Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy, and previously served on South Bucks District Council and the Isle of Wight Council.
As an instinctive supporter of the initiatives of the Taxpayer’s Alliance, I was perturbed by the argument put forward by Harry Fone, the Alliance’s Grassroots Campaign Manager, that councillors’ allowances should be cut to reduce their annual cost of £255 million. This is short-sighted and would be completely counter-productive.
First, I am staggered that the total cost of such allowances is as low as £255 million to fund the thousands of individuals who give up their time to serve their local communities. If the sums in question were broken down over hours served, the rate for most councillors would be demonstrably insulting.
Second, Fone is identifying a problem correctly, namely that despite the generally altruistic desire to serve in public office, the current arrangements, in some areas, are not attracting candidates of the right calibre properly to set strategic objectives and to hold senior management to account for producing and implementing strategies to achieve them.
Third, for all local government’s moans about government interference and control, the reality is that councillors today, particularly during the pandemic, are in some cases taking decisions which impact directly on the life chances and the quality of life of thousands of their residents. Nothing has impressed me more than the way in which some of our councillor colleagues have stepped up to provide real leadership to their communities, to drive forward new school, public health, and social care strategies; to think outside the box about practical changes to policies that will help local economies and reconfigure services rapidly to meet their local need.
Even in good times, the relevant cabinet portfolio holders may have to make individual decisions of huge impact and importance: to close a school, to reorganise a service, to set budgets, to recruit senior officers, to close a care home and rehouse the residents. The responsibility is huge, and I have seen it weigh heavily on colleagues under pressure, and indeed on me when, for example, I found myself Children’s Services Portfolio Holder as an Academy Trust announced the closure of one of our local high schools on the morning of the elections to the council.
Very few councillors will ever have had to take such important decisions in their personal or professional lives – and council Cabinet Members certainly shoulder more responsibility than any backbench Member of Parliament – and I should know having worked in Westminster for nearly 40 years. Put simply, MPs have influence on government and law (a little) but local government makes decisions, day in, day out.
Let me be clear, I also served in local government for many years as both a district councillor in South Bucks and, more recently, as a member of the Isle Wight Council, which is similar to a unitary authority, but with a few shared arrangements with Hampshire. During my service on both councils, I never claimed any expenses, declined special responsibility allowances, and each year donated my basic allowance to local charities and voluntary organisations. I was happy to do so, because I could afford to at the time. But in most cases, the allowances really are paltry and are not the motivation of most councillors – of all political parties and none.
Take that allowance away and the practical consequence is the disbarring from public office of whole sections of the population, particularly carers and single parents, and those whose income ties them to a business or job with no flexibility. In short, the role starts to make sense only for those who no longer have to work, draw a pension, and have no caring or home-making responsibilities.
Do the Taxpayer’s Alliance really want councillors to be a self-selecting bunch of largely retired, white men? Because that’s what they will get if allowances do not attract individuals of calibre, of motivation, and of decision-making experience.
Tinkering with already modest, in some cases derisory, allowances will merely exacerbate the situation that in some areas we are already missing the input of younger talented individuals from a wider range of backgrounds, who can be trusted with their hands on the levers of power – for there really is power in local government.
No, we need to approach this from the other end. Given the huge, and growing, responsibilities of local government, and the pressure on and accountability of its cabinet members, what do we as a party need to do to ensure we are attracting and fielding the right candidates who can deliver effective and efficient services to our local communities? Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, needs to set local government free to reinvent itself for its local communities after the pandemic, and encourage them to make their own decisions, for which they are accountable to their local electorate, about how best to recruit, retain, and motivate candidates of the highest possible calibre.