Category Archives: Expenses

Incentivised to drive: Suffolk’s County Councillors

crocyclist

As I mentioned recently, this year’s Public Health Report for Suffolk (Moving Forward? travel and health in Suffolk) aims to get more people out of the car and into more healthy means of travel. This is essential  for reasons ranging from health, through congestion, to potholes.

And yet, far from encouraging  county councillors to leave their cars at home,  SCC’s  current system of  councillor travel expenses is positively encouraging them to remain behind the wheel.  Lets look at the dilemma of a fictional county councillor living in my division,  Woodbridge. (I say fictional because, as we all know, I cycle or bus and don’t claim expenses anyway.)

It is an 18 mile-round cycle trip from Woodbridge to Endeavour House and back.  Assuming non-concessionary travel at morning peak (which gives the most expensive public transport fares)  the costs this councillor could legitimately claim for travel  vary as follows

  • Car ( 45p per mile): £8.10
  • Rail (return ticket):  £5.80
  • Bus (return ticket): £5.60
  • Cycle (15p per mile): £2.70
  • *Pedestrian: nothing

In other words, the amount of money claimable is in inverse proportion to the exercise undertaken.  Although the 18 miles -100 mins – cycling is the most healthy, all methods apart from  the car include some element of exercise. For rail one must walk, in my case,  1mile to the Woodbridge rail station, and a short distance at the other end to Endeavour house; for the bus I have to walk 20 mins from Tower Ramparts to Endeavour House -though one can also use the shuttle bus.

It seems totally anomalous that the claimable 15p per mile for cyclists (who are keeping fit, clearing the roads, preventing damage to the road surface  and saving taxpayers money in so many different ways) should contrast so starkly with the excessively generous 45p per mile currently accorded to those councillors who elect to save themselves effort and become health-riskers, air polluters and traffic jammers  – in short, drivers – at the expense of the taxpayer.  A show of hands in full council last week suggests these are the majority.

This is not just a matter of personal health and setting a good example. The number of such car-bound councillors MUST have a direct bearing on the number prepared to fight for a decent rural bus service – because they will not have experienced the difficulties of travelling by our currently poor, constantly changing and often unreliable rural buses. Indeed the lack of bus usage by elected members may actually provide some explanation for our poor rural bus services – ‘services’ that prevent so many people being able to rely on public transport . Councillors  might be personally motivated to challenge this state of affairs if they all got out of their cars and relied on the buses themselves.

In light of the Suffolk 2013 Public health report this seems particularly depressing.

At Full Council last Thursday  I asked the following question of Leader, Mark Bee

 “ as you have made it a council commitment that Suffolk should be ” the greenest county” and that we should  ”strive to improve the health, lifechances  and life expectancy of our residents”,  will you now commit to a reduction of the extremely generous mileage allowance Suffolk County councillors get if they use their own cars for transport on county council business – and instead to incentivise county councillors  to set a good example  to the residents of Suffolk by travelling by public transport or bicycle?

In response he promised to bring my question to the attention of the independent remuneration committee. I very much hope he will do so!

 

* I have made this journey by foot on a few occasions, but even I am prepared to say this is an unsustainable method of transport on a daily basis – as it takes five or six hours for the return trip!

 

Expenses – and why I don’t claim them

I have just been asked why I have claimed no expenses since my re-election in May. “A recent FOIA request by Ipswich Spy has produced the expenses claims put in by the 75 County Councillors since the election at a staggering £25,000…  Four councillors have claimed more than £1,000 and several councillors have claimed none at all. ” Well,  I’m one of those who have claimed nothing.

In fact, as your County Councillor,  I don’t think I have claimed any expenses  whatsoever for the last three years.

It’s been a (rather small-scale) point of principle.

Lets not get this out of proportion. You’ll be pleased to know that there isn’t a great deal that a county councillor CAN claim for at the best of times  – and this is as it should be.

But I have not claimed for travel on council business – even when Tory cuts mean that there are no longer buses running to get me home; I have not claimed for meals or coffee to sustain me on the days when I leave home at 7 and don’t get back till late;  the wreaths I lay  to celebrate Woodbridge’s war dead have been paid for out of my own pocket – and on the odd occasion work has taken me to London I’ve stayed with friends rather than cost the hard-pressed council-tax payer of Suffolk a single penny.

I am a carer for someone who often cannot be left safely, but  even here I have used a patchwork of friends and favours to provide the required care. (Staff at Suffolk CC’s Endeavour House have been wonderfully supportive  on a couple of occasions when I’ve had real emergencies.)

Please note –  I don’t want to sound self-righteous, I’ve been making a point. I want to show up the contrast  between what is possible and what some others think it appropriate to claim for – legitimately – at a time of fiscal belt-tightening. There are councillors who have duties that require a lot of transport and it seems only fair that it is funded. But if they could only claim for using public transport maybe Suffolk would have better public transport?

(It is also very important that the business of being a local councillor is not restricted to those who can afford it. We need more participation from people of all ages and backgrounds if we want to deliver real democracy in decision-making. But maybe this is more about what the average councillor’s  allowance is, than how much they can claim in expenses.)

Now I think  being a full-time carer as well as a full-time county councillor makes me a better full-time county councillor – just as I think that being a county councillor who travels by public transport and bicycle will have a better understanding of the problems of rural transport than one who travels by car with expenses-funded petrol. My caring duties are not diminishing.  In the future  I may have to claim for emergency care cover as and when I need it.  And, as I have  mild epilepsy, transport can be very difficult when there are no buses and I  am not well enough to cycle.  But until there is a real need, I won’t be claiming.

I suspect if there were more in my position representing you, some significant and important council decisions might have been/would be different – and the outcomes for the people of  Suffolk  better.

If you have strong feelings on this matter – please contact me now -either by commenting below or by email/twitter etc