Earlier in the week I blogged on changes to our Cabinet, and in particular losing the services of Catherine Hutton because of difficulties balancing her role as a portfolio holder with her professional career.
As I said, losing a young, energetic female with a business background feels like a democratic failure, as there are so few people like Catherine in local politics. We should do more to attract councillors from all walks of life and dare I say parties – councillors should be champions for their local residents and therefore we need to have experience and represent a cross section of our society.
Being a good councillor is a full time job. You must be available for your community, have an ear to the national and regional issues while doing your best to balance nearly a £billion budget. All of this while dealing with a range of sensitive issues from the emotionally charged challenge of helping support children who may not have the best start in life to planning the best way to reduce congestion – and everything in between. I say this, not as a moan, as I relish the challenge but to show what demands we put on people who usually step forward as councillors because they want to make the place they live a little better.
In these straightened times, the public is correct to challenge the salaries of public servants, particularly those who are highly paid, and to be satisfied that they are getting value for money. But equally the question must be asked what would encourage more people from across our communities to come forward and give up their work, family or leisure time to work the often long and unsociable hours needed to make a real difference in their community. What would make you give up your Friday night to leave your family for a council meeting or persuade a single parent to become a councillor and speak on behalf of their neighbours and fellow residents.
I believe there is a debate to be had on what would encourage more people to become a councillor, including whether the low level of allowance afforded to Members in Cambridgeshire limits the potential breadth and quality of people we might otherwise attract to become councillors. The basic pay for a County Councillor in Cambridgeshire (before tax) is below £8,000. Cabinet members get a special responsibility allowance which when added to the basic pay still falls short of £20k, and that is for effectively a full time position including lots of evening meetings.
An independent panel – I stress independent – have been reviewing the current scheme of Member’s allowances. They are due to report their findings next month. The reaction from my fellow councillors and from the public will make for an interesting debate, I am sure. But I think one we need to have. There was cross party agreement, amongst the leaders, that this review should take place and I have already signalled that any voting on the review will not be whipped, in my group.
There is a price to pay for effective local government. I wonder if the panel will find that in Cambridgeshire, we have short changed our communities and those desperate to represent them.