Councillors’ pay: a proposal

by Stephen Tall on April 30, 2007

The question – how much should councillors be paid? – is prompted by the figures released by the Taxpayers’ Alliance showing the average councillor allowance is now £9,300. As always, this mean hides extremes. Putting to one side the Greater London Assembly, the most lucrative place to serve your community on the council is Croydon, where you would earn £22,142 a year. By contrast, a place on Corby council was rewarded with £2,964.

For the record, Oxford city council is placed 275th out of 386 councils, with an average councillor salary of £5,137. (Though I’ll have earned more in the last year by being a member of the city’s executive board.)

I find myself conflicted on this subject, though not out of personal interest (my city council allowance is not my main source of income). Local government desperately needs to attract top quality, committed citizens to become councillors – one obvious way to do so is to ensure it is reasonably well-rewarded.

However, there’s a paradox here.

If I were paid something approaching a full-time wage, I would not continue as a councillor – because I know I simply could not work a sufficient number of hours to justify such a salary. And, flexible and accommodating as my employers are, they might start to question my commitment to my day job if they knew I had a second job paying the national average salary. So, in my case – and maybe others’ – the effect of increasing the salary on offer is to make the job a less appealing prospect.

Equally, I recognise there are many councillors who throw themselves into their duties, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge their efforts. Though quantity of work does not always equate to effectiveness of performance, of course.

The real barrier to the further involvement of committed citizens in local government is, in any case, the democratic process itself. There is a general decline in voluntary activity, whether at political or community level, in British life. And few sane individuals will choose to spend a good chunk of their evenings and week-ends from March to May knocking on their neighbours’ doors, or posting leaflets through dog-infested letter-boxes.

I am, therefore, unconvinced that increasing councillors’ allowances will drive up the quality of those who seek out the role. In any case, what real accountability is there? Yes, we have elections – but they are a blunt appraisal system. Hard-working councillors can be chucked out by a fickle electorate rejecting their government, while indolent councillors may be protected by an opposition party’s national brand.

Here’s my proposal:

I reckon every councillor should be expected to devote at least a day a week to their job: they should, therefore, be paid an annual allowance of one-fifth of the average salary of those who work within their local authority area.

They should then register how many days a week they reckon they devote to the job of councillor. If they reckon they work a 5-day week, they should say so, and will be paid at the full average salary – provided they produce a weekly digest of how they have spent their time, which would be published on their council’s website. If they reckon they work two days a week, they will be paid two-fifths of the average salary, and so on.

This will give the public a clear steer as to the amount of work they can expect from their local councillor. They will be able to weigh up the cost of that councillor against their judgement of his or her performance. Clearly they will expect more ‘bang for their bucks’ from a full-time councillor than they would a part-timer. But they may prefer a productive and efficient councillor whose salary is not helping ratchet-up their Council Tax.

Those who free-load – claiming the full rate but demonstrably failing to do the job – will find themselves vulnerable to local newspaper ‘naming and shaming’, and to challenge from opponents at elections.

One final ingredient:

Each year, the Council draws up its performance plan and sets targets it should achieve. Pay increases to councillors should be linked to the council’s delivery in these areas. If they hit their targets, and the council achieves what it has promised, councillors will have earned their corn. If they miss them, they should suffer the consequences, as working folk do in every other walk of life. I suspect this would ensure councillors paid a little bit more attention to the setting and delivery of achievable targets for improvement.