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Mark Wallace: Should we be worried about an impending exodus of local authority chief executives?

Wallace new Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers' Alliance, asks whether we should be concerned about the suggestion that a number of local authority chief executives are thinking about quitting.

There were doom-laden warnings this week that local authority chief executives are planning to depart in large numbers due to trying circumstances. The prediction came from SOLACE, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, whose director general David Clark said that numerous executives were thinking about leaving.

Would that necessarily be a bad thing, though?

The motives Mr Clark cites are threefold – the challenge to reduce their spending, bad press for councils, and public pressure to restrain their own high pay. Those factors, he claims, are combining to produce a “perfect storm” for many Chief Executives who “do not want the grief”.

It is undeniable that the coming years are challenging ones, particularly given the serious problems with the public finances. It is telling that some Chief Executives who were apparently happy to oversee large increases in public spending and massive jumps in taxation are now bailing out as soon as the job gets trickier. A rising tide lifts all ships, as they say, and perhaps some of the weaker managers are worried that a falling tide will expose their shortcomings.

On balance, it would be better if people who are big spenders by disposition and find spending restraint distasteful or even impossible pack their bags now rather than hanging on and making a mess of things. Local government now more than ever needs people who are good at dealing with the difficult decisions that face councils.

When it comes to the bad press that some councils have attracted, it is small wonder that some bosses are feeling the pressure but it is wrong to suggest that the media or the public should not be tough on them when they get it wrong.

Take, for example, Paul Rogerson of Leeds City Council, who has been cited in the coverage of SOLACE’s remarks as an example of a “leading chief” who has been driven out. He certainly has a lot of experience, having run Leeds since 1999, but at the moment the council is in big trouble, with massive strikes amongst bin collectors that have been running for months.

Should Mr Rogerson have been feeling the pressure of public and media criticism over rubbish piling up in the streets, a major industrial dispute and a rise in rodents in residential areas of Leeds? Yes, he undoubtedly should.

If senior public sector executives don’t like public criticism when things go wrong, then they should either make sure things go right or go and do something else – it really is that simple.

For that matter, Mr Clark and SOLACE should not blame the media or the public for complaining about the quality of local government, they should look at their own performance. Recent years have not been kind to council tax payers – their bills have doubled, their bin collections have been cut back, their money has been lost in foolish Icelandic investments, and they pay more charges and fines than ever.

Finally, there is the issue of pay. As documented by the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List, the pay and perks of senior Town Hall officers have soared in recent years, and it is ridiculous to suggest that all of a sudden this pay is unsatisfactory. Indeed, this week we found out that Joanna Killian, Chief Executive of Essex County Council, enjoys a package of £247,000 a year - a very generous amount, far in excess of most Essex taxpayers, which had previously been kept secret in defiance of the Freedom of Information Act.

There appears to be no real threat of council Chief Executives suffering pay cuts this year, despite the overall fall in private sector wages. The only real change that is hanging over them is that they may have to take part in compulsory transparency in remuneration for the first time, which is long overdue and clearly necessary.

If SOLACE were hoping that the public would react with sympathy at the idea of people on massive salaries finding their jobs difficult, or at the prospect of council chief executives being upset by criticism when they get things wrong, they stand to be disappointed.

Not only are this select band of executives already extremely well paid, but there is a strong case that the sector could benefit from a bit of a clear out. We certainly can’t afford for local government to continue on the track of the last decade. The recession, and the ensuing crisis in public finance, needs a new approach and new thinking. In some Town Halls, that may mean new blood, too.


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