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Friday, 25 April 2014

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Does your councillor shape up?

DO our Copeland councillors offer value for money?

In a week when devastating cuts have been approved across the borough, area councillors have agreed to slash some of their expenses to help save cash.

The councillors’ basic annual allowance remains at £3,063.14 per year – a figure recommended by an independent panel and accepted by the council.

This week The Whitehaven News has been looking at members’ attendance at Copeland meetings since the May 2011 elections. We have compiled a list which shows the percentage of meetings councillors have attended (see the article below or click here).

Lena Hogg, of Egremont South, is in top place with 94 per cent followed by Sam Pollen, of Egremont North and Gilbert Scurrah, of Millom Without, both with 91 per cent.

However, John Fallows, of Newtown, has 24 per cent attendance, Brian Dixon, of Distington has 39 per cent and Fred Gleaves, of Holburn Hill, has 47 per cent.

Councillors say their role is about more than attending council meetings, and includes trying to make a difference in their wards and working with the community.

Copeland Council’s chief executive, Paul Walker, said: “As a council we have reduced the number of formal meetings councillors attend. This allows them to spend more time in their communities, actively working on local issues – as well as being a more efficient way of running the organisation.”

He said there is more to a councillor’s life than just attending meetings, as their main role is representing the people who elected them.

The council has 51 members representing 19 wards. This number is set by the Boundary Commission and cannot be reviewed until 2015 (and any changes not implemented until 2019). The basic allowance is paid to all councillors and this figure has been fixed since 2008.

In addition to that allowance, some are given additional expenses for extra responsibilities.

Councillors at last week’s full council meeting voted to reduce or cancel a number of special responsibility expenses that members claim. The current costs total £252,348.42 a year and £32,000 savings are set to be made, £20,000 of which will be given to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau to provide free services to locals. This is in addition to the £32,000 it already receives from the council.

Leader of the council, Elaine Woodburn, said: “Whilst we are not allowed to reduce the number of councillors, members felt that they wanted to make a personal contribution and so have agreed to forego some of their expenses. While this does not make the budget cuts more palatable, we feel it goes some way to showing that we will do anything we can to mitigate the impact of the cuts on the residents of Copeland.”

Councillors agreed to the cuts to their own extra responsibility allowances, including:

Reducing the Executive committee by one, in addition to one post never filled, which saves £12,357.30 (it has not yet been decided which councillor is to leave the Executive).

Remove position of deputy leader of the opposition saving £1,184.51.

Stop payment to Overview and Scrutiny Committee chairs, saving £6013.68

Stop payment to chair of planning, saving £3,673.95

Reduce payment to mayor, saving £1,279

Stop payment for members for broadband access, saving £4,402.92.

Reduce mileage allowance saving £2,000

Coun Hogg ranks top in the leader board for attendance. She said: “Fortunately, I’m luckier than most because I’m not working and therefore there is nothing to deter me from going to meetings. People voted for me because they wanted me to represent them. I can’t represent them if I’m not at the meetings.

“It’s not only my views I’m putting forward, it’s about listening to other people’s views, as there are issues that affect areas across Copeland.”

Coun Hogg says, in addition to attending meetings she speaks to parents and members of the community daily. She added: “This is my first time as a Copeland councillor. I’m chair of the development panel which organises training for other Copeland councillors. I feel I need to lead by example.”

Coun Hogg is also an Egremont town councillor.

Coun Pollen, of Egremont North, said meetings are a vital part of a councillor’s role but not the whole job. “I work full-time and I have a very understanding employer, but not everyone has that privilege. Some people who may not be released from work, others may have transport problems or personal issues.

“These figures are a snapshot of what councillors do but is not a true reflection of everything. Many go to meetings outside the council and are involved in community projects and talking to residents.”

He said councillors don’t take on the role for the money, as many already have jobs, but the allowance is vital for those on lower incomes who don’t work.

There is no benchmark for how many meetings councillors are expected to attend, but if a councillor attends no meetings for six months they are automatically disqualified.

Couns Gleaves and Fallows cite work commitments and travelling from Millom as main reasons for missing Copeland meetings. Coun Fallows said: “I used to work as a union official and I’d travel up and down the country a lot. Since I retired in December I’ve made it to all but one meeting.”

Coun Fallows is a member of Millom Town Council and he is concerned about town issues but says he feels Copeland Council forgets Millom. “In my view Copeland Council thinks it starts at Egremont and finishes at Whitehaven.”

Coun Gleaves said: “I work full time between 7.30am and 3.30pm and many of the council meetings start at 2pm. I can’t get time off from work, so I’ll go to meetings when I can. I do my best to attend. I travel back and forwards as most of the meetings are in Whitehaven.”

He added that on the other hand, he does not have as many mileage claims compared to other councillors. He said he is also a town councillor and is involved in various other community groups.

Distington councillor Brian Dixon said being an independent councillor alongside members affiliated to political parties has its drawbacks as he feels there is a lack of democracy.

He said: “As independents we are simply outnumbered. I feel that sometimes as an independent I look around the room and it seems that a decision has already been reached by the parties. There are a lot of nodding dogs and a lot of hot air.

“Being a councillor is about ability and attendance. I might not have good attendance but I’ve got the ability to serve the community. First and foremost my responsibility is looking at the concerns of my constituency.”

He said he attends meetings that relate to his own ward and surrounding wards, but does not attend other meetings where he feels that decisions have already been made on issues.

Mr Walker said: “It would be entirely wrong to judge the effectiveness of a member just by their attendance at scheduled meetings. There is far more to a busy councillor’s life than just attending meetings – their main role is representing the people who elected them, looking after their interests and ensuring their voice is heard.

“In addition, they could be involved in any number of external committees and organisations, such as locality partnerships, regeneration bodies, parish councils, local committees, county and regional local government organisations, or community meetings.

“They could be involved in developing council policy through scrutiny committees, advisory groups and partnerships or area forums. Councillors are also required to develop their skills by attending training events, and most will be active in their political party. And all these commitments are secondary to the huge role of being an advocate for, and a representative of, the people in their community.

“Elected members work really hard for our borough, and much of it is unseen. Councillors give many hours each week – for some it is a full-time commitment. Attendance at meetings is not an indicator of performance or commitment.”

Have your say

What criteria indicates 'value for money'? Do you know, do I know?
No, maybe we don't?
As in an associated article re attendance rates of councillors at meetings, what actually does that mean? OK, on the surface it means he or she attended 'x' amount of times. However, there is no measure of the quality of input of the individual councillors, therefore the quality of the output of the individual councillors is not evidenced. No measure of benefits or indeed disbenefits any particular councillor has had an active role in delivering, or not delivering. Attendance or non-attendance (to a degree) has little bearing, it is quality of input that surely counts? From the metrics aspect, quality is measureable.
Project management, business acumen, communications, suitable qualifications, change management and above all, understanding of people: there seems to be a lack of these whilst at the same time political dogma, more related to the '30's, would appear to be in abundance.
Maybe therin lies the problem: the problem being the present parlous state of our good town.
We, the people, do not know what actually is going on with our councillors and what they are delivering at meetings.
We can see through this article how many meetings the individual councillors are attending, however, what their actual individual contributions are is surely more important than attendance rates, within reason?
'Tick a box and draw the allowance' seems to be more important than the quality of contribution, aligned with positive results.

Posted by Observer on 8 March 2013 at 02:35

Nice to see Mr Dixon not bothering to turn up to meetings quite a lot let's hope someone else gets in next time

Posted by madge on 3 March 2013 at 18:20

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