing more.  This is not to make a special plea, but it does matter that the allowance is for an assumed 18 hour working week, and when surveyed Bristol members said they typically work about 30 hours. I certainly get emails 7 days a week, plenty of weekday meetings and briefings, and committees to prepare for, and I also get invited to a great many more local and city meetings than I can attend, sometime 3 a night.

Supporting diversity

So on the one had councillors feel that the basic ward member’s allowance is overdue for review. It is certainly smaller than many other cities we compare ourselves to. And we certainly feel the need for something more if we are to attract a new, more diverse, and widely drawn group of local government politicians. The Green Group I’m part of has included everyone from single parent, retired, young and those who have no other means of income. Until I became a committee chair with an extra SRA I was using savings to pay basic living costs. I know a colleague complained of being driven into overdraft each time they had to move and pay landlord and agents’ fees each six months (like many others in our city). There’s also no prospect of a pension after years of service, of course. So the allowance is hardly an invitation to take part in local decision making, and little of a stepping stone to national politics, even though that would be valuable experience to ensure they actually have real experience of public service management.

But on the other hand we also find our selves in the ridiculous situation that of course, politically, how could a bunch of councillors be expected to vote themselves a raise while the Mayor is cutting almost 1000 jobs from our hard pressed staff, many of who me have had no meaningful rise for all the years of government austerity policy, and while we debate the cuts of very basic services, affecting residents’ lives in so many ways: meals on wheels, home care, public health, pest control, libraries (again), parks, and road safety projects. It’s not councillors voting for job losses and service cuts, it’s government imposed, but while the council implements cuts how can we vote ourselves a rise?

Of course we already have an independent review body to look into this and to sort it out – but they report to us! They don’t agree the decision, they just recommend to us. And if we turn this down (again) they would – if they can stomach it – yet again send us a report suggesting a raise. We could, and indeed have, quibbled the intricacies of whether cabinet members now do more than under the last Mayor (more discretion) so get more of an SRA, or do less, as there are now 10 not 5 or 4, so must have less of a brief to manage. The ratios could be adjusted in many ways. Maybe the Mayor has less to do if his cabinet, now costing the city twice as much, also has more responsibility – so we could keep the dreaded ‘budget envelop’ the same but share it out differently?

A storm about the cuts

Politically it all boils down to facing a storm: will councillors decide their “pay”? Not ‘should we value local politicians more?’ Personally I find it very difficult, as there are clearly strong arguments on both sides. Last time I refused to vote myself a rise. This time I abstained as we can’t take more funds from the council. And yet it is ridiculous: we have to make a decision (and again did not) and yet we are required officially, to receive the report.

We need a more diverse mix of people in this vital political frontline where cuts are faced but ironically, by refusing to agree a higher allowance, we are making it even more likely that the people deciding vital changes to our essential services or at least how we respond to the cuts are not the diverse mix of residents typical of our city, but a select group who can afford to spend time  involved in local politics. Typically characterised as ‘stale, pale and male,’ and  certainly not changing very fast in makeup, despite the increased diversity we’ve helped foster in recent years.
It’s clearly “to be continued …….”

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