CROYDON COMMENTARY: There’s one cut-back our Town Hall politicians won’t make, writes STEVEN DOWNES
Here’s a proposal you will not find in any party’s local election manifesto – if Croydon’s Tories ever get round to publishing a statement of policies and pledges before voting day in May, that is. And yet it could save the borough’s Council Tax-payers at least £1 million over the term of one council administration. And it would not impact any of the council’s services to residents.
The proposal is simple: instead of having 70 councillors across the borough, with three to be elected to represent most wards on May 22, in the future, Croydon Town Hall should accommodate just 48 councillors, two for all 24 wards.
Many of the borough’s councillors are diligent and hard-working on behalf of their local patch’s residents. But there is a good chance that some might not do quite so much casework in their part-time roles.
Yet even the most obscure of Croydon’s councillors receive £11,239 per year in “allowances” from the council. Having 22 fewer councillors, even if those culled are from the bottom of the Town Hall gravy train’s pay scale, would save the borough £250,000 a year.
Around one-quarter of the council’s spending on staff and services has been axed in the last five years. But councillors’ allowances have not been reduced by a single penny. And there’s plenty of scope to make even bigger savings.
Mike Fisher, the leader of the Tories who “run” our council, gets to pocket more than £53,000 in allowances every year. Steve O’Connell, a councillor for Kenley with responsibilities also at City Hall, at one stage was receiving more than £100,000 in allowances from Croydon Council and the London Assembly, making him “Britain’s most overpaid local councillor”. And meanwhile, the Terry and June of Croydon politics, Tory deputy leader Dudley Mead and his missus, Councillor Margaret Mead, receive a grand total of £89,824 from Croydon Council towards their pension nest-egg.
There are plenty of other councillors, on either side of the Town Hall chamber, who receive double or even more than the basic £11,000 allowance, often for little more than attending the occasional additional committee meeting.
It is signal of the current administration’s standards for self-serving that virtually the first thing they agreed to do on being re-elected four years ago, amid all the other cut-backs to services for residents, was to vote themselves a nice little increase in their own allowances.
At the time, Labour sounded suitably outraged. But nowhere will you find any election pledge from either party to cut councillor allowances, nor to reduce the number of councillors.
The “They’re all as bad as one another” refrain is one which will doubtless be heard often from ill-served residents in the next seven weeks up to the elections. For all the slanging matches across the floor at Town Hall meetings, there’s a fair degree of truth in that sentiment: to adapt another politician’s catch-phrase: “They’re all in it together”.
There is an underlying consensus among Croydon’s political class. They might wear different coloured rosettes, but there is little else to distinguish them as they battle for the “middle ground”.
On the matter of allowances, they all sing from the same song sheet. This is not just self-interest. It is also the secret way in which the parties manage to use public money to subsidise their political activities and maintain the cosy duopoly at the Town Hall. Allowances funding actually helps to freeze out minor parties and independents, who are denied access to the same public cash unless they get elected, and they rarely get elected because they lack the money to finance their campaigns.
You probably won’t have heard this practice much mentioned in public. It is the political classes’ unspoken consensus, with millions of pounds of public money “laundered” across the country through councillor allowances, with a proportion of it paid by councillors straight into their party funds. Both Labour and the Conservatives do it, in Croydon and in every local authority across the land.
In Croydon in 2012-2013 alone, a total of £1,453,510 was paid out to the 70 part-time councillors in allowances. Even if only 2per cent of that is paid over by our councillors, that means that the people of Croydon have unknowingly subsidised the local Labour and Conservative parties with nearly £120,000 since the last Town Hall elections.
As far as our councillors are concerned, it hardly matters whether it is in the interest of the electorate whether there are so many councillors being paid quite so much, because it is in their political parties’ best interests.
A cull of councillors would require a ward boundary review, but as the last census demonstrated, that’s probably overdue in any case. With party memberships in decline, even the two major parties have struggled to find 70 suitable candidates to stand in all wards across the borough, so having fewer councillors would help to improve the calibre of candidates, as well as cutting the amount spent on allowances. And this is without even suggesting that the current generous levels of allowances paid to councillors should be reduced.
Which Croydon party will be first to adopt this as a policy for May 22? Don’t hold your breath.
Coming to Croydon
- David Lean Cinema: The Great Beauty, Apr 10
- Norwood Society Talk: Crystal Palace, Apr 17
- David Lean Cinema: Inside Llewyn Davis, Apr 17
- Opening of Marlpit Lane bowling and putting greens, Apr 17
- Arts and Crafts Market, Exchange Square, Apr 19
- David Lean Cinema: Short Term, Apr 24
- Norwood Society Talk: West Norwood – a place of change, May 15
- Croydon RFC charity memorial day, May 17
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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