‘I don’t mind what they pay councillors… if they’re good enough’

There is understandable anger at proposals to give a pay rise to city councillors who are overseeing sweeping cutbacks and hundreds of redundancies.

Indeed, the idea is so barking mad I did half wonder whether or not it had been floated by a quick-thinking Stoke City employee to divert attention away from Tony Pulis escaping a driving ban with the most ludicrous of defences.

Talk about trying to defend the indefensible…

It certainly seems to be plain daft that anyone would advocate increasing the allowances for members during a public sector pay freeze.

The fact the pay rise has been recommended by an independent panel comprising three local taxpayers won’t cut any ice in the Potteries.

If everyone is else is being forced to tighten their belts and other local authorities such as Staffordshire County Council are freezing their expenses, then it seems absurd for city councillors to be treated any differently.

I’m sure, when it meets this week to discuss the proposals, the ruling Labour group will also be mindful of the fact that their basic allowance is already higher than the average paid by 15 other similar councils while their leader’s is substantially more.

The suggestion to increase allowances seems tactless and ill thought-out given the current climate but, to be honest, I’m not that fussed about what city councillors are paid.

Why not? Well, in the grand scheme of things, the budget for members’ allowances is chicken feed.

What concerns me more, and always has done, is the calibre of the individuals who put themselves forward for public office and the guidance they receive when they are elected.

Not so long ago I had a very enlightening chat with a city councillor who told me in no uncertain terms what they (I won’t say he or she) thought was wrong with their colleagues.

Basically, this councillor felt it boiled down to the fact that ordinary people are thrust into positions of power and influence and have no idea how to handle it.

“Out of their depth” and “poorly trained” were the phrases used.

You see, councillors may be wonderful spouses, parents, carers, business people and employees but very few of them will ever have worked in an environment quite like the one down at the Civic Centre in Stoke.

It’s the equivalent of you or I being elected to the board of a multi-national firm and being asked to help shape company policy and decide how multi-million pound budgets are spent.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t know where to start: I sometimes struggle with our Asda shopping list.

What’s more, local government is an environment which is: a) notoriously bureaucratic;

b) unionised to within an inch of its life; and c) one in which certain individuals (senior officers) wield extraordinary power and tend to run rings around everyone else.

I admire anyone who is prepared to jump into the viper’s nest that is local politics – even more so in Stoke-on-Trent which is the local government equivalent of a poisoned chalice.

However, there is a world of difference between wanting to do good work in your community and having the intelligence, the strength of character and the communication skills to mix it with a handful of career politicians and all-powerful council officers.

On the one hand it is wonderful for democracy that ordinary people from all walks of life can enter politics at this level and seek to make a contribution to local life.

But I do wonder how many of these are simply pawns of the party machine or cannon fodder for experienced council officers.

How many times have you heard an elected member give a public speech or listened to them on the radio and winced with embarrassment?

This may seem like a hatchet job but it truly isn’t.

I’d like to see councillors empowered through better training so that we can have faith that they will stand up to the unelected officers who really run the show and have the nous to properly scrutinise decisions.

Indeed, I’d be happy to pay them twice what they get now if I thought they were doing a fantastic job. Wouldn’t we all?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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