Cliff Jordan – photo Norfolk CC
The Conservative Leader of Norfolk County Council, Cliff Jordan, has never shied away from stating his opinions very bluntly, and has been a controversial figure in local government in Norfolk for many years.
He was the leader of Breckland Council from1998 to 2005 and was the subject of a Standards Board investigation after a social security tribunal ordered him to repay £17,000 worth of invalidity benefits he had claimed after failing to disclose his receipt of allowances from Breckland Council. The investigation accepted Jordan’s claim that he had made a ‘genuine mistake’. (Source EDP: http://bit.ly/2AsUtZG)
It might have been expected that this chastening experience would have made the Tory Leader somewhat cautious about taking a bold decision to boost his own council salary at a time of unprecedented government cuts to council funding, but Cliff is clearly made of sterner stuff. This week he led his Group in voting himself an inflation-busting 15% pay increase, while the council takes a scythe to services for children and the elderly.
The reaction in local and social media has been predictably hostile, and will leave many voters with a profound distaste for the insensitivity that Jordan is likely to be remembered for in years to come. Photos of Jordan with pithy captioning are widespread, and a petition opposing the pay increases is being promoted by the Labour opposition group on the County Council (https://www.change.org/p/norfolk-county-council-reverse-the-increase-in-allowances-to-norfolk-county-councillors)
It is not recorded whether Mr Jordan feels the slightest regret about his wallet-busting pay increase. But he will struggle to avoid the furore in the press and on Twitter and Facebook for the foreseeable future.
He may wish to engage with his local Norfolk MPs over this matter, if they are still prepared to be in the same room as him. Westminster Government, under both Thatcher and Blair, was responsible for the current invidious arrangements for deciding councillor remuneration. The Thatcher Government introduced many measures aimed at disrupting local council functions for party political reasons, aimed particularly at London Labour councillors at the time. They also introduced measures to try and restrict councillors rights as employees, with a vicious set of rules known as the “Widdecombe Rules’ which stayed on the statute book until Hazel Blears quietly disposed of them years later. The councillor allowances rules still insist on an unprecedented level of scrutiny of individual councillor’s financial details, and insist on referring allowance increases to a so-called ‘independent panel’. This panel is chosen by the council itself, and is usually very far from ‘independent’, but has no clear and consistent brief set out in legislation. Councillors are then obliged to vote for their own pay awards in the full glare of local press scrutiny. This has many effects, leading many councillors to undervalue their time and pay themselves inadequate allowances, while others, mostly in the safe Tory shires, award themselves very generous financial rewards, usually early in their four year electoral cycle as we have seen in Norfolk this week.
If the Breckland Bruiser wants to survive this fuss he should perhaps have lobbied his Tory chums in Westminster to introduce a proper national scheme for councillor allowances, that recognises the time demands on councillors and rewards them properly and consistently across the country. Being a senior councillor with particular responsibilities is often a full time calling, and should be recognised as such.
Meanwhile this episode will do nothing to consolidate Jordan’s political ambitions. He will now be known first and foremost as the councillor who put his own paycheck ahead of his obligations to provide services to vulnerable people. His overweening ambition to lead one giant Norfolk Unitary Council, wiping out all existing District and City Councils, is now very unlikely to be taken seriously. As short term political decisions go, this has to be one of the poorest, giving the distinct impression that Norfolk Tory Councillors really are interested in very little beyond lining their own pockets at our expense.
Jordan has now compounded the appearance of confusion at the heart of the County Council by announcing live on Radio Norfolk that he has decided not to take his own increase. He talked about rural councillors facing increased fuel costs, even though councillors travel costs are generously covered by a separate scheme that is additional to the fixed allowances.
Whatever the longer term outcome is for Norfolk’s Tory councillors I would imagine that there will be renewed discussion amongst them about changing their Leader. Jordan has managed to achieve the worst of all outcomes in political terms – huge reputational damage without actually gaining any benefit for himself. He will carry a reputation from this week’s headlines wherever he goes in local politics in the future, and his competence as a decision maker will always be measured against this week’s crass and insensitive action by the group that he leads. If Cliff Jordan is not considering his position today, he must be aware that many in his own party now will be.
© Andy Davis 2017