A Job, not a Hobby

Councillors in Britain must be paid for the work they do.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 4th May 2000.

The thousands of councillors we’ll elect today might look like a pretty fair cross-section of society. But one thing will distinguish them from most of the rest of us: they will all be people with time on their hands. Because most councillors are unpaid, the “property qualification” which once excluded all but a handful of British people from standing for parliament is mirrored in local government by a leisure qualification. It is unfair, divisive and disastrous for democracy.

The government acknowledges that the current system is flawed. Executive mayors and their cabinets will be working full-time and can’t be expected to do it for nothing. The practice of giving councillors “allowances” for attending meetings simply encourages more meetings. So the white paper on local government proposes that mayors and some senior councillors should receive “pensionable salaries”, while the Local Government Bill will set up independent panels to review council allowances.

These proposals, unfortunately, do little to expand the range of people who will be able to stand. Apart from their tiny “basic allowance”, backbench councillors will still receive no regular income. One of the most important jobs in Britain is treated as if it were a hobby.

Defenders of the system argue that it reflects the great British tradition of voluntarism. It ensures that we elect self-sacrificing people, who put the welfare of the community ahead of personal advancement. At first sight, these are laudable aims, but they soon run into trouble.

The most obvious problem is that millions of British people are shut out, as self-sacrifice of this kind is a luxury beyond their means. It is almost impossible for members to take their responsibilities seriously unless they are wealthy, retired, working part-time or living on benefits. As councillors acquire more responsibilities, fewer people will be able to stand. The commitment to voluntarism is a commitment to exclusivity.

Moreover, the allowance system, built around a largely fictitious recompense for “out-of-pocket expenses”, rewards corruption. As many voters know to their cost, bogus mileage claims and illegible lunch receipts can lead swiftly to more serious graft.

But perhaps the most important problem is what biologists call the “life-dinner principle”. When a fox chases a rabbit, the rabbit runs harder than the fox, because if the fox loses it forfeits its dinner, while if the rabbit loses it forfeits its life. This principle governs the relationship between councillors and the businesses they are supposed to regulate. Professional property developers and waste companies, for example, survive only if they can obtain planning consents or disposal contracts, and will spare no effort to secure them. Councillors, by contrast, want to minimise the work they do, in order to return to their real lives as quickly as possible. As a result, the rabbits win, even when the holes they’ll dig will undermine the neighbourhood.

The same problem applies to the relationship between members and officers, who often end up controlling our elected representatives even more effectively than civil servants control ministers. Far from being too expensive to pay councillors, years of disastrous decision-making suggest that it’s too expensive not to.

In January, following an allowances scandal at Cardiff County Council, the Welsh assembly suggested a fixed rate for councillors, based on the average Welsh wage. It’s an excellent idea, but the assembly’s report fudged the issue of salaries. It insisted that any money councillors are paid should still be classed as “allowances”. While senior councillors could receive much more, the hourly rate for backbenchers should be a third less than the average wage, “to reflect the voluntary nature of their work”.

Not only has it ensured, in other words, that councillors are still regarded as amateurs; it has also sustained the fiction that sitting on committees entails more valuable work than helping constituents. It would surely be fairer simply to divide the average district wage by forty, then multiply it by the number of hours each member is expected to work. Councillors would not be lavishly paid, but they would be engaged in a job rather than a hobby.

The great British tradition of voluntarism is as flawed as the great British tradition of philanthropy. It is a tea and sympathy approach to government, incapable of defending us from professional profiteers. I don’t want to entrust the key decisions about my neighbourhood to amateurs. I want to be represented by professionals.