The Independent Remuneration panel has recommended 19% increases in allowances for County Councillors and 25% for Cabinet Members. This is not the right time to implement such large increases.
Although I do not support the increase at this time, I can think of three main arguments why the County Council should accept the recommendation at its meeting on 9 December. First, the panel have carried out a thorough independent review and therefore arguably the Council should accept the findings. Second, allowances paid to Oxfordshire councillors are significantly below those of comparator councils and it appears fair to increase them. Third, allowances should in general be sufficient to attract potential candidates for election on low income or benefits and to properly compensate people in work for time given to council work.
I accept these arguments in principle but cannot agree that the Council should vote for these increases in the current economic climate for the following reasons.
- The Council has been forced by Government cuts in grant and tight limits on Council tax increases to make huge reductions in vital services. It faces further difficult cuts next year and the years after because the money allowed to the Council is simply not sufficient to meet demands on children’s and adult services.
- Council staff have suffered wage freezes for years and are limited to a 1% increase next year.
- Oxfordshire residents have seen a real terms cut in income compared to inflationary price increases year on year. Too many people are on the minimum wage, below the living wage or on zero hours contracts. Essential, deserved benefits have been cut for low paid, unemployed or disabled people, while the wealthy have fared better.
I cannot see how the Council can justify any increases in allowances while public services are being cut, while there is no sustained real growth benefitting the lowest paid, and while we do not have a fair system where local government can make policy decisions and raise fair taxes according to local need.
I am glad that the County Council has joined with 114 other Councils in telling the Government and all party leaders that the cuts forced upon local government have been disproportionate and damaging and in calling for devolution of more decision making powers and a fairer realistic local government finance system.
Until that happens, and the economy is fully recovered, then the Council should accept the Panel’s proposals in principle but defer any implementation.
Of course equitable growth and a fairer distribution of wealth will come sooner under a Labour Government. I hope this can be achieved by the time the County Council is next up for re-election in 2017.
John Christie is Deputy leader of the Labour Group, Oxfordshire County Council