In May of 2020 the elected mayor of Bristol, his cabinet colleagues and several key councillors are due to receive substantial increases in their pay and allowances to which, arguably, they are not entitled.
The pay rises appear insensitive when so many people in Bristol are facing job losses, pay cuts and financial difficulties as a result of measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic. Adding insult to injury, the increases were not intended to be implemented until after the local elections.
How has this occurred?
Under local government regulations, councils are required to set up an Independent Remuneration Panel to make recommendations on councillors’ allowances.
A panel appointed by Bristol City Council recommended the basic allowance for all councillors should be updated each year for inflation, in line with the National Joint Council increase applied to staff salaries, commencing April 2020. It seems unlikely that many people would object.
However, a larger increase in the basic allowance, together with additional substantial pay rises for the elected mayor, two deputy mayors and seven cabinet members, were also proposed. Irrespective of whether the increases are justified, the timing is controversial.
The independent panel highlighted “the difficulty of councillors voting directly for their own remuneration” and consequently recommended “adopting the principle that all key pay decisions be made prior to an election, for implementation directly after, thereby setting some distance from existing councillors (whilst recognising some would be re-elected)”.
The clear intention was that the increases would be implemented after the mayoral and council elections which were set to take place in May 2020.
Bristol had been gearing up for those elections when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
On March 13 the elections were cancelled and, four days later, the mayor of Bristol, two members of his cabinet, and a minority of councillors from all political parties attended the last full council meeting before the city went into lock-down.
Read more: Pay rise for Bristol councillors
At the beginning of this much-depleted meeting, Mayor Rees spoke of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and acknowledged businesses and jobs in Bristol would be hit hard.
Yet, in an agenda item lasting less than one minute, the pay increases were approved for implementation in May 2020.
There was no debate, no mention of the timing by the mayor or cabinet members, no Labour back bench or opposition councillor remarks on the appropriateness of waving through the pay increases prematurely.
Is it churlish to question this decision now, when it could be argued there are more important things to think about? I think not, and there are politicians elsewhere who would agree with me.
In Birmingham, Labour backbencher councillor Majid Mahmood criticised recommendations for a pay increase from which he would benefit, saying: “It would be difficult to justify the increase when our citizens are under lock down and lots are unable to work due to the coronavirus, and the self-employed have been thrown under a bus by the Government.”
He added: “Whilst I appreciate it is an Independent Remuneration Panel’s recommendation, and thank them for their work, it is within the gift of the councillors not to accept the increase.”
On the other side of the world, in Australia, Victoria’s state opposition leader had initially been happy to accept an independent assessment recommending a pay rise, but later argued circumstances had clearly changed in the face of the coronavirus crisis and asked: “How can we possibly take a pay rise at a time like this?”
Many residents of Bristol will be asking the same question of their politicians.
Suzanne Audrey is a Bristol resident with an interest in local democracy.
Main photo by Ellie Pipe
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