Council pay package ‘indefensible’, say Lib Dems

Opposition leader, Councillor Richard Gale, of the Lib Dems. NO F24 Richard Gale
Opposition leader, Councillor Richard Gale, of the Lib Dems. NO F24 Richard Gale

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Highland Council has agreed a senior councillor pay package totalling £460,923.

This is a 15 per cent increase on 2017 and the formation of the last ruling administration but, the local authority says, well below the maximum salaries it can pay its councillors, according to national legislation.

Council leader Councillor Raymond Bremner, SNP, highlighted the package as a ‘saving’ but opposition members called out a decision not to pay area chairmen outside of Inverness.

Opposition leader Councillor Richard Gale, Lib Dem, said the pay rise for Inverness leaders is symbolic of the council’s faltering approach to localism.

The Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment to scrap the remuneration plans, but lost by four votes despite support from the Tories.

Some local government salaries are set by national legislation. This includes the pay of the leader, convener and councillors. For the 2022/23 financial year, the salaries are: Leader – £45,669; Convener – £34,254; Councillor – £19,571.

All these salaries are higher than in 2017.

However, the council does have the power to decide how much to pay other positions, up to a maximum value of £511,316, excluding the leader and convener.

At £460,923, Highland Council’s remuneration package is well within the spending limit. However, it is more costly than in the last political term, which came in under £400,000.

Key salaries include: Leader of the opposition – £30,000, up 18 per cent on 2017; Chairman of a strategic committee – £28,000, up 10 per cent on 2017; Vice chairman of a strategic committee – £21,500, unpaid in 2017.

It also includes two new posts of ‘senior strategic chair’ on a salary of £30,000 each.

During Thursday’s debate, it was the salaries of area leaders that took the spotlight.

In the previous political administration, councillors who chaired the council’s 10 area committees received a modest top-up on their salary. Under the new plan, only the chairman of Inverness area committee will get a pay increase, to £25,000.

Mr Gale accused the joint administration of showing ‘a total lack of respect for the remote and rural Highlands’.

Mr Gale tabled a motion that the council undertake a review of the remuneration package, including the role of area committees. He wanted this review to report back after the summer recess.

Mr Bremner said some area committees have just four members, while Inverness has 23. He stressed the pay rise was about workload, not geography.

Some previous area chairmen got to their feet to say they took on the role as part of their duties and did not expect or want to be paid for it.

Several rural members weighed in to say the decision is symbolic of the council’s urban bias.

In his closing argument, Mr Gale said if he was chairman he would gladly donate any uplift to charity. The message the council should be sending out is that rural areas deserve due recognition. ‘We bandy about localism but this is an opportunity to act on it,’ he added.

Mr Bremner, himself a former chairman of Caithness area committee, said he would always ‘stick up’ for rural areas. However, he felt the important point is that the total remuneration package is a saving on the amount proposed nationally.

Mr Bremner’s administration won the vote 34-30.

Speaking after the decision, the Highland Liberal Democrats said this was an ‘indefensible’ inflation of Inverness salaries.

‘If we do not have regional equality in this council chamber, we cannot expect to achieve it across Highland,’ said Mr Gale.

CAPTION:

Opposition leader Councillor Richard Gale of the Lib Dems.

NO F24 Richard Gale