A real job worth paying for

By Charlotte Hofton

Friday, January 18, 2013

 

A real job worth paying for

Counting the votes at an earlier IW County Council election.

THE VIEW FROM HERE I HAVE no intention of entering the spat on the CP letters page between Ursula Hollis, wife of Cllr Richard Hollis, and her detractors. Among the latter is that old crossboots John Wortham, who has bearded Mrs Hollis and been imperiously rebuffed for his effrontery.

Really, we could be in one of Trollope’s Barchester novels, with Mrs Hollis as Mrs Proudie, fierce wife of the Bishop, giving hell to anyone who questions her self-assumed authority to act on behalf of her husband, and Mr Wortham as the interfering Obadiah Slope.

But while I prefer to remain outside Mrs Hollis’s parlour door as this unseemly clash of personalities resounds within, the general matter of councillors’ allowances, raised in her original letter, is surely a pertinent one.

Council elections will take place on the Island in May and a recent report of the communities and local government select committee indicates the level of councillors’ allowances will have a bearing on the calibre of candidates touting for our votes.

The all-party committee says many people are reluctant to stand as councillors because compensation is so low and recommends reforms whereby these allowances would increase.

This proposal was greeted with scorn by Conservative MP Grant Shapps (a man, incidentally, who once enjoyed a nice little earner as a self-help guru under the pseudonym of Michael Green).

Quick to praise councillors as "brilliant volunteers for their communities", he said he didn’t think any hike in their allowances was necessary "on the basis that they are volunteers and volunteers aren’t usually paid".

He acknowledged there wasn’t enough diversity among councillors but blithely said this could be solved by encouraging people to stand for a council.

If you increased their remuneration, it would be the thin end of the wedge, he said.

"You’d start to pay all volunteers, like scout leaders."

But, Mr Shapps, councillors aren’t scout leaders, though some of our Island representatives wouldn’t be much cop even in that role, either.

They are men and women who ought to be competent to do an important job in a multi-million-pound business.

They are held to be responsible for the welfare of the community they represent and they are blamed when things go wrong.

Real volunteers — church flower ladies, scout leaders or charity shop helpers — are generally just thanked for what they do and looked on indulgently if there are a few mistakes. We should not treat our councillors as volunteers.

We should pay them properly to do their job and, in return, we should expect them to do it, not as a part-time retirement post with some useful pin money thrown in (the average age of a councillor is 60) but as a full-time appointment, with all the responsibility and need for incisive acumen as any professional occupation.

The select committee recommends central government "giving local authorities real ability to make decisions. Only then will running for local office start to carry the status it should."

That would certainly be a step in the right direction.

As it is, many Island people who would be a real asset as councillors are deterred from standing for council, not just because they can’t afford to do so (why would a professional person give up a decent salary for a volunteer’s allowance?) but because they wouldn’t dream of joining the motley crew at present gracing County Hall.

While councillors are regarded by the likes of Mr Shapps as stout-hearted volunteers, we will never get beyond the current typical assortment of retired people, those with private means and various super-bores who love the sound of their own voice and, having nothing else important to do in their dull little lives, can blither around in County Hall to their heart’s content.

It is natural to balk at the idea of giving any more money to councillors but that may well be because the ones we’re landed with don’t deserve a decent salary.

Would we moan so much about MPs’ salaries if we thought our representatives in Westminster were doing a brilliant job of running the country?

If those from a much broader spectrum of ability were enabled to stand, and if the job entailed more responsibility, we might get representatives who were worthy of a realistic pay structure. And we’d need fewer of them, too, thus saving on the wage bill.

We have a few decent IW councillors but most of them are either pretty plodding and pedestrian, or just plain incompetent and not very bright. Some are well past their sell-by date, some make no contribution whatsoever to full council meetings and there is at least one who scarcely bothers to show up at all.

The forthcoming elections are unlikely to offer us anything much better.

We don’t need worthy volunteers or pensioners enjoying a handy little supplement to their income.

We need people with brains and ability who are capable of running this Island and that means making the post of councillor a properly paid, full-time job.

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