Birmingham’s senior Labour councillors wouldn’t be human if they haven’t been thinking about the well-paid jobs that many of them will be given if, as expected, the party takes control of the city council in May.
There are at least 36 positions that qualify for Special Responsibility Allowances (SRA) on top of the standard £16,267 pay backbench councillors receive for a 26-hour week. SRA posts include cabinet positions, scrutiny committee chairmen, regulatory committee chairmen, constituency committee chairmen as well as group secretaries.
In other words, if Labour ends up with 70 councillors after the May 3 elections, half of the group will be jostling for jobs that attract SRA.
Unfortunately, their bank balances are not going to be quite as rosy as expected.
All three political groups on the council have agreed to a 10 per cent cut in SRA payments in a “we feel your pain” gesture to local authority staff who, if they still have a job have suffered a pay freeze for two years.
In practice this means that the council leader will face a £5,594 pay cut, the deputy leader will lose £4,196, and cabinet members will be £3,130 worse off. Scrutiny committee chairmen can say goodbye to £1,409, while the chairman of the planning committee will be £1,644 poorer.
The cuts, which will save £71,000 and were recommended by an independent remuneration panel, could have been worse. Panel members rejected as “too severe” a proposed 20 per cent cut in SRA payments.
The new rates will be approved at the next full council meeting, and will come into force in May.
Leaders of Birmingham’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition made it clear that the cuts are certain to go through. Deputy council leader Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem Sheldon) said: “We have to be mindful of the fact that there has been a general reduction in incomes across the city and it is right that we should reflect that.”
Even with the reductions in place, there is no need to feel too sorry for the politicians. The council leader will be paid a total of £66,500, the deputy leader £54,000, cabinet members £44,500 and scrutiny committee chairmen between £36,000 and £29,000. The salaries, particularly the basic backbench pay, are believed to be the highest offered by any local authority in England.
The deliberations of the remuneration panel mask an even bigger and potentially explosive issue – what happens to the allowances system if Birmingham elects a mayor in November?
The matter has been very much in the minds of the panel, according to chairman Sandra Cooper, who said a “root and branch review” of councillors’ expenses had been postponed until uncertainties about the future governing model had been resolved. She has promised that the review will focus on the overall size of the councillors’ allowances scheme as well as the distribution of SRA payments.
It is almost certain that a mayor will wish to radically change the council structure, probably by reducing the 10-person cabinet to a maximum of five members and quite possibly by getting rid of some scrutiny committees.
Sion Simon, regarded as the Labour frontrunner for mayor, may seek Government permission to reduce the size of the council from 120 councillors to a more manageable number.
Mr Simon, or whoever becomes mayor, will be paid a salary yet to be determined. Most observers assume the wage will reflect the challenge of running a city the size of Birmingham with its £3.5 billion budget and will be rather more than the £66,500 the council leader is to receive from May.
On paper, the mayor’s salary should be more than covered by the £205,000 expected to be saved by getting rid of the council chief executive position, although there will presumably be expensive redundancy costs to meet if Stephen Hughes is shown the door as soon as the mayor arrives in November.
Whatever happens, the remuneration panel is likely to continue to be placed under pressure to grant councillors more and more in the way of special responsibility allowances.
The panel gave in after a long debate and agreed that chairmen of the city’s 10 constituency committees should receive an SRA of £3,776. Under Labour’s devolution plans, the committees will have more work to do and it is likely that arguments will be put forward to increase the SRA and perhaps to make additional payments to vice-chairmen.
Similarly, the panel eventually agreed that shadow cabinet members be paid a £2,618 SRA on top of their basic £16,267. When the Audit Committee was set up, the chairman was handed an SRA which is now worth £5,659.
Meanwhile, an attempt to secure SRA payments for councillor members of fostering and adoption panels continues and has the backing of Conservative group secretary Anne Underwood.