We are currently in the final weeks of what seems to have been a very long European parliament and borough elections campaign. As Conservatives in Elmbridge we have been working hard to get our local message heard above the national noise made by the two major parties and by UKIP who are fighting tooth and nail over the Euros, where UKIP expect to win and Labour are desperate to beat the Conservatives.
As borough councillors we know very well that at times like this our campaign is a bit of a sideshow. That is a pity as we have a very good story to tell: – a Council tax freeze whilst all our public services are maintained at the same high standard. It’s therefore deeply depressing that the only local government message likely to be heard over the next 10 days is going to be about the Conservative group at Surrey CC’s wholly irresponsible decision to increase their expenses well in excess of that recommended by the independent review panel (who have now all resigned in protest).
I have no problem with the increase recommended by the panel. Here in Elmbridge our own independent panel recommended a 1.5% increase in the basic allowance for all councillors with no increases for those of us with “special responsibilities” – i.e. special jobs like mine as a Cabinet member. We have not increased any of our allowances since 2008/9. Our leader obtained cross-party support for the increases. This is in stark contrast to what happened at County Hall.
Rather than rush to uninformed comment I decided to watch the debate in full – it is on Surrey CC’s web site and lasts for more than an hour. The Surrey CC leader’s defence of the increases to their special responsibilities allowances by some £100K in excess of that recommended by the independent panel boiled down to 2 points: firstly that an increase was long overdue, and secondly that higher allowances were necessary if good people were not to be deterred from putting themselves forward for election.
The first point is entirely specious. The Panel themselves recognised that there had not been an increase for some time and they set about addressing that deficiency in the figures which they recommended. They recommended rises which took into account the fact that there had been a freeze for many years.
As to the second point, there is no doubt that the vast majority of local councillors are either (i) retired or (ii) in jobs which allow a lot of flexibility (this applies to me) or (iii) independently wealthy or married to a wealthy person. I could not stand for Surrey CC because its meetings are held during the day and even if I were to find myself as leader the allowance would not make up for my loss of income (assuming being leader is a full-time job). Where therefore was the evidence that the special responsibility allowances at their new levels would persuade one single person to give up their current job and stand for election? I heard none. There was a reference to a former councillor who had stood down as the allowances simply did not cover his loss of income. That may well be the case, but is there any positive evidence that more talented people would go into local government if the allowances were higher? Again, I heard none.
The truth is that most people go into public service in order to serve the public, not contrary to some commentators, to make a killing. We should be rightly suspect of any person who chooses to stand for election in order to make money out of his new post. The level of allowances should therefore be high enough so that no-one ends up seriously out of pocket for giving time to public affairs, and no higher. Cllr Hodge stood as a councillor under the old allowances system. He then stood for and was elected leader under the old allowances system. That system plainly did not deter him then. Nor did the old allowances system deter any of his colleagues from accepting Cabinet office under him. So why do we suddenly need higher allowances, far in excess of those recommended by the panel, in order to attract high quality candidates?
There are 81 county councillors, 58 of them Conservatives. At the meeting the vote was 46 for the changes, 24 against with 4 abstentions and 4 absentees from the meeting.
Surrey CC will not have elections until 2017. We on the other hand have to fight for our seats locally against opposition parties which not surprisingly have started campaigning on the Surrey allowances. To the 46 who voted in favour of them, I can only say, you have let the side down.