On saturday just gone I attended the councilor fair at Cornwall Council, a very successive event that aimed to give electoral hopefuls a better idea of the role of both the council and its members. I found it most informative and congratulations to the council's Democratic Services team who ran the event. It certainly was well attended and there were about the same numbers as at the Mebyon Kernow conference (the last time I was there), which was encouraging. There is certainly renewed interest in the work of the council and more of the public -as far as I can see- are growing to realise that the council is very important and it's decisions effect all of Kernow.
There obviously was a great deal about what the council does, the challenges facing the council and such like but I'll blog about this later as it touches on a number of other subjects. But for now, it was very interesting to learn more about the role and duties of being a councilor. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to readers that I wish to stand for election in May and would love to be elected as a councilor to represent my part of Penzance. Therefore I found it most informative to listen to councilors from all the parties leaders, Fiona Ferguson and Scott Mann from the Conservatives, John Wood and Julian German from the Independents, Dick Cole and Andrew Long from Mebyon Kernow, Jude Robinson from Labour and Ann Kerridge from the Liberal Democrats. (quite why there was only one Lib Dem and their leader and deputy were absent remains a mystery). It was very encouraging for these councilors to take the time out to speak to people and encourage interest in new people standing for election. As many people will know lots of representatives are standing down in May and whatever happens and whichever way people vote there will be many new faces in May.
It was clear from all of the councilors there that they work they do is both important and time consuming. From representing their communities and listening to the concerns of residents, to taking part in committees as well as voting on matters of policy in full council. There was some agreement amongst them that the time required was on average 35 hours a week, not only attending council but also reading papers and briefings which by all accounts are very long and intricate. Indeed some councilors explained that it is often more than 35 hours a week. Although some did say that a job could be held as well as the role, if things were shuffled around. I have doubts that this could be done whilst giving 100% both in the workplace and as a representative. Further it is my opinion that the work of Cornwall Council and the decisions it makes shouldn't be taken lightly and that we would be better served to have full time members governing a billion pound annual budget to serve over half a million people.
Obviously this brings me to the subject of allowances, I'm sure many people who take an interest in Cornish politics will be more than aware that there was a vote on this subject recently. From 2009 until now the rate has been £12,200 per annum, the Independent Remuneration Panel commissioned by the council was of the opinion that this should rise to £16,200, this was not supported by Cornwall Councilors and instead £14,600 was agreed upon. Obviously there was controversy about this, people voting to increase their wages is a ludicrous idea, especially when politicians in the UK are widely seen as having their 'snouts in the trough'. I can see the arguments for and against a rise in allowances and neither seems particularly right or fair. For taxpayers to have to pay more for the councilors is yet another strain on budgets. Council staff, as well as most people, haven't seen hide nor hair of a pay rise during this long recession. In both circumstances it doesn't seem fair that people get paid more on their own say so. On the other hand do we want to have only councilors that are retired, rich or holding down jobs on the side?
I spoke to a number of people at the Councilor Fair that had grave doubts that they could afford to be a councilor. There aren't many people that can afford to pay their rent or mortgage and other bills on 12 thousand or indeed 16 thousand a year. This is in itself is a great shame, we have heard the argument time and again that the council needs to pay executives 'competitive' salaries to get and keep the best candidates yet the same logic doesn't seem to stretch to the very people making the decisions. For what it's worth I don't think the salaries paid to the top officials at Lys Kernow is in anyway justified but there is logic to the argument. As an old boss of mine used to explain; "if you pay peanuts you get monkeys". This is very true.
I often think when people complain that the Coalition's cabinet is in no way representative of the populace, that they should take a look at Cornwall Council. There are a handful of councilors under 40 and the vast majority are clearly much older. It was interesting on saturday to hear Scott Mann being introduced as young, which he politely explained was not the case as he is in his mid thirties. In Cornwall Council terms being in your thirties is young, that's obviously an accepted truth for Cornwall Councilors. I don't wish to attack people based upon their simply upon their age, but it is in the better interests of democracy that the council better reflects the population in it's composition.
The ex leader of the Conservatives Alec Robertson has this week launched a petition to get the rise in allowances reversed back to the old figure. He presumably is of the opinion that £12 thousand a year is enough to live on and reflects well the roles and responsibilities. I say presumably because a quick look at the allowances and expenses section of the council website reveals that Alec earnt a great deal more than that. Unlike the coalition cabinet and even Kevin Lavery who took a voluntary 5% cut, Robertson at no time choose to follow this example.
For the record Alec's allowance was the basic £12,200 plus the leader role bonus of £25,417 in other words three times the allowance of backbenchers. In addition Alec was one of the highest claimants of travel expenses £7,025 in the last financial year and claimed £16 in food. In other words £44,658 was the cost to the taxpayer of Alec in the last financial year. The year before it was £43,804 and the year before £35,282, in total over £123,000 without including the time between April and his dethronement. As we see now he is against a two thousand a year rise for councilors yet his renumeration over three years rose over nine thousand pounds. Even if we don't question whether someone on £35k plus should be claiming food and the full rate of 40p per mile for travel, why didn't Alec take a pay cut? Why when the leader role allowance leapt up seven thousand pounds from £18,365 in 09/10 to £25,451 in 10/11 did Alec say no the taxpayer won't stomach such a hefty rise?
Why the big concern now? Of course now he is once again bidding to be leader of the Tories being on the side of taxpayers and standing against disproportionate pay rises is now his motive. Cornwall needs a proper decent conversation about allowances and Alec might like to look at his own record first. I'm not saying because Alec had rises well out of touch of inflation and wages elsewhere, every councilor should, but simply that he perhaps might have thought a little more about this line of attack.
Cornwall Councilors allowance and expenses