Elections are taking place next year for all the seats on the 22 local authorities in Wales. Among the controversies that you might expect the electorate to take an interest in would be the amount of their money paid in councillors allowances. The "Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales" (all of whom have a lack of independence being from a background of well paid public sector posts) is alarmed by this prospect of democratic accountability asserting itself in this respect.
Their report says:
The Panel remains concerned that pressure on local authorities in the current economic climate to set member remuneration at an artificially low level may result in an unedifying, and potentially damaging, ‘race to the bottom’. Such a process would serve to fundamentally undermine the Panel’s principle of consistency in respect of member remuneration.
Already such local councils have caused dismay by failing to pay councillors the amount they have recommeneded. Their answer is to remove this power on decision making. They will come up with lower figures but have it imposed. This means that while councils that were paying the maximum allowed will see a cut in allowances there will also be 10 councils that will be forced to increase allowances.
The report continues:
The Panel has concluded that a planned reduction in member salaries which is prescribed in all Welsh local authorities has the advantage of being both ordered and orderly and is preferable to any free-fall in member allowances which may occur under local pressure in the current arrangements as the local government elections approach in 2012. The fact that new councils will be elected in 2012 makes it opportune to institute a prescribed salary in 2012, although at reduced rates. Underlying this decision by the Panel is a strong view that income continuity – either as a backbench councillor or as an office holder within a council – cannot be assumed by any currently serving councillor seeking election.
Personally, despite localist instincts, I think the power of councillors to decide their own pay should be limited by a maximum limit. Even their reduction in the basic allowance for councillors to £13,175 strikes me as much too high. At present the maximum for the basic allowance is £13,868. In Hammersmith and Fulham (where the cost of living is much higher) the basic allowance is £8,940.
But what is quite wrong is that councils should lose the power to pay below the maximum. What should Cardiff (a Lib Dem/Plaid coalition) be forced to increase the pay of its councillors from £11,342 to £13,175 – a 16% hike? Why should Conservative-run Monmouthshire be forced to increase allowances from £12,825? Or Powys, run by independents, have to increase it by over a thousand pounds from the current £11,925?
The Welsh Assembly Government should reject the Panel's anti democratic proposals.