by Freya Stear, operations assistant
Last night, councillors in my borough of Tower Hamlets in East London voted yet again for an increase in the basic allowance that they receive. Only two councillors, Conservative Group Leader, Peter Golds and Independent Conservative, Andrew Wood abstained. Against a backdrop of a 4.99% council tax rise for residents of the borough, this is pretty galling. My own bill, on a Band E property, is now £1,805.12 for the year.
Responding to the 2021 rises, Mayor John Biggs said: “This is a period of massive uncertainty for the council. We have faced massive austerity cuts to our budget… The austerity over the last ten years means we have lost over £200 million from our budget since 2010. We have to find another £30 million by 2024.”
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Mayor Biggs that, if the council’s budget is as stretched as he claims, a pay rise for councillors might not be the best idea. Taxpayers are fed up of hearing councils plead poverty whilst simultaneously voting to increase their own pay - something we’ve called out before, and councillors in Tower Hamlets have consistently and shamelessly done over the past few years.
This is without even considering rises in the Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA), which is the extra paid to councillors with special responsibilities. In Tower Hamlets, payments of the SRA totalled £440,086 for the year 2020/21, with only 13 out of 41 Labour councillors not paid one. The individual amounts paid vary depending on role type, but range from £31,212 for the three deputy mayors, to £6,242 for chairmanship of committees. In the previous year, SRA payments totalled £377,569.86. Details of SRA payments for 2021/22 are not yet publicly available, but given the 16.6% rise in the preceding year, it will be no surprise if they increase.
As costs only increase for residents, councils should be considering any and all areas where savings could be made instead of hiking rates. Our 2020 Town Hall Rich List revealed that 25 employees at Tower Hamlets council received remuneration of over £100,000 and the Chief Executive received a total package of £258,171. Our investigation into local authority spending on press officers showed that Tower Hamlets employed six communication officers between 2016 and 2019 - above the national average of four. And, our research into spending on mayoral cars revealed Tower Hamlets spent £27,557.08 between April 2015 and March 2018. If councils eradicated wasteful spending from their books, before adding extra burden onto already stretched residents, taxpayers would thank them.
This is surely a familiar story to many across the country. As letters indicating rises in council tax undoubtedly land on doorsteps in the coming weeks, one can’t help but wonder how many of the councils hiking council tax are also increasing their own pay. The message is clear: don’t blame austerity whilst still awarding yourself pay increases.