Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
20 December 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:30am

Serving should be a vocation

Brian Coleman bemoans what he argues is the passing of a tradition of service over salary in local g

By Brian Coleman

Dame Jane Roberts was a reasonably good Labour Leader of the Council of the London Borough of Camden until in 2005 she decided there was more to life than night after night at the Town Hall and decided to spend more time with her family, literally in her case.

Whether or not she foresaw the meltdown the Labour administration was heading for in the May 2006 local elections and decided to abandon the sinking ship with her reputation intact I have no idea.

In my experience, once they’ve gone ex-councillors either never want to sit on a committee of any sort ever again or they desperately hang around the Town Hall seeking crumbs from the Civic Table.

Occasionally, if they have sucked up to the relevant ministers enough and not rocked the boat, they get awarded some pointless quango.

In the case of Dame Jane she agreed to head up a commmission charged with looking into how local democracy can be revived. It’s an all-party body consisting of leading local government figures most of whom should have known better.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

When I was first elected to my local council the annual allowance payable to a councillor in suburban Barnet was £600 (less income tax). There was also a complicated attendance scheme that necessitated filling out a monthly form which most members, including me, couldn’t be bothered with for the sake of a couple of quid.

Then along came the 2000 Local Government Act and the end of the century-old committee tradition of doing business. The replacement was executive government in councils.

Cabinets were devised, councillors became “portfolio holders”; substantial allowances were paid, and members became eligible for the Local Government Pension Scheme.

Some council leaders now receive up to £65,000 per annum and, for being an executive member, the average in London is about £30,000.

To keep the backbenchers happy so-called ‘Special Responsibility Allowances’ now have to be paid for all sorts of minor, functionary positions: £2,500 for being vice-chair of the Trees and Cemeteries Scrutiny Committee or for turning up at a Licensing Committee once a year. In short big money for local politicians.

The danger of this, of course, is leaders now win or lost their positions on the strength of who they had promised well paid jobs to.

And I fear getting to form an administration in local government has more to do with how all the allowances are distributed than which councillor is best for which job.

So has Dame Jane’s commission tackled these issues? No, it has come up with a further ludicrous proposal that takes local government even further away from the values of its founding fathers – the Victorian civic leaders who had community service as their driving force.

Suggestions include ‘redundancy’ payments to councillors voted out of office, an end to local government by-elections (to be replaced by a ‘it’s buggin’s turn’ list system) plus forced retirements after 20 years. In my experience the retired councillors are often the most dedicated.

The repeal of the 2000 Local Government Act, the ending of executive powers for councillors and a return to proper, accountable, local democracy would be a first step to ensuring that service rather than salary was the driving force for Local Councillors.

Political service should be a calling not a career!