Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Curbing senior pay at County Hall

In the last two weeks the West Briton has questioned senior executive pay at Cornwall Council and the “golden parachute” deals paid to senior staff in some cases. This week, Alec Robertson, the Leader of the Council, returned from holiday and took immediate action to tackle the issue. All credit to him for taking a lead.

Getting to grips with the financial mess left by the last government requires some painful decisions on public spending. We need to make sure the pain is shared and I believe that any cuts must start at the top.

It is not a problem limited to Cornwall. Across the country senior pay in local authorities has got out of control. Some people say that council chief executives manage large budgets and so should be on a salary comparable with those in major companies. But there is a big difference. The Chief Executive of a large company has to make money whereas a Council Chief Executive only has to spend money and we all understand that it is easier to spend money than make it.

Then there is the fact that the really big decisions in a council are taken by the Council Leader and his cabinet, not by the Chief Executive whereas the boss of a large private company has to take the major decisions himself.

I think the civil service provides a better guide to the right salary for local authority chief executives. The Permanent Secretary of a typical government department is around £150,000. There is no logical reason why the pay of a council chief should be more than this. But across the country they are regularly paid £100,000 a year more than the Prime Minister. How can that be right? Such high levels of pay are not driven by the market, it is more the case that a high pay culture has been allowed to develop over the last decade and this must now be quashed.

Kevin Lavery is a talented Chief Executive of Cornwall Council and I rate him. I have also met many of the directors of service who have impressed me too but I don’t think we can duck the issue of pay any longer. Some say that you can’t change someone’s contract of employment but just this week I met a woman who works for Cornwall Council who has been asked to consider a 5 percent pay cut as part of a consultation. If it’s ok for the junior ranks to take a cut, it’s ok for those at the top to do the same.

I don’t like to see people at the very top of organisations seeking refuge in arbitrary employment contracts. People who are worth their salt in such positions are guided by what is right not by some piece of paper. They should lead by example and always be the first to make a sacrifice and we should give them credit if they recognise this.