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The economic slowdown hasn't reached the Town Hall fat cats

Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says the credit crunch doesn't seem to have reached Council Chief Executives.

The salaries of senior council officers have become a bigger and bigger issue in recent months. Not only do some seem to be unreasonably high, but the allocation of pay rises and bonuses all too often seems to have little in common to the actual performance of the organisation they are running.

The most recent case to hit the headlines is that of Stephen Halls, Chief Executive of Three Rivers District Council in Hertfordshire. Mr Halls, who earns £116,000 a year, has just been allowed to reduce his working week from five days to four but has not seen any resulting reduction in his salary.

Effectively, he has had a 20% pay rise, added to which there will be a bill for outsourcing some of his previous responsibilities, but the councillors in charge don't seem to see anything wrong. Somehow, they have ended up feeling grateful on the basis that if they had refused to agree to the arrangement they might have lost Mr Halls altogether.

The lobbying that seems to have gone on at Three Rivers is astounding – somehow, these councillors have become convinced that they have literally no option other than to accept less work for the same amount of money on the threat that their Chief Executive may depart.

All too often councils seem to be lacking the bravery to say "No, enough is enough" when senior officers demand higher and higher pay. Why, for example, did Newham decide to award Joe Duckworth (immortalised as "Vera" in his regular appearances in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column) a record breaking £240,000 a year when they hired him as their Chief Executive in April, despite his previous council – Isle of Wight - having seen no improvement on the two star performance during his incumbency?

Whilst in theory senior officers' pay is based on the good principle of pay by performance, in practice it seems to be a constant upward ratchet. Senior salaries have soared in recent years to the extent that the latest Town Hall Rich List found 818 officers earning over £100,000 a year – up from a mere 645 the previous year. And yet local government is not an industry which has been performing particularly well – council tax has doubled in a decade, bin collections are being cut back, charges and fines are up and a billion pounds has been unwisely invested and potentially lost in the Icelandic fiasco.

Any business that doubles its prices and fails to improve or even reduces its service would be hard-pressed to stay open, still less be able to justify increasing the rewards paid to senior managers. Whilst there are some good examples where rewards are justified, in many councils there seems to be precious little accountability when it comes to linking performance and pay. Only this week, Southampton City Council refused to tell the public or the media what pay rises they awarded to 22 senior officers who were under review.

With a captive market, and with taxpayers unable to take their custom elsewhere, democracy and transparency are the most crucial tools for holding officers to account. The TaxPayers' Alliance shouldn't have to drag the details of senior salaries out of councils using Freedom of Information requests each year, it should be published as standard. It's taxpayers' money, these officers are voters' employees – we should be allowed to decide whether we are getting a good deal or not.

You can join the TaxPayers' Alliance for free here.


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