Simon Cooke: Local authorities must offer high pay to recruit chief executives who are up to the job

15 Apr

Simon Cooke was a councillor for 24 years and served as a leader of the Conservative Group and Deputy Leader of Bradford Council. He is an activist with the Shipley Conservatives.

A few years ago, Bradford Council needed to appoint a new human resources director and, as leader of the Conservative Group, I sat on the appointment panel. We had a practice, a good one I believe, of using external advisors to help with senior appointments – and we had agreed to a job and person specification that reflected the council’s need for stronger leadership in HR and industrial relations. A lead we needed to help resolve longstanding problems with sickness absence; to face down other senior managers reluctant to make real changes to managing the council’s people; and a person who could put an end to the catalogue of appeals and tribunals brought about by sloppy management of grievance and discipline.

We reviewed a long list of candidates, interviewed a shortlist, and decided on the best candidate. She was offered the job. As we were concluding what we thought was a good process that would result in some real change, our external advisors told us we may need to have a reserve as the candidate may ask for more than £100,000 as a salary. We had already been advised that all the candidates would be taking a substantial pay cut to move from a similar role in the private sector. The candidate duly asked for more than £100,000 and the leader was unwilling to take the appointment to a full council meeting for approval. The same went for the reserve candidate. We didn’t appoint.

The result of this was that HR leadership in the council did not sit at the top table, we did not get our problems resolved, and this cost the council hundreds of thousands in lost productivity, unnecessary tribunal costs, and stalled industrial relations.

Bradford Council’s gross budget is £1,237 million and it employs thousands of people doing a bewildering variety of jobs and delivering everything from emptying your bin every week, through to caring for vulnerable elderly and disabled. Assuming we want councils to run these services well, it is right we ask how we get good management and leadership. While I understand Harry Fone and the Taxpayers Alliance’s concerns about high pay, they do not tell us what we should be paying the chief executive of a billion pound a year public sector organisation? Or the rate for a head of legal services, a finance director, or a human resources lead? Or a consultant in public health?

In every area of their work, councils compete for the best people with the private sector, whether it is lawyers, accountants, IT specialists, or HR experts who the private sector is willing to pay significantly more than councils to get the right skills. By pointing at councils and shouting, “fat cats” and requiring full council meeting approval for roles paying over £100,000, we discourage the best people from staying in local government or those outside the sector seeing working for a council as a good career move.

England’s local councils will spend nearly £50 billion in 2021/22, yet we run headlines based on the relatively minor impact of paying higher salaries to get better senior staff. It is true, as the TPA point out, that Croydon, Liverpool, and Nottingham do not provide a great advertisement for local government leadership. But the problems in these places are problems that stem largely from political choices, not professional incompetence. Similarly, the persistence of employment contracts no private organisation would allow and a preference for paying off failed managers, rather than dismissing them, reflect political weakness as much as poor management.

All we can infer from the TPA argument is that somehow we would get better management in councils if we paid senior managers less? I am not sure how this works, but it does seem odd that, when the average FTSE250 chief executive gets around £1.5million in pay, similar sized public sector organisations are being criticised for paying their chief executives less than £200,000. This is not an argument for paying council bosses as if they were directors of a multinational trading company, but it does point to us needing to bring a bit more realism to what we pay senior leaders and directors in local government.

I agree with those who say too many local councils, and too many Whitehall departments for that matter, are poorly managed, inefficient, and lacking in a service focus. But these failings are as much a consequence of not getting the best people in senior roles as they are about waste or levels of pay. Perhaps, instead of just planning new exciting local government boundaries or assorted semi-devolved new authorities, we should be asking what we want local councils to do, how much those functions will cost, and where the funding will come from.

The TPA do great work exposing government waste – from paying the wages of union officials to dodgy contracts – but their criticism of senior pay does local government a disservice and plays a part in those councils having poor management and leadership.