Off with their heads: time to cut back on councillors

Croydon Town Hall: having 70 councillors in the borough is an anachronism in the 21st century

Croydon Town Hall: having 70 councillors in the borough is an anachronism in the 21st century

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Politics is broken and we need to fix it, says DAVID CALLAM, as he offers some radical solutions to reduce the costs of democracy at the Town Hall and at City Hall

Our institutions need some major surgery if we are ever to reach a position where we trust them. Let me float a few ideas.

Locally, we need to reduce the Town Hall shenanigans as well as the costs. We have too many representatives with too little to do.

At the moment, 22 wards in Croydon have three councillors, while two have two, making a total of 70 councillors for our borough. Croydon spends around £1.2 million per year in “allowances” on these 70 councillors.

The numbers are an anachronism in the 21st century, determined at a time when society was structured very differently and few people had access to a telephone or a car, let alone more modern means of communication.

I would reduce the number of councils in Greater London from 33 to five. I see Croydon as part of a south London grouping made up of six existing boroughs – Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Richmond, Sutton and Wandsworth.

If we elected four representatives for each of the 11 Parliamentary constituencies in the area, we could create a lithe “South London Assembly” of just 44.

The change would result in an immediate cut of almost 85 per cent in the public money being spent on councillors’ expenses and executive salaries, together with a reduction in the overall salary bill due to greater efficiency. It would allow the new assembly to maintain or even to reduce current levels of council tax.

I would do away with attendance money. I would reimburse reasonable out-of-pocket expenses, but being a representative would be an honorary appointment until you reach cabinet level. Then you would qualify for a salary determined as a proportion of the amount paid to a Greater London Assembly (GLA) member.

Jon Rouse, Croydon's former CEO: his £248,000 package was "obscene"

Jon Rouse, Croydon’s former CEO: his £248,000 salary package was “obscene”

I would pay the new chief executive no more than 80 per cent of the £144,000 annual salary paid to the Mayor of London. I regard the £248,000 package paid to Croydon’s former chief executive as obscene and I would like to surcharge the irresponsible councillor(s) who agreed to it.

I see some borough responsibilities passing up the political chain to an enhanced GLA, with an increase in the number of Assembly Members to one per borough. Including London-wide members, that’s a total of around 40.

I would give a new assembly more control over the day-to-day doings of the Mayor – thus making it less “supine, invertebrate and jelly-like”, to paraphrase BoJo.

And I would give it more responsibility for strategic decision-making. We need to think less about London’s towns in splendid isolation and more about them as the economic power-houses of one of Europe’s most successful city regions.

Anyone who has looked aghast at the wasteland in central Croydon; who has bemoaned the lacklustre management of the borough’s arts facilities; or who has watched the pigs’ breakfast made of letting a simple libraries management contract will realise that such important matters need a more professional approach.

I consider it highly significant that a recent announcement about a multi-million pound, commercial redevelopment of Croydon town centre was made not by the leader of Croydon Council but by the Mayor of London. I imagine Boris Johnson thinks he was responsible for closing the deal when our council apparently could not.

London City Hall: proper devolution of power and money would see our city treated as one of Europe's powerhouses

City Hall: proper devolution of power and money could see London managed as one of Europe’s powerhouses

Local and regional government is not entirely responsible for the mess in which it finds itself. Its strings are mercilessly pulled by central government, which controls 75 per cent of its income.

Once upon a time, Croydon Council built a magnificent Town Hall, a superb concert hall, a modern theatre and a splendid library, all funded with money it raised locally. These days it would need to go cap-in-hand to central government for each of these projects, where it might well be mocked for its impertinence.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson complains bitterly and vociferously about the amount of tax raised in Greater London that is spent – he implies squandered – elsewhere in Britain.

We need a more transparent means of raising and spending taxes that makes local and regional authorities more directly accountable. I favour a return to locally levied property taxes – be it mansion or pied-a-terre – but I’m sure some acolytes of the Blessed Margaret would disagree.

Nationally, we need to complete the devolution started by Tony Blair: an English parliament raising its own taxes, with similar powers for assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That would end the need for English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish members to sit in each other’s parliaments.

I can envisage a second chamber covering the whole of the United Kingdom, if all four home countries are in favour. But it need not necessarily be in London. Now there’s a debate that could run and run.

I would turn the Palace of Westminster into a parliamentary museum – some believe it’s that already, with its quaint voting procedures and officials dressed for Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

Imagine being able to watch live enactments of famous occasions, like Michael Heseltine’s mace waving or Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech. You could even have a drink in one of the many members’ bars – providing you paid full price.

I would replace the Palace of Varieties with a semi-circular chamber similar to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, possibly on the south side of the Thames at Nine Elms.

I would be happy to pay MPs more money – up to £100,000 a year – but I would reduce the numbers. There are 534 MPs representing English constituencies. I would cut that to 400 and insist that each was a full-time employee.

I would re-organise the work schedule so that most of the business is done in sub-committees rather than on the floor of the chamber.

I would restrict sittings to office hours, three days a week. And I would make MPs spend an additional two days a week – maybe Mondays and Fridays – working in their constituencies.

Hopefully, the introduction of family-friendly hours would encourage more women to stand as MPs – the balance is slowly improving, but more needs to be done.

And that’s before I start to consider the co-located European Parliament in Brussels and Strasburg – but that’s a whole new ball game.

Previous columns by David Callam:

  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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14 Responses to Off with their heads: time to cut back on councillors

  1. Arfur Towcrate says:

    Why not go the whole hog and get rid of all elected representatives – that would save loadsamoney. No wonder Germany’s economy revived after Hitler became Chancellor.

    @MarziaNicodemiE – it’s a motion alright – but only in the medical sense.

  2. derekthrower says:

    It always interesting to hear the contempt for local democracy by media people.

    Instead of trying to encourage participation and civil responsibility the response is to cut it even more and undermine the public good. Why not reduce everything to just one elected body or just get rid of it all together?

    The problem of local democracy is a lack of trust in our politicians and the feeling they are completely disconnected from their communities. The agenda of Mr Callam seems to further this disconnect not improve governence or the common good.

    • Are you suggesting that spending two or three times as much a year on two or three times as many borough councillors will make Croydon Council two or three times more accountable or democratic?

      Of the 70 councillors at Croydon Town Hall, just 20 of them have “cabinet” responsibilities.

      Of the others, some may be “good”, hard-working councillors. But with three councillors in most wards, it would be interesting to know whether Inside Croydon’s regular reader has encountered all three working on their behalf. Or is the suspicion more widespread that large amounts of public money is being frittered away on party time-servers who collect their free parking permits, turn up for civic drinks parties and are happy to bank money for old rope?

      Giving the London Assembly more devolved power as a regional authority, like Wales and Scotland, and having an AM for Croydon and Sutton, seems much more democratic.

      And who are these “media people”?

      • derekthrower says:

        You are presenting a business case to reduces costs without any interest in representative democracy. Cost cutting does not equal efficiency. The Germans with their federal system have far more elected representatives. If you do not like representative democracy with it’s imperfections why don’t just be honest and admit it to yourself.

        • The key word, Derek, is “representative”. We reckon that 60 of Croydon’s 70 elected councillors have virtually no influence and certainly no power.

          But under the current system, they are able to bank at least £44,000 for the four years they are in office, without ever having to do a single day’s work representing their ward, and without even having to account for the meetings or official business that they conduct.

          We’ll give you just one example, but we think a telling one.

          On August 8, 2011, the police called a Gold security meeting to outline the information it had and its plans for dealing with any civil disturbances in Croydon that evening, following a weekend of riots and disturbances elsewhere in London over the preceding weekend.

          Not a single councillor attended that meeting. Not the leader of the council, not one of his two deputies, not the cabinet member responsible for policing, nor any of the other 30 or so councillors from the party in control at the Town Hall.

          Is that what you mean by “representative”? Because that is the system that you are defending.

          • derekthrower says:

            The keyword Inside Croydon is “democratic.” We can vote these people out. What is being presented at best is a Party Oligarch system which no doubt you will rail against when in operation as even more unaccountable and unrepresentative.

          • It is not undemocratic to suggest reforms of a system, that offers more or better accountability and devolved power.

            Of course, there are vested interests that seek to preserve the status quo as far as councillor numbers at the Town Hall is concerned – the very party oligarchs that you rail against.

  3. I can state categorically that I has received excellent support and service from Bensham Manor ward. Councillors Butler, Gray and Rajendran have assisted me with many local issues. I believe that democracy comes at a price and it’s a price worth paying, we tinker with it at our peril.
    I also agree with Mr Towcrate and Mr Thrower’s commentary on the issue.

  4. I’d agree with less councillors per ward, especially after watching the BBC2 The Planners series – where most of the councillors on the Planning committees seem to enjoy lovely jollies out to see people’s prospective extensions. Councillors on those committees seemed to have worryingly little knowledge about their own planning processes, planning rules, recommendations or indeed architecture!

    To me, a reasonable number would be one or two per ward, assuming the ward sizes are similar.

    Not too sure about reducing the London boroughs. Another change in London’s local authorities will just be confusing – there are still plenty from the older generations who still think that Croydon is in Surrey, Bromley in Kent etc, when they haven’t been for the whole of my lifetime and more.
    If such a merger did occur, I would prefer slightly smaller, and more realistic pairings that account for physical links – roads and transport etc, historical links and present community and cultural links.

    If it did occur, from my point of view, Croydon is very much linked with Sutton, Merton and the boroughs to the north of Croydon – Lambeth and Southwark, but also to Wandsworth plus Bromley and Lewisham. Kingston and Richmond though? They are surely too far in terms of transport and physical links, and certainly not linked in any particular cultural way.

    In fact, a better grouping would be a 3 way split south of the river: SW – Kingston, Richmond, Merton & Wandsworth, SSE – Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Southwark & Lambeth, ESE – Lewisham, Greenwich & Bexley. Arguably, the vast Bromley could be split with the new border roughly following the A21 through to the B265 and B251 – bringing Biggin Hill, Downe, Keston, West Wickham, Beckenham and Elmers End into the SSE zone, with the rest going to the ESE zone…

    I’d also make a note on the funding of grand building and projects in the past – especially the wonderful older buildings: there was a time when there were seemed to be a great deal more philanthropists around! So many public buildings were funded by philanthropists in the past when there was less public money (if any) from taxation. If there is to be less public money to go around in the future, then the rich need to be persuaded to return to a more philanthropic style!

  5. The creation of Greater London in 1965 may have been done partly for party political reasons, but I don’t think most people would want to return to the Metropolitan and County Borough system that preceded it.

    In my view, the time has come – actually it’s somewhat overdue – for a further step forward. I know change is unsettling, but surely the present arrangements have well passed their use by date, as evidenced by the declining number of people who can be bothered to vote.

    Of whom or what precisely is the present system “representative”?

    Incidentally, in my original piece I didn’t mention my support for open primaries to encourage a much broader cross-section of candidates, and for a fairer, probably proportional, method of voting.

    • derekthrower says:

      Well David it looks like the cost cutting is unravelling already. Wonder how much the open primary system will add and a probably proportional method of voting. All you have is criticism without a credible prinicple to guide reform.
      So if the number of people voting in the next election goes up it is a ringing endorsement of the status quo?

  6. davidcallam says:

    As I recall the cost-cutting argument is yours. I’m happy to spend as much as we do at present, or more, if we can make politics more relevant to the borough, the city or the nation as a whole.
    Maybe we should follow the Australians and make voting compulsory.
    You seem to have a problem with change – which must be difficult in a world where change is the only constant.

  7. derekthrower says:

    Dear David
    I would have thought that you are old enough to realise that change is inevitable. Thankfully the changes you are proposing are not.

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