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Do small councils need a CEO?

Brandon Cllr Brandon Lewis, the former leader of Brentwood Council, says small councils should look at cutting the cost of a chief executive.

Following the recent coverage of the view of Eric Pickles MP on the lack of need for CEO's in local authorities, I thought a few words on the way this can work in practice may be useful.

I was Leader of Brentwood Council from June 2004 to April this year (2009). When our CEO decided to retire a few years back we were looking at how and how we recruit. We would be faced with a cost to the council of around £150,000 or more for a new CEO and we were a relatively small authority on the edge of the London Boroughs. So we were competing with size and huge differences in pay scale just 10 mins from our own town hall. We felt there was going to be real difficulty in recruiting anyone of the calibre we wanted (as we had found with other senior posts) and with efficiency savings required we were struggling to work out how or why we would want to spend around the £150,000 on another member of staff, when that money could be used to improve front line services.

Brentwood agreed a partnership with Essex County Council. They would share their CEO, who could then purely focus on our strategic issues whilst Brentwood’s own Executive Management team and Deputy CEO could focus on the daily operational issues and at the same time save local taxpayers a lot of money.

There have also been side benefits. It has allowed for a stronger relationship between County and Borough, which in turn has allowed for pilot schemes with road expenditure decisions being given back to the borough council and the control of the County parks being brought to a joint panel. More could follow.

Ultimately, do we need a CEO in a small borough council? I am not so sure. Especially at a time when local authorities are having to be more careful than ever about their revue expenditure. In Counties like Norfolk, where so many areas work together on specific issues, this is simply taking those partnerships to the next level, as Suffolk has done in Waveney and Suffolk Coastal. Retaining local accountability is important and that is what elected members are for.

A Council will usually have a management team, the heads of each service, who meet to make sure all is working well and coherently. If that team is of good quality and the Politicians and Leader of Council (or Mayor etc) is setting policy then is there really a need for a standalone CEO?

With a good management team a CEO is more strategic ideally and that can create a cross over with the Leader. If there is a need for a CEO with strategic overview and one can see logic for the debate, then do we really need one in each small Borough? There is a strong case to support the shared CEO role across boroughs, such as is being tried in Waveney where they share their CEO with Suffolk Coastal. Or senior County officers can serve as CEO to the Boroughs, which could give the benefit of cost savings and better relationships between Counties and Boroughs.

What really is important is that we do not try to make one size fit all. In some areas and in some councils of substantial size a standalone CEO may be important but in two tier government and where we have small authorities we should encourage and at the very least allow some other options to be considered and tried out, as Waveney and Brentwood have done.

The aim of this is ultimately to ensure that Councils provide the best possible services and infrastructure for the communities they serve and do it cost effectively.


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