There have been some more encouraging signs for council taxpayers recently. A growing number of councillors have been voting to restrain or even reduce their own pay and perks.
With the MPs’ expenses scandal, the money being paid to any politician has understandably become a focus for many people. This isn’t unreasonable – if you’re trusting a group of people to either manage or scrutinise the use of your taxes, then you want to make sure that the people in charge of your money have the right priorities.
There have been various controversies with councillors voting to vastly increase their own allowances, but happily there are some who are setting better examples.
Take two recent cases.
First, Westminster councillors have voted to freeze their own pay. I gave evidence to the council on this very topic, and took the opportunity to make the point that many people in the Borough have taken pay cuts or lost their jobs during the recession.
As a result both of my own evidence, the prevailing economic circumstances and the enthusiasm for taxpayer value of many of the councillors, the only choices put to a vote were either a freeze or a cut.
How refreshing it is, to see politicians considering either keeping the bill to taxpayers the same or reducing it. All too often the only choices are either increasing spending a lot or increasing it a little.
Whilst of course it would have been preferable to see Westminster councillors reduce their own pay, their choice to freeze it outright is certainly a small victory. Hopefully the other recommendations I made, such as scrapping the London-wide Remuneration Panel, by which three people recommend the pay of every London councillor, will also be acted upon.
Westminster’s laudable decision should also reflect on the London councillors who have chosen to award themselves vastly more generous schemes. For too long, some councillors have been able to get away with feathering their own nests without question.
At the far Western end of the country, a similar debate has been raging in the new unitary Cornwall County Council. There, the Independent Remuneration Panel ignored the fact that the county had suffered more than most in the recession and recommended an unjustified 33% rise in councillors’ earnings.
Again, the most popular alternatives were very different from the IRP’s proposals. The real debate on the night amongst councillors was between freezing allowances for one year or for four years. The laudable proposal for a four year freeze put forward by some local Lib Dems was sadly defeated, but Cornwall’s council taxpayers can rest assured that their taxes are not being paid to increase the earnings of local politicians.
This is of course an emblematic issue, but it is an emblem with both a principled and practical purpose.
As a matter of principle, councillors should not be seeking to increase their own income at a time when local taxpayers have been suffering grievously. In practical politics, it is also a bad idea for the political leadership of a council to be paying themselves more.
Realistically, the next couple of years are going to have to see outright spending cuts at both national and local level. As David Cameron has rightly recognised, it is both wrong and unacceptable for the people’s representatives to demand pay cuts and redundancies from public sector workers whilst paying themselves more,
It is encouraging that some councils at least are acknowledging the tough realities of the times in which we live. Hopefully more will follow suit.