Ask Not What Your Council Can Do For You, Mr and Ms Elected Representative

I'll be arguing the Utopian ideal on the radio, when we have this debate. I'll be saying that elected office is something that should be undertaken for the benefit it provides to the community, not for personal gain.

It's been reported that diet drinks could lead to an increased risk of depression. Well, it wouldn't surprise me - I've come to associate any product that gives me a few fleeting moments of pleasure or relaxation with some damning report proving beyond doubt that it's actually going to kill me, incapacitate me, or otherwise spoil my day.

I very much doubt, however, that even my habitual fridge-full of chilled and refreshing popular, well-known, sugar-free beverage could be to blame for this current malaise. No - as I pop my next can, I shall not be blaming artificial sweeteners for the black cloud hovering just over my head. Rather, I shall look to our not-so-glorious leaders, both locally and nationally, and bemoan their seeming inability to grasp the simplest, most fundamental principles of fairness and equality.

I've already had a mild go on these pages, citing the importance of unity rather than divisiveness as we try to go forward; but the example being provided by the so-called great and good does not exactly fill me with optimism.

The latest outrage that's come to my weary notice arrived in the form of an invitation to speak on BBC local radio, by a friend who - correctly - surmised I would be happy to put the case for "public service for its own sake" in the face of piteous calls for more money. Hence the title of this piece - with apologies to JFK (although he may well have nicked the original quote from Cicero). It seems that an unhealthy proportion of our local councillors feel that they are not adequately recompensed for their onerous duties.

Now, forgive me if this seems unduly cynical, but don't these duties - in the current climate - consist largely of deciding not whether, but where the axe will fall on this or that previously cherished public service? Belts are being tightened all round. Libraries are closing, education budgets are being pruned and voluntary services are seeing their funding slashed. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these thorny issues, surely the context of the times dictates that those making the decisions should be at least a little sensitive to public feeling, when it comes to demanding more for their own back pockets.

It's difficult to think of a more cost-effective way of serving the public than the wonderful efforts of so many voluntary organisations who depend so heavily on volunteer workers. Yet even though reliable figures show that two women a week are killed in the UK by their partner or ex-partner, women's refuges, to take one instance among many, have faced a massive drop in funding. This has led to one charity, Women's Aid, claiming that they've had to turn away 230 women a day. These are people whose lives may well be at risk, but the state of the nation's coffers means - apparently - that the help and support they desperately need is simply no longer available.

It is against this bleak background that one authority has recently increased councillors' allowances by an inflation-busting 28 per cent - the first stage of a proposed 85 per cent rise over three years. How annoying is that? Given the parlous economic situation, and the prospect of austerity stretching into the unforeseeable future, does it not rather take the biscuit? And yet, there are plenty of indignant elected civic servants out there who seem willing to argue that they deserve and should expect more, even while vital services are toppling around them. Meanwhile, hapless local government employees are in the middle of a pay freeze, as they put into action the cuts sanctioned by these people, who refuse to accept such restraint for themselves.

It must be time to accept - for everyone - that while we're all in this massive financial hole, it just sends out completely the wrong message to argue for more, whilst overseeing a process whereby just about everybody else will get far less, and some will pay the highest price for lack of help and support. Councillors must surely concede that laying themselves open to a charge of "snouts in the trough" is no way to inspire confidence in those whose lives are savagely affected by the decisions they are making.

I'll be arguing the Utopian ideal on the radio, when we have this debate. I'll be saying that elected office is something that should be undertaken for the benefit it provides to the community, not for personal gain. I firmly believe this, and yet I can accept it's not always the practical way to go - some will need their allowances to permit them to serve. But let's have a sense of proportion here, and cut down on the cries for more at a time when so many people - especially in the most deprived sections of society - are facing such a bleak and helpless future.

After all - we are supposed to be "all in it together"... aren't we?


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