Calls for cut to county councillors’ special allowances rejected

Councillors spent more time arguing over how much allowance some of them should receive than discussing a host of important issues at a West Sussex County Council meeting.

The full council meeting on Friday (December 11) covered areas such as the performance of children’s services and the fire and rescue service as well as the economic reset plan and a handful of motions about disabilities, investments and school milk.

None of those discussions lasted longer than 35 minutes – but the row about allowances dragged on for more than an hour.

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The discussion centred around a recommendation from the Independent Remuneration Panel that the special allowance paid to leaders of the opposition groups should be slashed.

While most of the Conservatives were happy with this, they were less than pleased when Labour leader Michael Jones and Liberal Democrat leader Dr James Walsh called for all special allowances to be cut by one quarter.

Mr Jones said that doing so would save the council around £100,000 which ‘could be spent on preserving our local services’.

He told the Tories they would have ‘no credibility’ if they refused to take a cut, adding: “Steep decreases for the opposition and status quo for everyone else is certainly not a good look to be giving the public.”

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Dr Walsh had earlier argued that opposition leaders should receive the same as committee chairmen – £9,552 – and said the remuneration panel had produced ‘no evidence’ for the reduction.

The often  bad-tempered debate batted back and forth, with leader Paul Marshall accusing Mr Jones and Dr Walsh of being ‘disrespectful’ while they in turn accused him of ‘misrepresenting’ the facts.

Summing up what viewers of the webcast were no doubt feeling, Jamie Fitzjohn (Ind, Chichester South) said: “Theatres may be closed but pantomime season is alive and kicking in West Sussex.

“I’ve never seen so much poor behaviour at this council in four years.”

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Mr Fitzjohn pointed out that the council did not have to accept the remuneration panel’s recommendation and suggested it be deferred until February so that a ‘fair and reasonable’ reduction across the board could be explored.

He added: “It would send a very positive message to the residents of West Sussex and also to all of the officers who are having a pay freeze for the next year.

“It will send a very good, reasonable message that we are all in it together.”

His views fell on deaf ears, though, and the panel’s report – and the cut to opposition allowances – were agreed by 38 votes to 12 with 10 abstentions.

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After the meeting, Kirsty Lord (Liberal Democrat, Hassocks and Burgess Hill South) said: “In an unedifying debate, the Conservatives showed their true colours. All councillors know we are facing cuts to vital services that look after the poorest residents in the county.

“Yet an hour after voting not to continue funding mid-morning milk for our poorest children, evoking memories of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives voted against a proposal to cut a portion of their Special Responsibility Allowances while cutting those of opposition councillors.

“The savings proposed would have been enough to fund milk provision twice over. At a time when the number of children in receipt of Free School Meals is rapidly growing, this is shameful behaviour by the Conservatives.”