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A happy Christmas for West Sussex councillors

December 23rd, 2007 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · 4 Comments · Politics

Well, its going to be happy for some of them anyway, specifically the 18 of them who are getting way-above-inflation pay increases – backdated to April so they get a nice lump sum in their next pay. They will be spending Christmas with their snouts in the trough.

Danivon has already written about this, but I think he has only scratched the surface leaving plenty for me to add.

The gist of it is that WSCC have an independent panel who look at their allowances and make recommendations on whether and how to change them. This panel came up with a recommendation to leave allowances alone while they do a full study of them. The committee that the panel report to thanked them kindly for the recommendations and then made their own recommendation to the full council – to increase special responsibility allowances for 18 jobs by amounts well over the current level of inflation. In three cases the increase was a whopping 36.5% by my calculations. Or by 27% according to the Argus.

As reported in the Argus, this recommendation was accepted by the full (Tory) council, despite strong opposition from Labour and Lib Dem councillors, but the vote was heavily whipped with some of the Tories very visibly uneasy with voting for the increases and only doing so because they were told to.

So that’s the story. Labour are not happy with it, the Lib Dems are not happy with it, several Tories are not happy with it and I’m willing to bet that the independent panel are not happy either. Here a few reasons why I am not happy:

The county council are talking about having to tighten belts. They are talking about cutting costs – they never say ‘cutting services’ of course. At some point in the process of cutting costs they will be asking their staff to make some sort of sacrifice, either by cutting posts or keeping pay settlements down. Meanwhile they are increasing the total wage bill for councillors by about £34,000.

The leader of the council is trying to put a positive spin on it all. He says that if he had a job with similar responsibilities in the private sector he would earn even more. Of course that is true, but would he get a similar job in the private sector with similar responsibilities? Let’s remember that he is basically a mortgage advisor or something like that. If he had turned up at a large multinational applying for a job in charge of thousands of staff he wouldn’t have even get a first interview.

If by some fluke he had a similar job in the private sector and then let a £36 milion project over-run by £6 million, demonstrating “ineffective accountability, complacency, ineffective risk management and a lack of clear ownership of the financial management responsibilities” ((Thats what the investigators from East Sussex County Council found)) he wouldn’t have kept it for long anyway.

The Argus mentions that Mr. Smith’s pay will increase from £26,523 to £29,394 but actually he gets £39,940 because the leader’s special responsibility allowance is paid on top of the basic £10,546 that all county councillors get. Forty grand is not bad. A lot more than the admin staff get who will have had to type up all the committee papers saying how hard done by the councillors are.

The other mitigation offered by Henry is that he dedicates 60 hours a week to the council. Well that’s his choice. For the leader of a council covering the whole of West Sussex he seems to spend a disproportionate amount of that time in one very small part of it – Crawley, where he has parliamentary ambitions.

I suspect he is attending events in Crawley which he would not bother doing if they were elsewhere because they increase his visibility here. And is this 60 hours every week? Even if it is, it would work out overall at nearly £13 per hour, which is about the national average wage and more than many people in the county have and they do not have a job and two properties to fall back on.

And then there are the expenses. This part of the report was glossed over. Another recommendation was to increase the amount allowed for meals when away from home. That amount is increasing from £10.08 to £25, a mere 148% increase. Some people here in Broadfield have to try and feed a family for £10 and would find it hilarious that a councillor can’t get a meal for less than £25.

Mileage allowances have not increased, but then they were quite generous already at 52.7p a mile. Crawley is about 50 miles from Chichester. If Henry Smith has to go to County Hall by car only every other day that comes to about £570 a month, which is enough to lease a car and keep it in fuel. And that is only for travelling to Chichester 10 days a month. I don’t know how often Henry and his Crawley-based colleagues travel to Chichester, whether they drive or take the train, whether they car-share or whether they claim the whole amounts, although such information is surely available from the council under the FoI legislation, but potentially it could be anything up to £10,000 a year tax-free.

Like Danivon, I am not happy with the principle of over-ruling an independent panel on allowances. Its a sort of unwritten rule that you follow their recommendations, although I can remember us doing it on Crawley borough council. The panel recommended extra allowances for shadow portfolio holders and we didn’t implement that if I remember rightly. Certainly its not right to over-rule them in an upwards direction though. I also have a sneaking suspicion that these increases along with this year’s council tax increase are there so they can avoid large increases in the run up to county elections, banking on the electorate having short memories.

Not to fear though: Labour and the Lib Dems will, I am sure, remind the electorate about these increases in 2009 just in case everybody has forgotten by then.

Another overlooked aspect of all this is the spurious justification of putting West Sussex allowances into the mid-range of comparable authorities. That is like those wage spirals in the 70s where one group of workers gets an increase to compete with another and then the second group get an increase to restore the differentials.

By increasing one authority’s allowances to the middle of the range, the middle of the range goes up a bit. Other authorities below the mid point become a bit further from it, and they increase their allowances to the new mid-point, which then increases. Before long West Sussex are below the mid point again it it all starts over.

But it gets worse…

Whether the leader of the council and cabinet members deserve what they get or the increase they have voted for themselves is all quite subjective. How much time Henry Smith spends concentrating on the job he has and how much of it is really about the job he wants is unknowable. In any case my opinion will be coloured by my own political persuasion.

What I do think is more black-and-white is the issue of payments for committee chairs, and especially the three committees which used to attract a lower allowance. Surely they are already paid way too much for what they do, and now will get even more.

I have had a look at the copies of minutes for committee meetings, all available on the WSCC web site. The minutes give starting and finishing times of meetings so it is easy to see how much time is involved.

Taking the Rights of Way committee as an example you can see that:

  • The committee met 4 times in 2007
  • The meetings lasted 60, 90, 150 and 120 minutes
  • Thats a total of 420 minutes, or 7 hours in committee meetings
  • The chair of the committee got £6,582 for the special responsibility of chairing it.
  • That comes to £1,645.50 per meeting
  • or £940.29 per hour

After the increase in allowances, the same level of activity on the committee would put the rate up to £1,284.12 per hour or £2,247.25 per meeting! Not a bad level of compensation is it?

How can anyone think that £900 per hour is not enough to pay someone for chairing a meeting? The Regulatory, Audit & Accounts committee is the same, and Planning is not far behind. It had 6 meetings in the year and earned the chair £692 per hour for chairing it. One of the meetings lasted 30 minutes and another lasted 25 minutes.

Let’s put it in perspective: for the sum of £6,582 each two chairs put in a normal day’s work spread over a year. I wouldn’t mind getting that for every 7-hour day I do at work. I would be happy enough just if the days were only 7 hours each!

It can be argued that the chair has to spend a lot of time outside meetings, but I really do not believe that. True, they have to read the papers beforehand, but so do all the other committee members – that’s part of the general workload which councillors get their basic allowance for. I can’t believe that the rights of way committee involves a lot of work. Even if it involved an hour outside meetings for every hour in meetings (which I don’t believe it does) it would still mean it was paying £470 an hour.

The select and scrutiny committees probably do involve a bit more work, which is why their allowances used to be higher. Even so, some of them seem a bit light on the workload. The Public Protection Select Committee met 6 times, but one meeting lasted only 35 minutes. I guess we didn’t need much protecting that month. Overall that committee spend just over 12 hours meeting throughout the whole year, but the chair got paid nearly nine thousand pounds for being there. (£730 per hour)

Even the dubious excuses offered to justify the leader and cabinet’s allowances and above-inflation increases cannot apply here. You can’t say that someone who chairs a 30-minute planning committee meeting for £470 would get paid that in the private sector!

I used to chair a borough planning committee. I really can’t remember what the special responsibility allowance was for that, but its about £5,700 now so it must have been less then. At that time the committee must have met about 16 or 17 times a year and most meetings went on for more than two hours, some went on for three hours. We nearly always had a large attendance from the public, often an angry crowd. I suspect the meetings were much more stressful than at the county level. Even at today’s allowance level that would come to about £135 per hour.

I felt guilty about having that level of allowance, and arranged meetings with the planning department outside of committee meetings to discuss forthcoming items and general strategy, like changes to the scheme of delegation. And I went away on summer schools and training days as well to try and give more value for money.

Obviously no such sense of shame exists down at County Hall where they are happy to take a larger allowance to do a fifth as much work as the same committee on a district council and then vote for a 36% increase.

But we are told these increases are not motivated by greed. What is the motivation then? To see how much they can get away with before anyone notices?

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Richard

    The motivation is power and control – and to have an arrogant, collective belly laugh at our expense…especially in Crawley.

    WSCC Cabinet members, and Deputy Lieutenants, consider themselves ‘untouchable’…being a political monopoly…and so being able to act with immunity and impunity in almost every case.

    “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you” (Orwell)

  • Ash

    “I am not happy with the principle of over-ruling an independent panel on allowances.”

    The Labour government have been overuling independant panels for the last 10 years!

    “Obviously no such sense of shame exists down at County Hall …”

    and exactly how much ‘shame’ do you think exits in the Labour Party?

    Or is this just more party-political point scoring?

  • Danivon

    As an example of what Ash is talking about, that meddler Gordon Brown is calling for MPs to ignore the review into their own pay.

    It calls for above-inflation increases, and he wants them to accept a lower increase. Yup, that sure is some hypocrisy, Ash!!

  • skud's sister

    I suspect the county councils are banking on the short memories of the electorate. I recall you have mentioned before that the local councils are often blamed for poll-tax increases instigated at county level – I do feel that so many people don’t even try to fathom the difference between councils…
    Could be worse though – we still have our two BNP councillors….