Councillors vote themselves £2k pay rise

COUNCILLORS are set to give themselves a pay rise of almost £2,000.

At a meeting on Tuesday night, an Ards and North Down Council committee unanimously approved a £1,959 boost to local politicians’ basic allowance – the equivalent of wages for councillors.

Bumping them up to a standard salary of £17,030 each, it means a pay increase of around 13% – a boost that’s more than three times the current rate of inflation.

However politicians rejected a suggestion of backdating the rise to April 2023, stating that they’d frozen their wages back then to show ratepayers they wouldn’t personally gain from the borough’s biggest ever rates hike.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, the committee also refused to back a bid from two independent Unionists to increase mileage allowances by 44% at the same time as bringing in the pay rise.

Boosting the salaries of all 40 councillors will cost around £100,000 over the course of the coming financial year – and officials say there may even be a second wage bump for politicians in the middle of the year when a settlement over public sector pay is sorted out.

And starting next month, local politicians will also be permitted to claim 5% extra on their expenses for meals and 2.5% more for overnight stays.

The pay increase still has to be rubber-stamped by a full council meeting at the end of this month before it can be put into effect, but that’s usually little more than a formality.

During the council’s Corporate Services Committee meeting on Tuesday night, councillors said that their wages have been frozen for several years and are now the lowest in Northern Ireland.

Multiple politicians stated that Ards and North Down councillors’ salaries need to be brought up to match other councils, and the longer the local authority waits to do it, the pricier it will be to close that gap.

But the leaders of the three biggest parties on the council were adamant that the almost £2,000 boost must not be backdated, despite a suggestion from officials that it should.

Said DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen: “We agreed last year that we were not going to be raising those allowances over the course of [the 2023/24 financial year].

“We made a promise to the ratepayers and it would sit incredibly uncomfortably with me if we backed away from that promise. I don’t intend to break it.”

Alliance alderman Martin McRandal agreed, stating that he was also uncomfortable with backdating the wage hike, while UUP alderman Philip Smith said the council has agreed to peg salaries at the same level as other local authorities in the province.

“We have made the decisions to realign ourselves,” Mr Smith said. “If we don’t do it now, then you’d get to a point in a few years where the gap would be so large it would be quite difficult.

“It’s difficult to do it retrospectively; we’ve made a decision going forward, but it’s difficult to turn the clock back.”

Independent Unionists Steven Irvine and Wesley Irvine suggested increasing councillor mileage expenses from 45p per mile to 65p, but couldn’t get any backing for the idea.

Mayor Jennifer Gilmour pointed out that doctors and nurses only get 45p per mile, stating: “We should not be claiming a higher mileage rate than people in those professions.”.

In addition to their basic allowance, councillors get extra pay for sitting on outside bodies and chairing committee meetings, often significantly increasing their annual earnings.