A vote to increase district councillors’ allowances by a substantial 16.5 per cent has been slammed as being “unjustifiable” and “excessive” by some of those who would benefit from it.
In a report by the National Independent Remuneration Panel to South Kesteven District Council (SKDC), an increase was proposed, which would see councillors pick up at least £5,407 a year compared to the £4,641 they are currently paid.
Following extensive interviews with councillors, the independent panel made its recommendations based on “councillors’ greater responsibilities and commitments” and to bring SKDC in line with other district councils.
The report describes the current allowance as disproportionate, stating that whereas “allowances may have been appropriate historically, that they are now out of kilter with the more proactive approach being taken”, which has resulted in a compelling case for the basic allowance to be set at the average for all Lincolnshire districts.
Although it is the overall decision of the council to determine the allowances scheme, they have a legal duty to take into account the recommendations.
A spokesman for SKDC said: “Many councillors work extremely long hours on behalf of their wards and in their duties as district councillors and are proud to do so. The amounts offered go some way to acknowledging the work they do, but they are strictly only allowances and not ‘salaries’.”
Since the last review in 2013, the council has seen a major change as it has shifted from an officer-led authority to a member-led authority, resulting in changes in culture, structures, responsibilties and accountabilities. Members are said to now be taking a much stronger lead and are much more pro-active in driving improvements in services and projects.
The report concluded that it could not disregard the weight of evidence received about the greater responsibilities, commitments and accountabilities now being placed on councillors, stating that these should be acknowledged and recognised.
The recommendation was debated at length at the full council meeting on Thursday and finally passed on a vote of 30 for – including one Labour councillor and four independents – nine against and six abstentions.
Councillors are entitled to take all, part or none of the allowance.
Leader of the council Matthew Lee, a Stamford councillor who will see his allowance increase from £15,063 to £18,924.50, said: “It is not appropriate that any council should be dominated by a certain age, or sex, or that you can only become a councillor if you are retired or wealthy. This remuneration allows all people, whatever their financial background or stage of career, to become a councillor.
“There is never a good time to deal with a pay increase, but this is the result of an independent re-evaluation of the role of a councillor and takes into account how that role has changed.”
Despite the recommendations, which will be incorporated into the council’s overall budget, many councillors do not believe that an increase is in the public’s best interest.
Coun Tracey Forman (Lab) said she did not think that an increase was justified at a time of public austerity.
Addressing her fellow councillors in the council chamber, she said: “Now is not the time to increase our allowances at a time of public sector cuts. How can we simply justify it?”
Coun Frances Cartwright (Con) also voted against the recommendation.
She said: “It was a matter of conscience and I thought it could be bad for office (staff) morale as their pay has been capped for many years now.”
Councillor Bob Adams (Con), the former leader of the council, also believes the increases are ‘excessive.’
He said: “An increase in allowances, additional cabinet members and an increase of special responsibility positions for 2017/2018 financial year have not been fully budgeted for. This means a further decrease in the reserves. This does not take into account the additional mileage that can be claimed for attending parish council meetings and compensating members for ‘informal’ caring arrangements.
“I doubt that any employee of the council will receive similar increases. From a council taxpayer’s perspective, we are still in difficult financial times. I cannot justify to them these very high increases.”
Coun Ian Selby (ind) said it was only right that the voting was recorded and for the public to be made aware.
He said: “Only 12 councillors, myself included, voted for a recorded vote so that the public could openly see which way councillors voted on the issue. I then abstained on the remuneration vote because I felt that any decision should be made by an independent external source to judge the justification of any such decision. Councillors should not be voting on their own allowances. If that is not a conflict of interest, then I don’t know what is.”
Since becoming a Bourne councillor six years ago, Coun Helen Powell (ind) has seen her workload grow considerably and often works over 200 hours a month. She believes the electorate is getting a very good deal.
She added: “We are given an allowance for 35 hours a month at £10 per hour. We are also expected to work another 35 hours as a volunteer. I had never known this. I thought it was all voluntary with just expenses payable.
“Workload has grown incredibly due to so many government changes to policy governing our work at SKDC, especially on planning. Locally, we cover a whole range of responsibilities as a councillor including casework.”
Coun Powell is also keen to attract younger residents to join the council to bring new skills and viewpoints.
She added: “We need to be able to attract them by way of an allowance to go towards the costs of being a councillor. We use our own cars, printers, phones, etc, so the allowance certainly helps.
“For the time spent on district council duties in our wards, the electorate are getting a very good deal. We certainly don’t do this work for the money, but to genuinely help to make the best decisions for the residents and shop/business owners in our wards. It is some of the most worthwhile work that I have ever done.”
Fellow Bourne councillor Duncan Ashwell said: “We had a healthy debate last week and careful consideration was given to the evidence and information provided.
“I made my decision based on personal considerations, not political ones.
“I will choose to donate my increase to three local charities at the end of my current term.”
Coun Terl Bryant (Con) added: “A lot of councillors pointed out that they did not do it as a means of generating an income and when you look at the hours of time spent researching and following a case, it would definitely fall below the minimum wage.”
He added: “My thoughts are that if I can, because of my circumstances, afford to not claim, then don’t claim and I intend to continue as I have been doing but a balanced view has been taken by the independent review panel, bringing SKDC into line with adjacent local authorities. A councillor who needs to have access to money to do their job now has that sum available to allow them to work properly. They must not be frightened off by peer pressure.”