LBWF councillors: what do they do, and is it value for money?

What is it that LBWF councillors do? Are they proficient or laggard? And can it be said, given that they are paid via allowances from the public purse, that residents get value for money?

This post looks at some of the evidence dispassionately. It does not pretend to be definitive, for reasons that will become clear, merely an introduction to what hopefully will be a longer debate.

It should be said, to start with, that wider discussion about councillors’ performance is currently polarised.

Those who are close to the action invariably stress the difficulty of the role, and the hard work that is being put in. One recent report from the umbrella body, London Councils, perceptively describes some of the challenges, and is worth quoting at some length:

‘The evidence we received confirms that the workload and responsibilities of councillors continue to increase and that their role has become more complex…There has been growth in the number of sub-regional meetings, partnerships and joint bodies (such as Boards for Health & Wellbeing and Safer Neighbourhoods) which require the commitment and time of leaders, cabinet members and front-line councillors…There has been a marked increase in informal meetings, such as working groups, forums and community gatherings as well as formal meetings like local authority companies. The expectations of the public continue to rise…While valuable to democracy, the use of social media adds to the pressure on councillors by increasing demands from their constituents in several different ways. Communication with councillors is not only easier but immediate. The public expects a speedy response, so that it is now more difficult for councillors in employment to deal with concerns as quickly as voters expect. Not only do social media make it easier for their constituents to get hold of councillors, but they also enable an isolated concern to become an organised campaign’.

Meanwhile, popular comment about councillors often tends to the opposite extreme. Councillors are castigated as lazy and incompetent, perhaps biased in favour of friends or particular ethnicities. As to money, it is often alleged that councillors are simply feathering their own nests, raising their allowances at will and thereby diminishing the funds available for public services.

So, what is the situation as it exists in Waltham Forest? The following paragraphs look at how local councillors perform in terms of three key activities, and then turn to the question of remuneration.

Attendance at council meetings

 The council has 60 elected members.

Year on year, each is scheduled to attend a number of meetings, encompassing full Council, and whichever of its various committees they are appointed to.

One obvious measure of performance, therefore, is to examine attendances.

Looking at the most recently available annual returns, which cover the period February 2019 to February 2020, reveals that only six councillors (10 per cent of the total) had 100 per cent records, while 15 missed one meeting, 13 missed two meetings, nine missed three meetings, four missed four meetings, 11 missed five meetings, and two missed six or more meetings.

That’s interesting in itself, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, because councillors had very different responsibilities and therefore different workloads. For example, in this period, Cllr. Mahmood was scheduled to  attend seven meetings, Cllr Naheed Asghar 26.

To acknowledge such differences, the table below groups councillors by the percentage of scheduled meetings that they missed.

Councillors missing 0-9 per cent of scheduled meetings

20

Councillors missing 10-19 per cent of scheduled meetings 20
Councillors missing 20-29 per cent of scheduled meetings 12
Councillors missing 30-39 per cent of scheduled meetings 5
Councillors missing 40-49 per cent of scheduled meetings 1
Councillors missing 50-59 per cent of scheduled meetings 1
Councillors missing 60 plus per cent of scheduled meetings 1

 

 

 

 

It is certainly arresting to find that 20 councillors – a third – missed 20 per cent or more of the meetings at which they were expected.

Casework

Residents contact councillors in various different ways, with various kinds of problems.

Some problems can be easily resolved.

Others require more specialist help, and in these instances, councillors can call upon assistance from officers via a centralised casework management system.

Some data for 2015-17 obtained under the Freedom of Information Act gives an idea of the magnitudes involved:

2015 2016 2017
All cases logged on centralised casework management system 608 697 436
Cann Hall cases logged oncentralised casework management system 20 65 19

 

At a maximum, therefore, and averaged out, each councillor during 2015-17 was dealing with about 12 cases a year, i.e. one a month. However, in some years, such as 2017, and in some wards, in this case Cann Hall, the caseload could be as small as six cases per councillor per year.

Surgeries

The following table, based on information published by LBWF, lists how surgeries are arranged, ward by ward:

Ward No. of councillors Surgery
Cann Hall 3 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month, 10-12
Cathall 3 [Contact by personal appointment only]
Chapel End 3 1st and 4th Saturdays of the month,10-11
Chingford Green 3 4th Saturday of the month, 10-11.30
Endlebury 3 2nd Saturday of the month, 10-11.30
Forest 3 1st and 2nd Saturday of the month, 11-123rd Saturday of the month, 11-12.30
Grove Green 3 2nd, 3rd and 4th Saturday of month, 11–12
Hale End and Highams Park 3 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month, 10-113rd Saturday of the month, 9.30-10.30
2nd Tuesday of the month, 18.30-19.30 (term time only)
Hatch Lane 3 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month, 10-11
2nd and 4th Saturday of the month, 10-11
High St 3 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month, 11-12
Higham Hill 3 1st Friday of the month, 18.30-20 (Term time only)
2nd Saturday of the month, 12-13
4th Saturday of the month, 10.45-11.45
Hoe Street 3 Every Saturday, 11-12
Larkswood 3 1st Saturday of the month 10-11
Lea Bridge 3 1st and 2nd Saturday of the month, 10-113rd Tuesday of the month, 16-17
Leyton 3 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Saturday of the month, 10.30-12
Leytonstone 3 Every Saturday, 10.30-12
Markhouse 3 1st, 2nd and 3rd Saturday of the month 11.30 – 12.30 (term time only)
Valley 3 1st Saturday of the month, 10.30-123rd Saturday of the month, 11-12
William Morris 3 1st Friday of the month, 10–12
3rd Saturday of the month, 14-15
Wood Street 3 1st, 2nd and 3rd Saturdays of the month, 10-11

 

It is worth noting that only three sets of councillors offer surgeries every week; and only five offer surgeries other than on Saturday mornings.

As to the overall workload involved, toting up the figures in the table, 60 councillors are providing 59 hours of surgery time each month, that is on average just under one hour per person per month.

Remuneration

London Councils usefully tracks councillor allowances in the 32 London boroughs.

LBWF currently pays each of its councillors a basic allowance of £11,266 per annum.

According to London Council’s latest published figures, for 2018-19, the spread of allowances in London boroughs was £8,086 to £12,000, and LBWF provision was at the high end of the spectrum, indeed the fifth most generous.

However, on top of allowances, many councillors receive extra payments according to their special responsibilities (chairing committees, etc.).

In LBWF as many as 34 of the 60 councillors receive such sums.

To understand what a difference this makes, take Councillor Rayner, who has come to the attention of this blog before because of his shyness about paying council tax (see link).

In 2017-18, the last year for which figures are available, he received the then councillor’s allowance of £10,525.48.

But he also received £7,713.09 for special responsibilities, while, as his employer, LBWF coughed up £1,377.01 in national insurance contributions, meaning that his total package was worth £19,515.58, in other words approaching twice his allowance if taken alone.

Finally, it is important to recognise that some councillors use their office to open doors beyond the Town Hall, and as a consequence – quite legitimately, it must be stressed – reap additional rewards.

In 2015, this blog noted:

‘a detailed investigation by the Camden New Journal in 2012 concluded that Cllr. Loakes annual earnings comprised £32,000 from LBWF and nearly the same amount again from “allowances for chairing other inter-related bodies” – not bad for someone who only a very few years before had been “a junior civil servant in the Department of Work and Pensions”. Similarly, Cabinet member Cllr. Marie Pye, a flattering pen portrait revealed, was not only employed by Goss Consulting Ltd., but held a variety of other positions (including “Lead for London Councils on Equality”, member of the Transport for London Independent Disability Advisory Group, and adviser to the Equality Committee At the Bar Standards Board), and in addition “regularly” undertook “detailed peer reviews and assessments of local authorities and housing organisations”, presumably not something she did for free’.

No doubt in the ensuing years others have followed similar paths, though interestingly, despite the ongoing growth of consultants and quangos of every kind, it is rarely much spoken about.

It is also clear that councillors can gain indirectly, too. In the main political parties, for example, serving at local government level is an almost obligatory first step on the ladder to becoming an MP. Similarly, during visits back home, councillors with overseas heritages may parade their civic achievements in order to impress their peers.

The lesson, therefore, is that when it comes to remuneration, focusing on allowances alone will likely prove misleading.

Conclusion

One perhaps unexpected finding that has emerged is that councillors vary quite considerably in their diligence.

Some attend meetings almost as matter of course, others take a more relaxed attitude. In Leytonstone, surgeries happen every Saturday throughout the year, in neighbouring Cathall, not at all. And so on.

What makes this particularly irksome to the outsider is that, in general, as has been observed, LBWF councillors are relatively well rewarded.

As to broader conclusions, readers can make up their own minds.

There is, however, one interesting straw in the wind. The Local Authority Boundary Commission is currently evaluating ‘New electoral arrangements for Waltham Forest Council’, and in one of its preliminary documents comments as follows:

‘Waltham Forest Council currently has 60 councillors. The Labour Group proposed the retention of 60 councillors, while the Conservative Group proposed increasing by three, to 63 councillors…We note that both groups were primarily concerned with pressures on workload resulting from changes to communication and working practices, population increases and demographics. We concluded that while there are undoubtedly pressures on workload, the Conservative Group did not provide sufficiently compelling evidence to suggest an increase was required. We noted the Labour Group’s argument that in light of these pressures, a reduction in council size should be avoided’.

Related Posts

Councillor Keith Rayner revealed to have had some difficulty with, ahem, his own council tax payments

LBWF councillors through the prism of their register of interest forms

LBWF: it’s parsimony for the poor, but kerching for councillors

The mysterious case of the disappearing LBWF councillor…

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