Only four of Watford’s 36 borough councillors have opted to take a voluntary pay cut as recommended by an independent panel.
Last week, the councillors voted to freeze their allowances for the next financial year with the option of individuals taking a 5 per cent cut if they wanted.
This week it emerged that the vast majority, including the opposition Labour group, which voted for higher cuts in allowances, are declining the measure.
Meanwhile, three Green and a Conservative councillor have publicly said they intend to take the cut and have attacked the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups for refusing.
The row comes after the independent remuneration panel, which looks at councillors’ pay, recommended councillors take the voluntary 5 per cent cut to reflect the shrinking nature of the council due to privatisation and cuts. The panel also recommended elected mayor Dorothy Thornhill’s £65,000 a year salary be frozen for the year.
At a full meeting on January 30, the Labour opposition group proposed deeper cuts on councillor allowances and the mayor’s salary, but were voted down by the Liberal Democrat majority.
The Lib Dems argued that the allowances had been frozen for the last 11 years and were needed to help people of all incomes become councillors.
In the run-up to last week’s meeting, Labour leader Nigel Bell argued that the mayor, cabinet members and councillors receiving a special responsibility allowance – including himself – should “lead by example” and take a 20 per cent cut in their remuneration.
He also argued that backbench councillors should take a 10 per cent cut as Watford’s allowances were higher than at other councils.
This week Councillor Bell said: “The Labour group’s view was that we put down an amendment for various levels of cuts in remuneration and we specifically wanted this to be mandatory with the whole council voting for the cut.
“We were not arguing for a voluntary cut and were urging the majority Liberal Democrat group to vote for a mandatory cut, which they decided against.”
Councillors earn a basic allowance of £7,209, meaning a 5 per cent cut would leave them £360 worse off a year.
Cabinet members and councillors with responsibilities such as committee chairmen get special responsibility allowances that bring their pay up to between £18,024 and £10,093. Party leaders get an extra £100 per councillor in their group up to £2,000.
At last week’s meeting, the Green group and Conservative councillor Steve Johnson argued they thought councillors were worth the level of remuneration they currently receive. However, they both said they would take a cut if the Labour group did first.
This week both the Greens and Councillor Johnson said they would be taking the 5 per cent cut. In a statement released yesterday (Thursday) the Green group said: “The independent panel on councillors’ pay in Watford recommended that councillors take a 5 per cent cut. “We think it would be wrong to ignore their conclusions, and the Green group therefore voted for a cut in councillors’ pay. In the current economic climate we should all be tightening our belts.
“Conservative, Labour and Green councillors all voted for a pay cut, and this is a great opportunity for all opposition councillors to unite to put pressure on the ruling Lib Dem group through action – not just words. “We should not be letting the Lib Dems off the hook with this and we call on others to join us in taking a cut.”
Councillor Johnson said: “I am very disappointed that the Labour group have been exposed for such blatant hypocrisy. All the other parties were very clear that the current allowances are set at the correct level. Only Labour argued for a reduction of up to 20 per cent.
“Now, Labour seems to be running away from a commitment to cut councillors’ allowances that they gave years ago.
“I don’t understand their argument now that they will only accept a mandatory cut. If they feel the allowance is too high they should take the cut. Labour have had their bluff called and have been found wanting.”
This week, the Watford Observer contacted all borough councillors to ask if they were taking the voluntary cut.
Independent councillor Malcolm Meerabux said he was planning to give 5 per cent of his allowance to the Peace Hospice.
The majority of the Liberal Democrat councillors said they were sticking with their position that it should be frozen.
Councillor Derek Scudder, who represents Stanborough, said: “This is grandstanding by Labour. Nobody has to take the full allowance. If they want to set an example, then let them set the example. Because the allowance hasn’t increased in 11 years we’ve already taken a 30 per cent pay cut in inflation.”
Some Liberal Democrat councillors, including Jan and Ian Brown and Alan Burtenshaw, said they were yet to make up their mind about the cut.
What your councillors had to say about the voluntary cut:
Malcolm Meerabux, independent, Park ward, said: “I’m going to donate part of my allowance to the Peace Hospice.
“I don’t think it’s fair for other councillors to feel guilty into giving up part of their allowance. “I think if you cut allowances it’ll put people off. Being a councillor is quite burdensome in terms of time and money.”
Matt Turmaine, Labour, Holywell ward, said: “As a group, we proposed a mandatory cut to avoid the vagaries of voluntary.
“This was then put to council to vote on. As you’re aware, council chose to vote down that proposal.”
Tim Williams, Lib Dem, Stanborough ward, said: “It’s a great shame this is an annual debate that is completely overshadowed by political hypocrisy and I firmly believe an independent panel of Watford residents should look at this matter again and then set the allowances for, say, four years.”
Jeanette Aron, Lib Dem, Nascot, said: “Councillors have always been allowed to make a voluntary reduction with their councillor allowance if they want to.
“I have already taken a cut in my allowance – this happened in early 2012 soon after I became a councillor following the Nascot ward by-election in September 2011. “That was my choice and I don’t feel others should be obliged to do so.
“The borough councillors all work extremely hard for the allowance they are given and make financial and other sacrifices in their working and family lives in order to carry out their responsibilities.”
Keith Crout, Lib Dem, Stanborough, said: “In my ten years as a councillor, allowances have never been raised on the doorstep.
“So I see no reason to take the advice of a group of unelected people who haven’t done the job.”
Kareen Hastrick, Lib Dem, Meriden, said: “The allowance is in place to cover our costs in acting for our residents and undertaking duties as elected councillors, the commitment we give in terms of time is in fact worth a great deal more.”
Shirena Counter, Lib Dem, Oxhey, said: “Although I get an allowance, I spend far more on petrol coming to the town hall on a regular basis than I would if I wasn’t one and I also used to pay for babysitting when my boys were smaller.
“I regularly get told by people that I must be mad in terms of how much of a time commitment being a councillor is and I think that by taking a cut in my allowance, the message that sends out is that I don’t think what I have done for my ward and also for Watford, is worth it.
“I find it rather ironic that the panel suggested we should reduce our allowances, but double the amount we paid them.
“Somewhat hypocritical don’t you think?”