Monday, 31 October 2011


I’ve always taken the view that to talk or blog about councillors’ allowances is a real turnoff that’s never going to get people particularly interested. But before you drop off, can I have a couple of minutes of your time to highlight a local development that is actually worth stifling the yawns for?

How would you feel if you discovered that some of your taxes were going to pay people whose jobs weren’t defined? People who might do some work, but you don’t know what they’re doing, or whether they’ve done what they’re supposed to because no-one has set out what it is they’re supposed to be doing?

I don’t want to get too anal about this, and at times you need to give people a certain freedom to act as they see fit within defined limits. But a local Conservative-controlled district council has taken to paying three of its councillors £3,311 per year of taxpayers’ money without saying what it is they’re supposed to be doing. That’s not only wrong, but violates the principle that local government should be transparent and accountable.

Not a lot of people know this, but councillors at district and county level get an annual allowance for their work. It’s in recognition of the fact that they have to do some council work and attend certain meetings during working hours, and therefore may have to forfeit some income to carry out their duties as a councillor. The rate on Lewes District Council is just under £3000 a year, and it’s around £1000 more on Wealden District Council.

Then there are Special Responsibility Allowances. These are given to councillors who take on specific jobs for which there are genuine responsibilities. I have no issue with this in principle – many of these tasks amount to a full-time job, and if you want talented people running your council, you can’t pay peanuts.

But you have to define what special responsibilities you’re paying councillors for. And Lewes District Council currently has three ‘Lead Councillors without portfolio’ who are paid £3,311. This is a scandal.

Guidance from central government and commonly accepted practice states that no councillor should receive remuneration beyond the basic councillor’s allowance for any work that is not clearly defined and can be monitored by the public. So paying money to a councillor without defined responsibilities breaches the principle of transparency of council work.

That’s why I have called on Lewes District Council to allow ‘Lead Councillors without portfolio’ to have the right to sit and vote on the council’s ‘cabinet’, but they should not receive any Special Responsibility Allowance. They could receive a fixed sum for a one-off task, so that the council can make use of some specialist skills from among the pool of councillors, but any such task must be defined so we can know whether the councillor has done the work or not.

Anything less is just a cronyist approach to local government that we should not tolerate.