This is how much Lancashire county councillors will receive in 'special responsibility' allowances this year
Five in every six members of the ruling Conservative group on Lancashire County Council will this year receive a special responsibility allowance (SRA) for carrying out work at the authority over and above their duties as an ordinary councillor, newly-published figures show.
The list of roles includes standing positions like the leader of the council, cabinet members and chairs of County Hall’s committees - but also the more discretionary appointment of councillors to act as “lead members” and “member champions”.
The former focus on particular areas of policy, such as highways, and operate beneath the relevant cabinet portfolio holder - while the latter promote and advance work in relation to specific issues and sections of the community. Eleven county councillors currently hold one of the two titles.
The total SRA bill for the 2021/22 financial year will reach £430,000, with 44 members receiving an additional allowance - just over half of all the councillors sitting on the authority.
Forty of those being paid SRAs are from the Tory group that retained control of the county council at May’s local elections - all bar eight of their total number.
SRAs are also awarded to the leader and deputy leader of the main Labour opposition - along with the group whips and secretaries for each of the two largest parties.
The payments are made in addition to the basic allowance received by all 84 Lancashire county councillors - which currently stands at £10,969 - and are designed to compensate members for the extra time they spend on their additional duty.
For cabinet members, that entails ultimately being responsible for the main policy decisions within their portfolio, while chairs of the committees that scrutinise the authority’s work are charged with ensuring the smooth and effective running of the regular meetings at which council officers - and representatives of other public and private sector organisations - are quizzed.
However, Liberal Democrat group leader and Preston West county councillor John Potter told a recent meeting of the county council’s independent remuneration panel - the group that makes recommendations about councillor allowances - that there needed to better scrutiny of the lead member and member champion roles at the authority.
At a separate meeting of the full council, County Cllr Potter added that the current SRA system was “bloated”.
“For [over] 80 percent of the ruling group to have a special responsibility allowance does seem high to the vast majority of the public. In fact, you almost need to take the word ‘special’ out of it, because if it's more than 50 percent, it’s almost normal.
“The lead members and [member] champions may do an incredible job...but we don’t know about it enough. It’s worth pointing out that £75.000 a year is getting spent just on [those two roles] - that is a lot of money and so we need to know...what actions have come from those people.
“We also need to look [at] who gets the SRAs - it used to be on a proportional basis, [but] that isn't happening at the moment.
“You have got to do the right thing and make this a more fair and balanced chamber, as well as allowing greater scrutiny of why you are getting that money,” County Cllr Potter added.
Member champions are required to produce an annual report on their work, which also involves distributing small grants from a £10,000 pot to which each of them has access in order to support individuals and organisations within their area of responsibility.
There are currently six member champions at the authority - covering younger people, older people, disabled people, armed forces and veterans, mental health and relations between County Hall and Lancashire’s parish councils. Their allowance this year is £5,759 each.
Meanwhile, the county council’s five lead members receive £9,049 for their work.
The independent remuneration panel recommended that the authority consider how “greater scrutiny of the work of all-SRA holders could be carried out to ensure accountability and value for money” and said that it would welcome moves towards “greater transparency of how SRAs [are] set and allocated.”
Deputy council leader Alan Vincent said that the administration would instruct officers to formulate recommendations in response to the panel’s call and would have “a conversation” with other parties about the allowance scheme.
“I noted some of the Liberal [Democrat] comments...and I have to say I agreed with most of them. So hopefully we can arrive at some common ground on that particular point.
“One of the reasons, clearly, why the ruling group have more SRAs is that they have more people doing things within the council - so that’s inevitable.
“But we will listen, because we always do - and we will try to come up with some formula that makes it clear that there is proper scrutiny of why people get those allowances, which is the main objective,” County Cllr Vincent said.
A group allowance had previously been paid to all political parties represented on the county council based on their size, but the panel said this was no longer permitted by regulations.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service after the full council meeting, the authority’s leader, Phillippa Williamson defended the role of lead members and member champions, saying that they “contribute a huge amount to the work of the county council and to supporting - directly - residents and businesses across the county”.
“I welcome the suggestion of the independent remuneration panel to outline the extent [of their work] and the positive impact [it] has across Lancashire - and we will be taking that opportunity to do so at future meetings of the council and cabinet,” County Cllr Williamson added.
The panel had invited the leaders of the county council’s four political groups to attend their meeting last month or submit their responses in writing. The main Labour opposition chose not to do so.
The Green Party had called for the SRA for the group whips of the two main parties - the person who enforces party discipline - to be removed, as it had been at some other authorities.
“Whips clearly have a political role. While those who take this on may indeed undertake other administrative duties, those should be passed to group secretaries, who are also remunerated.
“It is inappropriate for local councils to support a political post for party political practices that are, in any case, not adopted by all political parties. Councillors are not - and should not be encouraged to behave like - MPs in relation to their duties,” the Greens’ submission to the panel said.
The panel concluded that it did not have a view on that matter, while it said that it was not within its remit to recommend a separate Green Party request for the use of electric vehicles or public transport by councillors to be incentivised through the travel allowance system.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives had asked the panel to consider whether county councillor attendance at parish council meetings in their division should be considered an "approved duty" for which expenses were payable - but panel members considered that it should not.
‘I’M THE EYES AND EARS OF THE COUNCIL ON OLDER PEOPLE’S ISSUES’
“If you want to put it in posh language, you could say I’m intelligence-gathering,” laughs County Cllr Joan Burrows when asked to sum up her role as Lancashire County Council’s champion for older people.
The member for Penwortham East and Walton-le-Dale confesses that she had no idea of what the position would entail when she took it up after first being elected to the authority back in 2017.
However, after four years in the job, she is now a staunch advocate of the worth of the work - and that of her five fellow member champions who each focus on a different part of the community or issue.
Prior to the pandemic, County Cllr Burrows says she was averaging almost 60 visits a year to community groups connected to the over-55s. And she is looking forward to that aspect of the role finally recommencing before the end of the month - because she says it brings to the attention of those in charge at County Hall issues about which they might otherwise have been left in the dark.
“I stand up at these events and say: ‘Come and talk to me about the county council - what you like and don't like and what you want to see in future - because I am the eyes and the ears of the leader and the cabinet member for adult services.
“Every week, I’d tell the leader all the information I had gathered from the meetings I’d attended.
“The real benefit is that I’m meeting people in these small groups who would probably never come into contact with their own county councillor - because people often don’t approach them.
“But when I can sit and have a chat with people over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake, they tell me things. They say what has happened to them or a friend when using [county council] services and I’m able to go back and [tell the relevant people] of their experience and say if we need to improve on it,” County Cllr Burrows explains.
She rubbishes the suggestion that there is little scrutiny of her role - citing the annual report that she is currently in the process of completing, which also details some of the discretionary grants which she has issued from the annual £10,000 fund provided to each member champion.
County Cllr Burrows says that the low-level cash help can often prove “a lifeline” to groups supporting older people.
“Over the lockdown, I gave a women’s group some money so that they could get some laptops and pay for Zoom so that they could keep in contact with each other. Before Covid, I’d also given grants that paid for things like speakers and adaptations to buildings.
“It’s not a complicated application form, it’s very simple and I’d urge people to think about applying.”
WHO GETS WHAT?
Special responsibility allowances (remuneration panel recommended rate for 2021/22)
Leader - £32,907
Deputy leader - £23,035
Cabinet members (8) - £18,099
Lead members (5) - £9,049
Member champions (6) - £5,759
Committee chairs (11) - £8,227
Overview and scrutiny deputy chairs - £3,867
Majority group secretary - £4,936
Majority group whip - £4,936
Opposition group leader - £18,099
Opposition group deputy leader - £9,049
Opposition group secretary - £3,291
Opposition group whip - £3,291
Basic councillor allowance
Division county councillor (84) - £10,969*
*due to be uprated in line with employee pay award for 2021/22
Source: Lancashire County Council
Lancashire County Council’s independent remuneration panel this year suggested that the special responsibility allowance (SRA) for the leader be increased by just under £1,600 to £32,907 to fulfil a previous recommendation for it to stand at three times the basic councillor allowance.
The change will increase the total annual bill for other SRAs by just over £20,000, because they are set as a proportion of the leader’s rate.
However, Lancashire County Council was mid-bottom table in respect of its SRAs when benchmarked against a list of comparable county authorities during the last financial year (2020/21).
Basic councillor (2020/21)
Nottinghamshire County Council - £14,613
East Sussex County Council - £13,419
Essex County Council - £12,000
Derbyshire County Council - £11,196
Lancashire County Council - £10,969
Hertfordshire County Council - £10,668
Cumbria County Council - £8,774
Essex County Council - £54,000
Hertfordshire County Council - £42,672
Derbyshire County Council - £36,996
East Sussex County Council - £36,817
Nottinghamshire County Council - £35,211
Lancashire County Council - £31,322
Cumbria County Council - £26,270
Cabinet members (2020/21)
Essex County Council - £36,000
Hertfordshire County Council - £21,366
Derbyshire County Council - £18,492
Lancashire County Council - £17,227
East Sussex County Council - £16,107
Cumbria County Council - £10,508
Nottinghamshire County Council - Unknown
Committee chairs (2020/21)
Nottinghamshire County Council - £23,478
Essex County Council - £13,500
Hertfordshire County Council - £10,668
Derbyshire County Council - £9,252
Lancashire County Council - £7,830
Cumbria County Council - £7,301
East Sussex County Council - £6,711
Source: Lancashire County Council