Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Mayor deserves £65k a year. Now time to pay councillors a full-time salary.

Politicians and their salaries. I’m sure if some members of the public had their way, they’d be lucky to be paid minimum wage. For obvious reasons, councillors and MPs become rather queasy when talking about their salaries. There never seems to be a good time to raise the prospect of a pay rise. Sympathetic ears are in short supply. The British don’t take too kindly to people moaning about money, let alone an elected official. Instead, coming off the back of past furores when MPs have demanded a pay increase, they’ve taken the only (sensible) step they know how. If you’re a politician, and someone mentions the dreaded words “pay rise,” you remain silent, seem uncomfortable, and pull an awkward looking face.

Is it false modesty? Possibly. More likely avoiding the prospect of getting lynched in the street. But they can rest easy. I’m happy to do the talking for them. When it comes to councillors, it’s about time we paid them a full-time salary.
At present, every councillor in Bristol receives a basic remuneration of £11,416 a year. Those with additional responsibilities are granted an SRA (Special Responsibility Allowance). Before the election of Mayor George Ferguson, the council leader took home a tidy £52,000 a year. Executive members, committee chairs and political group leaders were also paid up to £20,000 on top of their basic salary.

All this has now changed. This week councillors from all parties agreed, rightly, that the mayor’s wages should match that of an MP: £65,738. Members of Ferguson’s cabinet get £21,000, as well as their basic pay. Most councillors will still get their basic sum, plus extras, as and when needed.
This needs to change. Last week, a panel of MPs concluded that councillors had a right to expect “an appropriate level of compensation,” although, unhelpfully, failed to say what this level should be. They argued that the setting of councillors' pay should be taken out of their hands and given to an independent body. What’s more, they stressed that low pay was deterring many young people from entering local politics. The average age of a councillor nationwide stands at a youthful 60.

Admittedly, this isn’t going to happen in the age of austerity, but it’s something that should be considered in the future. Most people are unaware of who their councillor is, and even less clear about what exactly they do. Some argue that the honour and pride of working for their community should be enough. Hence, it’s a role that is often taken up by those who are either retired or approaching retirement. But, we pay MPs, so why not councillors? Nobody is more in tune with the needs of the people around them than the local councillor. MPs are far too busy, and far too absent, to do anywhere near enough for their constituents.
It might seem a strange time to suggest this soon after Bristol has voted in its first mayor. After all, the power of the city’s councillors has been significantly diluted. But even more reason to give them a greater purpose in their own wards. Whilst the mayor has the ultimate say over almost everything, he cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of everything.

Bristol decided that it needed a mayor to grapple with the city’s problems. According to the Cities minister, he is now “one of the most powerful political figures in the country.” Properly paying councillors would also recognise the vital role they play. Yes, they don’t always deal with the glamorous stuff (grumbling about car-parking spaces and broken street lights just two examples of complaints they commonly come across), but this is the mundane stuff that we take for granted. We assume the roads will be gritted when it snows (all eyes on Friday), that our bins will be collected, that our electricity always works, that our parks are looked after. These things don’t happen by accident. Councillors, together with thousands of council staff, are working tirelessly behind the scenes.
Cutting the number of councillors in Bristol, from 70 to 35, would free up money to pay the remaining half, something in the region of £25,000 a year. It would also ensure that it attracts people from a wider cross-section of society. Rather than something that is done alongside the day job, resulting in late nights and busy weekends, becoming a councillor would become a profession in its own right. It’s the very least they deserve.

This comment piece was first published by thisisbristol on Wednesday 16th January 2013

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