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Local Government Councillor pay

Lobbing a fireball

Kerry Lorimer Local Government Correspondent

Councillor pay has always been an incendiary issue – but proposals to boost salaries at a time of public sector austerity could see it explode

Wanted: a councillor, somewhere in

Scotland. Your role: make it up as you go along. Formal qualifications: none, but willingness to attend meetings and run the gauntlet of local media preferred. Te role might be part time, or it might be full time, but either way, you could be saying goodbye to quite a chunk of your evenings and weekends. Reward: anywhere between £16,234 and £48,704. As job descriptions go, it’s unconventional,

to say the least. It is the ambiguity surrounding the role of councillors today that makes remuneration such a thorny issue. And during the biggest financial squeeze in recent memory, the question of what our local representatives are worth is particularly vexed. So the latest findings of the Scottish Local

Authorities Remuneration Committee, the most comprehensive review of councillor

Beyond the headlines BV2

Not with a bang, but a whimper: the launch of a new system for assessing councils failed to stir up much of a response from the media commentariat. The publication of the first Best Value 2 audit, into North Ayrshire Council, was largely ignored beyond a dutiful report on the local BBC.

Does it matter? Should anyone be surprised? Local government audit, after all, rarely grabs the headlines, unless it uncovers dysfunction on a devastating and thrilling scale (Aberdeen City, Shetland Islands and West Dunbartonshire have all had their moment in the sun). But one of the distinctive characteristics of BV2 is that it should provide a clear assessment to the public of how

30 Holyrood 28 March 2011

pay in five years, were never going to slip by unnoticed. Among its most headline- grabbing recommendations are that basic salaries should rise by 16.5 per cent to £18,916, and that the leaders of Glasgow and Edinburgh should earn £63,000, and those of smaller authorities at least £44,000. Te proposals would see the total pay bill

for elected members across Scotland rise by 24 per cent, equating to an extra £5.5m from the public purse. Anticipating a public outcry, the committee

well their council is doing. At the heart of that appraisal is an overall judgment of the council’s performance – unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good or outstanding – and a verdict on its prospects for improvement – poor, fair, good or excellent. The Accounts Commission has been at pains to make these labels as unambiguous as possible – earlier plans to assess councils on their “pace and direction of change” were dropped after consumer groups found the term confusing. For make no mistake: nothing about BV2 is accidental. Three years of painstaking work have gone into creating an exemplary system of local government audit, including consultation with councils, consumers and the Scottish Government, independent evaluations and endless fine- tuning, to say nothing of the hundreds of hours of council officers’ time that must have gone into the five pathfinder audits last year.

points out that the demands on elected members, and council leaders in particular, has increased significantly over the last five years. One of the biggest changes, it found, has been the introduction of multimember wards. Councillors are expected to attend meetings of up to 15 separate community councils spread across their new, larger wards. Te growth of email as a way of conducting business had added to the pressure on elected members for quick responses to residents’ queries. Regulatory changes to the planning

Of course, column inches are in no way a proxy for the value of these reports. But if the vast majority end up gathering dust in the council leaders’ office, with local people none the wiser of their existence, you have to wonder whether they are as relevant and compelling as they should be – and, by extension, whether they are providing an adequate level of public assurance. Are auditors guilty of tiptoeing around to produce a report that won’t cause ructions, instead of telling the public how it is? Without robust scrutiny in at least the local press, the risk is that people have no idea what the audit report actually says, beyond the inevitably sugar-coated version in the council newsletter that comes through their doors. The test will be the response given to reports issued in forthcoming months – and whether or not the Accounts Commission takes heed of it.

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