Scotland's councillors should be better paid given their level of responsibility for education, environment, homelessness and more – Alastair Stewart

Last week my neighbour's bin was not collected on time. What followed was a cliched and almost obligatory rant about “the council” and the “state of things”.

The reaction to Glasgow Council leader Susan Aitken comments on the city's 'Trashgate' row suggests a degree of snobbery about local government (Picture: John Devlin)
The reaction to Glasgow Council leader Susan Aitken comments on the city's 'Trashgate' row suggests a degree of snobbery about local government (Picture: John Devlin)

Professionally, the rest of my week was somewhat different. I liaised with various councillors across Scotland about planning projects, a wind farm proposal, and next year's council elections.

There is a spectacular public disconnect between the perception of councillors and the work they really do. Casually condemning a local council is as common a subject of conversation as football and movies. Few people bother to recognise that their functions extend well beyond bins, dog filth and, yes, trams.

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Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken's response to ‘Trashgate’ ahead of the COP26 climate summit is a case and point. Blaming Margaret Thatcher for Glasgow's rat problem is something of a stretch. But even the reaction to Councillor Aitken suggests a snobbery that councillors are not as relevant or up to par as Members of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland's 1,227 councillors are not treated as a professional class in their own right.

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The 2019 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey confirms this. Polling suggests just over a third trust the Scottish government to make fair decisions either “a great deal” or “quite a lot”. This stands at around a quarter for local councils and just over one in ten for the UK government.

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Part of the perception problem ties to salary: people seem to think because councillors are not paid enough, they are not doing enough (or so it goes). The reality is full-time council duties are enormously financially burdensome.

According to the Office for National Statistics in April 2020, the typical salary for all employees in Scotland was £25,616. However, the basic annual pay for councillors is £18,604 (senior councillors and council leaders receive more). Since 2017 it has been linked to public sector pay. Chief executives and senior public sector staff can earn well over £100,000.

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A survey of 408 elected councillors in Scotland between 2017-22 by the Improvement Service, found 53 per cent of respondents had additional employment alongside their councillor role – 14.5 per cent said they were employed full time; 18.4 per cent said they were employed part-time, and 19.4 per cent said they were self-employed. Twenty-three per cent said they were retired.

Before the beginning of the 20th century, there was an implicit understanding that all politicians would be financially independent. The 1911 Parliament Act gave MPs a yearly subsidy of £400. Former prime minister David Lloyd George thought the number a joke; more an expenses sum than a yearly wage. Little has changed for Scotland's councillors.

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Now, nearly 63 per cent of councillors are highly qualified and hold a degree or professional qualification. More councillors come from managerial and professional occupations than manual or service occupations.

We have a group of highly educated, underpaid decision-makers responsible for public policy, the delivery of services, attending committee business, resource allocation, regulatory functions and representing their ward. It seems insane, considering the demands on cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, that more effort is not made to capture and retain talent.

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The Scottish political context includes some who are afraid that any loss of power from Holyrood will be the death knell for Scottish democracy.

In 2015 the former MSP Joan McAlpine asked: “Who do you trust more, your local council or the Scottish Parliament?” She argued “anti-SNP” parties favoured decentralisation away from Holyrood to “bring down our parliament”.

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One tragedy of our obsession with independence is the loss of a sense of irony as the same people condemn Westminster centralism and the folly of Brexit.

In 2014, the former Reform Scotland chair Ben Thomson framed what is still the status quo: “The SNP says that they want decisions to be made closest to the people affected by them, but if that is to mean anything truly, they must prove that they are not the party of centralisation.”

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In 2017, the Scottish government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) launched the Local Governance Review. The interim consultation findings were published in May 2019. Covid-19 delayed further action, and a joint statement on the progress of the review was released recently. It emphasised expanding fiscal and community empowerment.

Bills like the 2015 Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act and the European Charter of Local Self-Government Bill strengthen the status of local authorities. Still, no mention is made of better remunerating Scotland's councillors.

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A candid assessment of workload should match expanding duties and reforms of local democracy. This seems a missed opportunity, particularly as many candidates are being confirmed for the election next year.

It's not just the principle but the practicality. Council leaders should be held to account with the strictest of intent by opposition parties. Scrutiny should not just be something someone can squeeze in between other jobs. Struggling financially is a poor incentive to take up public service.

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Reputationally, councils are congealed – people know the name of the local authority, but not always the personalities and politics which make it. When verbal and even sometimes physical threats are the new norm against public servants, it seems imperative that every effort is made not to deter fresh blood from seeking to serve their community.

There are constant crises in social care, schools, the environment, homelessness, planning policy and more. Everything from the Edinburgh Christmas Market to cycle lanes to road works is met with the usual sigh. We need a well-remunerated package to help councillors represent cities.

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It would seem the biggest challenge facing Scotland is giving councillors a fit-for-purpose salary to allow talent to stay at the heart of local government.

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