Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Councillor allowances is an issue in local government that continues to frustrate taxpayers across the country. We’ve seen during the pandemic how members have voted through increases to their allowances after recommendations from supposedly ‘independent’ remuneration panels.
That’s why I was delighted to hear that a good friend of mine has decided to take a stand and is handing his entire annual allowance back to taxpayers. Charles Amos of East Grinstead Town Council in East Sussex argues £1,155 per year is “excessive”. But he’s not stopping there. He’s putting forward amendments at the next council meeting to have allowances scrapped (a saving of £21,495 to local residents) or at the very least reduced.
There are some serious questions to be asked, of course, about how necessary it is for members of town and parish councils to get allowances at all. As Charles points out, nearby councils such as Felbridge, Ardingly, Cuckfield and Twineham “don’t pay any of their councillors allowances at all.” So I say good luck to Charles and his campaign which you can support here. I wholeheartedly support his aims of a better deal for local taxpayers. We need more people with this attitude at all levels of local government.
Switching to the bigger picture on councillor allowances – and freedom of information requests have revealed the shocking sums of taxpayers’ money making its way into the hands of political parties. You will probably be aware that Labour mandates that a percentage of each of its councillor’s allowances be donated to the party at national and local levels. To the best of my knowledge, it is not currently required of members from the Conservative, Liberal Democrats, Green and SNP parties but it can be done so voluntarily.
In total for 2019-20 and 2020-21, at least £3.7 million of councillors allowances ended up in the coffers of political parties. Labour made up the vast majority of this amount at just under £3.1 million, followed by the Conservative and Lib Dems with £250,000 and £232,000 respectively, with the rest going to the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
Some readers may not have a problem with this. After all, what is to stop any councillor from using their allowances in whatever way they deem fit? Indeed, I would in part agree with this. What I take issue with, is the fact that council staff and administrators are handling the financial transactions (i.e. transferring a proportion of councillors’ allowances to a political party) on behalf of members. There is both a time and monetary cost to councils. For example, both Fylde and North East Lincolnshire estimate it costs around £300 per year to facilitate the bank transfers. In the scheme of things, not a lot of money but why are councils doing this in the first place? Why not leave the responsibility to councillors?
The more you think about it, the more issues arise with councillors allowances ending up in the hands of political parties. According to the most recent data available, fewer than 100 councils between 2017-18 and 2018-19 either froze or reduced basic allowances for councillors. Approximately three-quarters of councils increased basic allowances. So it seriously calls into question the motives of councillors who vote through any rises. Both they and potentially their party stand to benefit.
Then there is the effect on democracy. It surely can’t be good that those in power are able to boost their local armoury of campaign funds so easily? While those such as independent candidates or new political parties will have no similar stream of revenue. It seems very much like a ‘barrier to entry’ of the political world.
Of course, even if the law was laid down that councils should not be facilitating these transactions to political parties, it wouldn’t stop members from doing it themselves. But is this really the purpose of allowances? Aren’t they supposed to compensate councillors for time, effort, and expenses, in pursuit of trying to improve their local communities? I suspect if you explained to taxpayers that their council tax is being used in this way, they’d be far from happy, especially given the huge hikes we’ve seen in recent years.