Every penny counts: the public really do hold the purse strings when it comes to councillors’ expenses

24th February 2022


Councillors don’t get paid - it might surprise you to know - but they do get allowances for the time and expenses incurred whilst they are on council business. And a small group of independent people who live and/or work in the district advise the council on exactly how much public money elected members should receive for their work.

One such independent resident is Victoria Milford, who has been a member of the Three Rivers District Council’s Independent Remuneration Panel for four years and is currently its chair.

Victoria joined the panel after seeing a Facebook post about it – and now provides a vital role in ensuring fairness to both elected councillors and local taxpayers.

She said: “When I saw the advert I thought ‘I live in Three Rivers, and actually don’t have a very good idea of what councillors do.’ I wanted to understand a little more about how the council works.

“At the time I thought it wasn’t very clear to the taxpayer what exactly belonged to district, county or national government and I didn’t really understand their different responsibilities. I was just interested to know what does the district council do and what are the responsibilities of the different officers and councillors.”

Victoria applied and was successful in being appointed to the panel, and she brought with her some extremely valuable specialist knowledge. Victoria’s day job is as a reward consultant - working on pay and bonuses, benefits and pay gap reporting for a variety of clients. But despite being an expert in the field, in her job she rarely deals with public sector pay – so the council’s remuneration panel was a whole new experience for her.

“I bring what I know about reward more generally and applying it to this environment where councillors are not employees. This is not a job [for them], but they do need to be recompensed for their time.”

And the vital role members of the public, like Victoria, play on remuneration panel can and does change the way things work in the council. In her time as a member Victoria and her co-members have brought in changes – such as reflecting the different pressures and responsibilities council committee chairs have in the allowance system.

She explained: “The biggest single committee seems to be the planning one. That committee meets frequently and has a very busy agenda, whereas some committees have much smaller remits. The framework that we inherited was that all committee leads were treated equally and that didn’t really reflect the amount of work that was being done.”

The panel introduced a new framework which determined what allowances council members would receive to better reflect the time they were giving. When considering remuneration for councillors, the panel must consider the responsibility and varying demands upon their time in order to come up with a scheme which fairly and equitably compensates them, whilst also being easy to administer all within the context of the council’s income and what is going on in the district for taxpayers

So how time consuming is it being a member of the Independent Remuneration Panel?

“Not very much at all,” explained Victoria. “It is very seasonal. So between January and September it is rare that we do anything unless something significant happens. Most of our work is in the autumn, such as preparing for the budget meeting that takes places in November or December. We will meet with the council leader and the leaders of the other political groups.”

Nevertheless, despite only taking up a few hours a year the role of the panel is essential, and requires certain qualities, as Victoria explained:

“I think it is being able to step back from what are you are seeing. You have to work or live in the district to be on the panel, and the role means you have to put that to one side and think about what the councillors are there to do, it is not a job and that actually they don’t receive a lot for what they do. It is about being objective and not thinking about the individuals, it is about the roles they fulfil and their workloads.”

“You need to be able to look every councillor and every tax payer in the eye and say ‘we recommend this increase – or indeed no increase - for this reason’.”