Wednesday, 16 February 2011

I agree with Pickles but he's not extreme enough

It's fair to say Eric Pickles isn't the most popular minister in the coalition government with Lib Dems. I have been disappointed with many of his initiatives which often promise to devolve power but often take away power as much as they give. Ultimately, I just don't think he believes in decentralisation if it doesn't go the way he wants. If you decentralise power it will be delivered differently everywhere. That's not a bad thing. Both parties in the coalition (and apparently Labour too) believe in localism but too often national politicians cannot resist keeping control. The main freedom we have been given is how to cut our councils, which is hardly the positive idea I was hoping for.

Pickles latest crusade is against Council chief executive pay. He is proposing to make councils vote for the pay of any officer paid more than £100,000.  I have no major issue with this. Councils, along with much of the public sector and the private sector, have let top executive pay get out of control. When I came onto Northumberland Council, at the very first meeting it was announced that the Chief Executive was leaving and that his severance pay had been agreed a few days before the election by the outgoing Labour administration. Worse still, it was subject to a confidentiality agreement so couldn't be reviewed in anyway. That was wrong. Our current chief executive, Steve Stewart, took a voluntary pay cut of 5% but did not want an announcement made about it. He is also signed up to our agenda of scrapping the councils generous lease car scheme, which is an effective salary perk which councillors like myself and Derek Kennedy from Hexham have been criticizing.

At £179,035 his pay is still very generous, although less than his predecessor. The counter argument goes that he is managing a budget of half a billion pounds and if he does not deliver on his targets we will get rid of him.

But hang on. why just pick on Local Government? What about Chief Executives of PCTs? Chief Executives of the SHA? Permanent Secretaries in Central Government? Heads of Government Agencies? There are far more central government bureaucrats on more than £100,000 and we know far less about them. The House of Commons should vote on each of them. The problem with his policy is that local government seems to being picked out for scorn. It is inefficient and at Northumberland we have stripped out millions of pounds of expenditure and thousands of jobs with little effect on front line services. This year I hope we can not rise the unfair council tax. But central government and other public sector organisations are far far more inefficient. Some NHS organisations have just cut management costs by 40%. Noticed a difference? Central Government is the worst. Anyone working with it (and I did for a number of years) will see how they dither for months to make a decision then just shorten the timetable for you to respond to keep the end date the same.

Pickles should get MPs to vote on all mandarins under his control paid more than £100,000. Otherwise it is just an attack on Local Government for purely ideological reasons.

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