We have been contacted by some local residents about proposed increases in Councillors’ allowances following the coverage of this issue in a Newsletter circulated recently by the local Conservative party (which they call “The Molesey News”). This article was clearly politically motivated, however, and does not present a complete or balanced account.
Local Councillors do not receive a wage or a salary as employees, but they do receive an allowance to help meet the costs of representing their communities. All local councils must pay their members a basic allowance, which is paid at the same level to all members of the Council. This is intended to cover their time commitments and incidental costs, and includes an amount to cover outgoings such as travel costs incurred when undertaking duties within the borough, subsistence, and a contribution towards land line telephone costs.
Local Councils are required to review the level of these allowances periodically. At Elmbridge Council the allowances have largely been frozen for many years, and the previous Conservative administration at the Council invited an Independent Remuneration Panel to review them. The independent Panel’s report analysed the issue in depth, and was circulated to all members of the Council. The Panel concluded that the basic allowance in Elmbridge was among the lowest in Surrey, and recommended a one off increase from £4395 to £4942. Although this would amount to a rise of 12% on a one off basis, however, it only represents an average increase of less than 2% a year over the period during which the allowances have been frozen. The Panel’s report is available online, and if you would like to read it I can let you know where you can find it.
The Panel’s recommendations, which would still leave the level of allowances at Elmbridge well below those payable by many other Councils in Surrey, did not appear to be unreasonable, and when the matter was considered at the meeting of the Elmbridge Cabinet on 16 November neither Tim Oliver, the leader of the Conservatives at the Council, nor any other Conservative members, expressed any disagreement or concerns about it, and it appeared that the recommendations had cross-party support.
The local Conservatives’ newsletter did not contain any reference to their party’s more usual approach to this issue. In 2007, the then Conservative leader at Elmbridge Council approved a very large increase of 42% in his own personal allowance along with a large increase in the amounts payable to his Cabinet colleagues. And in 2014 the Conservative controlled Surrey County Council chose to increase their leader’s allowances by almost 60%, so that he received £54,434 in allowances and expenses in the last financial year. This increase was so far above the level recommended by their Independent Remuneration Panel that its members chose to resign in protest. This received considerable coverage in the local papers at the time.
More recently, in July 2016 the Conservative controlled Spelthorne Council (just across the River Thames from Elmbridge) went through the same exercise involving an Independent Remuneration Panel review of their Councillor Allowances. At Spelthorne, however, the Conservative administration chose to increase the basic allowance by an amount which actually exceeded the increase recommended by the Panel. The basic allowance at Spelthorne will now amount to £5785, which is considerably higher than that paid to Councillors carrying out similar duties in Elmbridge.
This background suggests that the approach the Conservatives have belatedly chosen to adopt at Elmbridge is motivated by local political considerations, rather than any point of principle.
The Conservative newsletter also linked the proposed increase in Councillor allowances with increases in costs for services for the elderly. Again, the reality is somewhat different. The additional expenditure on Councillor allowances will be minimal in terms of the Council’s overall budget, and is offset by the decision taken by the current administration to reduce the number of Cabinet posts from ten to nine. The increase in the cost of meals and transport for the elderly had had to be increased primarily because the Conservative controlled Surrey County Council has chosen to withdraw over £300,000 of grants which they had previously agreed to provide to support these services. In spite of this, however, only a third of this amount has been passed on in terms of increased charges, because Elmbridge Council has been able to increase the Council’s own support for services for the elderly by £200,000.
Finally we would point out that, unlike other Councillors, the Molesey Residents Association requires its members to pay the cost of their election expenses out of their allowances. This means that those costs are paid by the Councillors personally, and not by the Association.
We hope this has helped to explain the position.