What price democracy?

COUNCIL who have bitterly fought against a single tier of local government in Norfolk are claiming more than �1m a year as county and district members combined, an investigation has found.

COUNCIL who have bitterly fought against a single tier of local government in Norfolk are claiming more than �1m a year as county and district members combined, an investigation has found.

The allowances claimed by the 50 so-called 'twin-hatters' can be revealed for the first time - even though the very same councillors last week blocked any public scrutiny of how much they are earning and their roles.

Their refusal to allow a public debate comes as the ongoing row over MPs' expenses keeps the issue of transparency and openness in public life firmly in the spotlight.

And it comes as the ruling Tory-run authority is looking at closing day centres for some of the most vulnerable people in Norfolk as part of a massive �140m cost-cutting exercise, which is likely to see services for residents across the board hit.

Last night, county council leader Daniel Cox said the allowances, which were determined by an independent panel, compared favourably to other parts of the country and were vital if the authority was to attract councillors from all walks of life.

But councillors' refusal to look at the issue was condemned by both anti-sleaze campaigner and former independent MP Martin Bell, and the Taxpayer's Alliance.

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June's local government elections saw 50 district councillors elected to County Hall, largely in opposition to moves to a create a single unitary council replacing Norfolk's current two-tier system of county and district authorities.

All four main parties have members who are twin-hatters, though the vast majority of the 50 are Conservatives and questions have been raised about how, given the hours involved, so many different roles can realistically combined.

Allowances claimed range from �12,000 and �43,000.

The council's register of interests also shows that nearly half (24) also work full or part-time or are company directors, while 16 are also parish councillors.

Leading twin-hatters include council leader Daniel Cox, who is also a South Norfolk district councillor, and four of his cabinet- Harry Humphrey and David Harwood (both King's Lynn and West Norfolk), Brian Iles (Broadland) and Ian Monson (Breckland).

In September the council supported a motion calling for the unitary review to be scrapped because it would cause 'considerable expense' at a time of recession.

Yet the authority's own unitary case states that a switch to a single council for Norfolk would save �71.5m and would save �450,000 a year in member allowances. Creating two councils, one for Norwich and another for the rest of Norfolk would save �83.7m.

Last Tuesday Tory councillors blocked a request from a member of the public, John Martin, that the twin-hatter issue be scrutinised, and for consideration to be given to capping their allowances and addressing potential conflicts of interest.

Mr Bell said: “The same rules that apply to our MPs should apply to our councillors. This is the least appropriate time to be doing something like this. There clearly should have been an open debate about this and one wonders why he was invited to the meeting and then not allowed to speak.”

Matthew Sinclair, research director at the Taxpayers' Alliance, said with so many twin-hatters the council's stance would raise questions about its opposition to unitary status.

“It's outrageous that the council hasn't allowed a proper debate on their exploiting of the rules on maximising their allowances to make tens of thousands of pounds from the public purse,” he said. “There clearly needs to be a fully open and transparent debate on this so that people can make up their own minds about whether these payments represent value for money.

“It looks like their opposition to unitary status may have been a cover rather than a serious commitment to local democracy. With so many people facing hard economic times in the recession, councillors should be doing everything they can to bring down the burden of council tax on families and they should be starting at home. Instead it seems that many are trying to a make a fortune at the public's expense.”

Mr Cox, who in the wake of the backlash following MPs expenses ordered councillors' monthly expenses to be published online, said: “There is a cost to democracy, whichever way you look at it. If we want people to come forward to give up their time to carry out roles and responsibilities of being an elected representative then there has to be a recognition that that comes at a cost.

“What doesn't come out is the amount of hours and commitment which is put into each role,” he said. “A councillor will pick up other duties as part of their role, such as being a school governor, and attending neighbourhood and parish council meetings.”

On the conflict of interest issue, he said: “Life is full of conflicts and one of the roles of a county councillor is to represent a division, but also the wider interests of Norfolk.

“There are many conflicts of interests at many levels and that's one of them. We might be on the high side, but Norfolk isn't out of the ordinary in terms of the numbers of twin hatters.”