Councillor pensions may come back to bite MPs – I do hope so!

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Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Councillor pensions may come back to bite MPs

26 March, 2014 | By Nick Golding

Not content with merely stripping local government of its powers and finance, many central politicians appear intent on removing the livelihoods of its members too.

The decision to introduce legislation to remove councillors’ access to the local government pension scheme constitutes another reason not to stand for election, represent a community and take difficult decisions with the intention of improving lives.

There can be no greater service to the community than sticking one’s head above the parapet to be accountable for the destiny of residents – and face the consequences if one’s ideas are rejected or lead to problems. But applauding public service should not be used to justify any argument that those who perform it should be entirely selfless and receive little reward.

While there may be many good councillors who regard themselves as altruistic volunteers, along the lines suggested by Conservative chairman Grant Shapps, it is not necessarily desirable or wise to give responsibility for huge budgets to people whose only qualification for the role is being an enthusiast or volunteer.

Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson (Lib Dem) points out that he receives just £28,000 annually to run an authority with a budget of £520m. Without intending to cast doubt on Cllr Vernon-Jackson’s capabilities, this sum is generally insufficient for anyone with a professional background to seriously consider local politics as an arena for their talents.

As the Co-operative Group has found, well-meaning but non‑specialist individuals are not necessarily conducive to ensuring vast organisations are well governed and look after the interests of those dependent on them. Far better to pay competitive wages or allowances – which in the case of councillors will always be less than those offered by large private organisations – and give yourself the best chance of avoiding scandal or incompetence.

The LGA’s 2010 census of councillors found their average age was 60. Just 12% were under 40. This is hardly representative of the population and potentially means that the needs of young people and young families are not understood. Local democracy becomes meaningless if only certain sections of society are represented so it is essential that council chambers become more than the preserve of the retired. High-profile councillor positions should offer a full-time wage and others some reward to augment the inevitable reduced working hours elsewhere.

It is entirely legitimate to query whether pensions constitute the most cost-effective means of encouraging people to become councillors. More generous allowances could provide a greater inducement. But to simply do away with a big incentive with no consideration of alternatives will be seen by councillors as a slap in the face.

Any parliamentary decision to end councillor pensions may come back to bite MPs when they seek the help of party activists – many of them councillors – in election campaigns. Ironically MPs defeated as a result would retain a highly generous pension.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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