Friday, 19 July 2013

In defence of councillors

I will preface this post with an acknowledgement that there are dedicated and hard working councillors in all parties, and there are also those who don't pull their weight. The slackers are, however, the minority, and we must not allow the narrative to go unchallenged that all councillors are spongers and troughers.  For the overwhelming majority this is grossly untrue.

As usual, in the headlines and tweets which now shape public opinion, it is the exceptions which receive the attention and set the terms of the debate. Having said that, a recent attempt by Kent CC to increase Members' mileage allowance by 50% to 63p per mile was political folly which should never have seen the light of day.

In my personal view too many councillors (again, of all parties) are unable to resist the temptation to 'go native' and to become part of the municipal establishment. Whenever I am briefing new applicants or training first time candidates I repeat my mantra that, "if elected your primary duty is to represent the interests of your electors, not to become apologists for the actions of the council."  Most listen and some understand.

Notwithstanding all the above, we are still fortunate to have so many good people in local government; people who have no desire to climb the greasy pole of political preferment or to exploit their office for self aggrandisement. The overwhelming majority of councillors I know (and I know many) are there out of a sense of civic duty and public service; to serve their local community and solve people's problems. And that should be celebrated.

In Tonbridge & Malling a backbench councillor receives a monthly payment of just £423 to compensate them for their time. If they are of working age, tax and NI is deducted, reducing the monthly payment to £280. Or £70 per week.  I have just phoned one hard working councillor I know and asked him to go through last week's diary with me. He was out four evenings (twice at the council chamber, once at a residents' association meeting and the fourth at his local parish council). As a member of the planning committee he also had three daytime site visits. He attended a school governors' meeting, a meeting at the local sheltered housing scheme to discuss concerns about crime and vandalism, meetings with the local traders' association to see how they can drive Christmas footfall and a meeting with residents to raise funds to improve the local football and cricket ground. And if these regular meetings were not enough, as a successful businessman he was asked to "sit-in" on the interviews for a new Parish Clerk which took up another 6 hours.   Although last week was exceptional, this councillor believes he spends 20 - 40 hours per week on council / community business. His £70 per week allowance equates to around £2.50 per hour (and this excludes one or two hours per day dealing with phone calls and emails and reading reports).

Admittedly, no-one asks them to stand for election, and given most seek re-election then they clearly enjoy doing it. But we must acknowledge that in most cases very few can be doing it for the money.  So yes, we should weed out and deselect the lazy and the inept. And if a council attempts to increase allowances or expenses in the middle of a recession whilst reducing services to those in need; they should be exposed to the full and unrelenting glare of public scrutiny.  But in the stampede for a sensational headline or an attention grabbing Tweet, let's not denigrate the hundreds and thousands of decent, hard-working councillors who work tirelessly for their communities and are worth their weight in gold.

1 comment:

  1. We all know exceptions to the rule and I know a council that bucks this trend of 'the overwhelming majority are there out of a sense of civic duty'.