I hope the editor of the Rayleigh Times won’t be too cross with me … but I want to write about a couple of things I’ve recently seen in another newspaper – the Daily Mail.
The first item was on their front page last month.
There were headlines screaming “DOING YOUR CIVIC DUTY NEVER PAID SO WELL – HOW COUNCILLORS’ PAYOUTS HAVE SOARED AS LOCAL SERVICES FACE SAVAGE CUTS”. The newspaper went on to say:
“The highest single increase over the past five years was at Rochford council in Essex, where allowances increased by 158 per cent – almost ten times the rate of inflation over the same period … Rochford spent £287,000 on allowances last year, which amounts to 2.5 per cent of its entire £11.3million spending budget. By contrast, it spent £199,000 on grants for equipment to help the disabled, and £447 on leisure and play facilities.”
The first thing to say is that the Daily Mail has one big whopping mistake here – it’s that last figure about leisure and play facilities. In fact if you asked a bright six-year-old who was actually using our play facilities they’d probably give a more accurate figure than the journalist who wrote this. Because the actual total spend in 2009/10 on leisure, parks and play facilities was about £4.5m, including capital investment.
The second thing to say is that most councillors aren’t receiving big allowances – the increase is largely due to the council setting up an all-Conservative ‘cabinet’. But otherwise the Mail is right – introducing a cabinet has certainly increased the council spending on allowances.
Having a cabinet system means that:
• things are less democratic
• money is spent on councillors’ allowances that could be spent on protecting services
• because we are wasting funds this way, the council loses credibility when asking the government for more money.
You may be wondering what a cabinet system is. A ‘cabinet system’ means that 8 Conservative councillors are given special powers so that council staff can meet with them individually to agree with things. This is instead of the council staff having to take things to a committee of 10 or 20 councillors. It sounds speedier – and it usually is. But the advantage of a committee is that it makes use of the experience of ‘ordinary’ councillors – councillors with young children, or councillors with up-to-date business experience, or councillors with local knowledge, or just councillors who say ‘hang on a minute, you haven’t thought about this…” Sometimes the cabinet system is just a speedier way of agreeing to the wrong decision.
But things are worse than that – because under the cabinet system you pay those councillors a much bigger allowance – which is why the cost has shot up so much. And now the cabinet allowances are creating a credibility problem for the council. The Daily Mail reported that the leader of Rochford District Council has a higher leader’s allowance than the leader of Canterbury City Council. That’s pretty astonishing. After all, when we have a local priest come to say prayers before one of our council meetings he or she isn’t on a bigger stipend than the Archbishop of Canterbury!
Council services are under threat in our district. Grants to voluntary groups are being cut. Rayleigh’s public toilets are at risk of closing. Residents – even those on low incomes or pensions – are now going to be charged a fee if they call in the council to deal with rats or mice. If our local Conservatives got rid of the cabinet system we would save enough money to avoid most of this.
The second item in the Daily Mail was on national politics. An online opinion poll on the Daily Mail website asked its readers “How will you vote on the Alternative Vote system?” Interestingly, the answer was that 61% of them would vote with Nick Clegg and vote for the Alternative Vote system.
I don’t trust the accuracy of online opinion polls – but it’s still an encouraging sign. A very similar system is used for electing the London Mayor – and nobody seems unhappy about that.
And having the Alternative Vote system would mean that there were fewer safe seats in British politics – which would mean that more of our elected representatives in Britain would have to a bit work harder to get re-elected.