Greenwich councillors handed themselves a 2% pay rise last night amid shambolic scenes at Woolwich Town Hall – before their own civic mayor scolded them for acting like “schoolchildren”.
While the increase to their allowances was the first in seven years, a disagreement between councillors erupted into a full-blown row after the motion to give them the extra cash was only published on Friday – when council meeting papers should be published a full week in advance.
Conservative councillors tried to get the bad-tempered meeting adjourned, with one saying the move gave the perceptions that councillors “had their snouts in the trough” – prompting howls of protest from Labour. Civic mayor Christine May (allowance: £20,059 plus mayoral car and driver) repeatedly lost control of the meeting as councillors squabbled.
Labour councillor May, chairing in her last meeting before handing over to deputy Mick Hayes (£11,732), angrily shut down Tory Matt Clare (£10,210) when he criticised a speech from a Labour counterpart, moving to a vote on the pay rise. When it was over, May said: “I’ve had enough of you lot, you’re acting like schoolchidren.”
Councillors effectively set their own allowance rates, with figures varying across London. Greenwich councillors are paid a basic allowance of £10,210 for what is meant to be a part-time role. Most London boroughs pay their backbench councillors around the same, although Croydon pays a generous £11,239 and Kingston a miserly £7,928. Then there are extras paid for certain roles, which again vary by council – the leader gets an extra £52,458, comparatively high by London standards, making Thorpe one of the capital’s better-paid council leaders.
Greenwich councillors agreed last year to follow the recommendations of a report by London Councils, which represents all the boroughs’ authorities. It said councillors should get an increase equivalent to that of local government staff – two per cent.
But while Greenwich did not follow London Councils’ other recommendation – that councillors should be paid £11,045 – delaying publishing details of the rise, technically breaching the council’s own protocols – caused fury on the Conservative benches.
‘It looks like snouts in the trough’
Thorpe (£62,668) said that allowances meant that council chambers should “look more like the residents they serve”. “Tonight, we have elected representatives who are here from the Barnfield Estate [in Plumstead], from the Woolwich Common Estate, from the Page Estate [in Eltham], to name but a few. Young councillors, councillors with young children, councillors on a fixed income.
“Politics is at its best when it is diverse, and the allowances scheme has helped ensure the diversity of this chamber tonight.”
But after challenging civic mayor May on her allowing the item to be added so late, Eltham North councillor Spencer Drury (£10,210), proposed the meeting adjourned so the figures could be considered properly.
“I rise with real sadness to call for an end to this council meeting. This council’s reputation really does mean something to me and I think we’re damaging it tonight. The agreement of members’ allowances is an important issue, but mishandling it can give the impression that something untoward is going on, or that councillors have their snouts in the trough as we try and hide something from the public, and the fact that we set our own pay rate in this meeting is particularly damaging,” he said.
Responding to cries of “outrageous” from Labour councillors, he said: “No, the outrageous thing is that you think it is okay to behave this way when we are setting our own pay rate.”
“I think it’s outrageous that you should say things like this in this chamber,” Labour’s Sarah Merrill (£28,388) said. “I think that’s unforgivable.”
“Unfortunately, the report has been mishandled,” Drury continued. “It was published late – our constitution says it should have been published last Wednesday, but it was only placed in the public domain late on Friday morning. This is extremely damaging, as it creates a public perception that this council has something to hide.”
‘We aren’t listening and we are hiding things’
While Charlton councillor and deputy chief whip Linda Perks (£10,210) – condemned by a judge in 2017 for her rule-breaking in a trade union election – wandered around the chamber whispering in her Labour counterparts’ ears, Drury continued: “This confirms the worst suspicions of local residents about politicians – that we aren’t listening and that we are hiding things. We promise every person in this borough to make sure they are treated fairly and openly. If this council ignores the rules of the game [the constitution] it speaks volumes about the respect that we have for every single person in this borough – be they councillors, residents, Labour backbenchers.
“Ignoring the constitution says ‘we don’t care what you think, because I can ignore the rules because I’m in power’. This council’s leadership seems unwilling to acknowledge the damage it is doing to the reputation of every single councillor in this chamber every time it places itself above the constitution.”
Thorpe said: “I know people have strong views, but I don’t believe there is a single person here who has their snouts in the trough and I think you should withdraw that comment.” He said the report was late because he had returned from leave – Thorpe has been holidaying in Australia – on Monday and had sent the report on councillors’ allowances to Tory leader Matt Hartley (£28,386) that day, adding that Greenwich was following the independent report’s recommendations to avoid ugly scenes in the chamber.
“This is a very sad debate and has added to the sense that politicians sit around talking about themselves,” he said. The Tory motion was voted down while Labour councillors continued to complain about the “snouts in the trough” comment.
“Who says it creates the impression? Go on, who said it?,” Merrill shouted, as May lost control of the meeting, with cabinet member Jackie Smith (£32,329) demanded Drury apologise to the council’s chief executive. “You insulted the integrity of the chief executive and the head of legal services.” May then banged her gavel, complained about having to bang her gavel, then dropped it.
Bad feeling then got worse, with Matt Hartley voicing his unhappiness that he had been unable to strike the same “excellent” relationship with Thorpe that he had with his predecessor Denise Hyland, who did not contribute to the debate.
“Councillor Hyland always reached out. This is a contentious issue, the difference is the paper was published on time and we always agreed to freeze allowances because of the financial constraints on this council,” he said.
“Just weeks ago, Councillor Thorpe was telling us and tweeting and setting up photo-ops to say that the council was at the ‘end of the line’. But here he is just a few weeks later trying to force through not his first increase in allowances, but his second,” a reference to the pay increases given to three councillors earlier this year.
“It’s about making sure your actions meet your words. He can’t have it both ways. He doesn’t seem to care how bad it looks – how bad it is. It’s another extraordinary misjudgment – no wonder Labour councillors are so quiet. We should be decreasing the cost of local politics.”
‘Small real-terms reduction’
Tory Matt Clare said he suspected that many Labour councillors “oppose this motion as much as we do”. “It’s about how it plays out there with people who are sick and tired of politics in this country.”
But Labour’s deputy leader David Gardner (£43,724) said the council had been “exemplary” in the way it had dealt with public finances. “We have frozen allowances for year after year, for seven years,” he said. “We could not take an increase while our hard-working staff were taking a pay freeze.”
“What is recommended here is just a small 2% increase, it’s just a small real-terms reduction with the current rate of inflation,” he said.
“This ensures we can continue to have inclusive councillors that are rooted in their communities.”
Labour’s Norman Adams (£10,210) said that many councillors were being paid effectively less than the London Living Wage of £10.55 per hour, while cabinet member Miranda Williams (£32,329) pointed out that councillors had no parental cover.
‘Nobody’s put my hands behind my back’
Abbey Wood Labour councillor Ann Marie Cousins (£10,210), elected last May, said: “Look around this room, and tell me where the diversity is – it’s not in that corner,” gesturing to the all white, eight men and one woman on the Tory benches.
“Close your mouth, there are no flies flying around,” she told the open-mouthed Tories. “As I often say to our leader, I’ve got the mic, I’m old enough to be your mother. I volunteer [to be a councillor], nobody’s put my hands behind my back. I voted for this. When I think of my younger self, I wouldn’t be here. I’m here because at least there is an allowance. Two per cent equates to £15 a month.
“Monday, I was here at 8.30 in the morning because there was an event on. Then I met residents in my ward. My residents know me, they know there’s no moat around my house. I don’t need the allowance for that. I need the allowance because I am charged if I forget my car inside Tesco,” she said, gesturing to the nearby supermarket, “and if I pay for a course up in town, I have to pay for transport. There’s been a year’s notice of this, are you going to sit there and ignore an independent panel? If this is such a moral dilemma for you, are you going to take the pay increase?
“Are you taking any allowances at the moment? Do you need it? Some of us need it, I don’t do another job. I give 100% of my time to my residents, up to seven days a week some times. Are you telling me the residents I represent would resent a two per cent increase?”
The discussion was angrily brought to an end by May when Tory councillor Matt Clare said that the council also needed politicians who worked in the private sector. May joined her fellow Labour councillors in voting for the rise, which will take effect from April.
You can watch the full argument on the Greenwich Council website.
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