Monday, July 14, 2008

A Week's A Long Time

And it's been a very long week for me indeed. Our second grand-child's arrival in the big wide world took a bit longer than we'd expected at the beginning of the week and I've seen rather more of the national road network than I'd hoped. But all's well that ends well and she's a beautiful baby (of course!) Many, many thanks to the rest of the Liberal Democrat group for keeping things going so well in my absence.
As some may have read elsewhere a large part of the council meeting on Wednesday evening was taken up with the debate on councillors' allowances. This is a very thorny issue and no-one is ever completely happy with how it's handled. The role of a councillor has changed hugely over the last 25 years, with more and more responsibility for major decisions, needing more and more training. And that's on top of the things which are always there and important to the residents who elect us, like trying to keep the streeets safe, clean and tidy. Years ago I knew councillors who could do the job in their spare time while working full time and fulfilling family responsibilities. This is becoming less common now. People find they need to take time off work for meetings but employers are less willing or able to pay them for the time off. People find that they can't get promotion at work because of the time taken up by council work. Many councillors only stand for election after retirement when they feel they've got time.
The whole process of establishing what Stockton Council's allowances should be for the next 3 years started last year and finally reached a conclusion on Wednesday. A big increase, yes, phased in over 3 years. So it costs the taxpayers less than the Independent Panel's recommendation would have done, but recognises the work done by councillors and puts Stockton much closer to other similar councils. Predictably, some people have been very angry about it, but others have been supportive and understood why it was necessary. Equally predictably the Labour leader made a lot of fuss about the rises being too high. There is of course, an option open to each and every councillor who doesn't want all of the rise - gift aid it as a donation to a charity of your choice. There's a number of local charities which would be very glad of the extra income.
I was very pleased that the amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrats was accepted - that allowances to cover care of dependents while the councillor is at a meeting should be paid as the full cost of any necessary care, instead of the fixed sum which was being proposed that would not have covered nursing care. This is very rarely needed but there are times when a councillor has a dependent spouse or child who needs special carers and this should be taken into account.
Sadly, the local media have contributed to the furore without helping to have an informed discussion.
Meanwhile, other things jog along. The low frequency of buses along Durham Lane is a source of much disappointment to residents on Orchard Estate, but there's no sign of improvement at the present.

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