CENTRAL Government ministers who suggest councillors should remain “arms-lengths volunteers” do not understand the rigours of the role, according to the leader of Barnet Council.
Amid anger over the plans to increase the allowances of senior members of the Tory administration in the borough, Councillor Lynne Hillan has dismissed claims that bankrolling councillors to town halls is “harmful for local democracy”.
Local Government minister Grant Shapps has been vocal in his condemnation of the hikes in pay, saying they are “not justifiable” and councillors' main role should be to hold town halls to account on behalf of their residents.
But in her first interview since the majority of Tory Councillors voted in favour of switching the allowance scheme, Cllr Hillan said the role is no longer a voluntary job and is increasingly demanding.
And when asked if she thinks central Government understands the changing dynamic of local government, she said: “Not if they are saying we should all be volunteers and not taking any money.
“I think there is a misunderstanding there obviously.
“The roles are much more professionalised. If you have volunteers, then you are going to get people who are not working, some who are retired. You aren't getting the right sort of people for the right jobs.
“If you are in the cabinet, there is no way you are not working in the town hall at least two days a week. So even if you do have a full time job, you are taking a considerable amount of time off to deal with the cabinet position.”
Under the new measures, the cabinet would be made more accountable through being handed job descriptions and made subject to appraisals.
Cllr Hillan said the switch to the remuneration scheme, presented to London Councils by an independent panel, was necessary because the council's previously adopted scheme was “flawed” and “inequitable”.
The allowance structure was “widely criticised” because councillors were able to claim payments for multiple roles, she added, and following 20 other London councils in adopting the scheme was the “sensible” option.
Cllr Hillan said: “In adopting the scheme we were very conscious that we would keep within budget. Not only have we kept within budget, it will produce savings this year.
“Although it may look as if there was a considerable increase for one particular special responsibility, it actually works out that the majority of councillors are either receiving the same as they were before, a very small increase, or some are getting a decrease.”
There has been huge public outcry to the increases, and hundreds of people have already signed the Times Series, petition against the proposals.
But Cllr Hillan claimed the changes would not impact on taxpayers and suggested a review would be undertaken to look at ways of reducing the allowances budget within the next four years, including through the possible reduction in the number of councillors in each ward.
She said: “If I had seen the media coverage and not known anything about it, I would have signed your petition. But you are wrong. It's a redistribution.
“We will be looking at shrinking the pot, as we are looking at shrinking every other council service.
"Every budget will have to take some cuts. Nothing will be excluded from that, including the allowances budget.
“There are various ways of doing it. There is a national scheme looking at whether it should be three councillors per ward or maybe it should be two, that would shrink the pot immediately.”