Home Page How much are the council moguls costing us? 09/07/11

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Hart of the Matter

As weeks go in the media world this has been a seismic one nationally, but there has been a curious parallel to national events at a more local level.

 

The whole phone-hacking saga started three years ago and has rumbled on without anyone doing anything much about it, until everything kicked off this week and News Internationalís boss was faced with making a choice between one of his (allegedly) favourite parts of the business and one of his (apparently) favourite employees.

 

Does this ring a bell? It may not have lasted quite as long, but a similar saga has been working itself out at Endeavour House, the Ipswich headquarters of Suffolk County Council.

 

The former leader of the council, Jeremy Pembroke, seems to have defended the chief executive he and his colleagues appointed, almost beyond what was tenable for the organisation.

 

In the end he stepped down and, curiously, it has not taken long for Andrea Hill to receive her cards and her £200k payout.

 

Both brands had become Ďtoxicí, in the unpleasant modern terminology. In the first case it was that of the News Of The World, rather than its former editor who has moved on to a more senior role in News International, Rebekah Brookes.

 

In the case of Suffolk County Council it was Mrs Hill herself who had focused the opprobrium of a large percentage of the countyís residents, and even hit national headlines.

 

I am quite disappointed she has gone before keeping an appointment in Haverhill in September. She was due to be the next guest speaker at the networking sessions staged by thebestofHaverhill, and the oohing and aahing among town business people which greeted that announcement suggested the question and answer session was going to be lively and entertaining.

 

Her departure was probably received with rejoicing among the many people who knew nothing about her at all except the size of her pay packet, and felt that that was quite enough - rather too much, in fact.

 

But it raises the question of how much we think is reasonable for us to have to pay the council officers who guide our elected representatives.

 

Many people have the erroneous impression that councillors get paid a lot of money for doing nothing. In fact, they donít get paid at all Ė at any rate, not in the form of salary. They do, however, get quite considerable expenses.

 

I believe each councillor on St Edmundsbury gets £5,000 a year expenses, with the portfolio holders getting £10,000. At Suffolk County Council each councillor gets £10,000 a year expenses and the portfolio holders get £20,000.

Now, being a councillor is quite a demanding job, which you have to carry out (presumably) alongside your own day job, but you have to do quite a lot of work and incur quite a lot of cost to make up to £20,000 a year, even though it is less than a tenth of what the chief executive was getting as a salary, let alone expenses.

 

Even the councillors who cleared her of bullying or fiddling her expenses said some of the latter, though not dishonest, did not represent best value for the council.

 

How much, one is moved to ask, do the rest of these councilsí officers get paid, leaving aside their expenses? Presumably there is a sliding scale which relates in some way to the chief executive. I am sure you could find out under the Freedom of Information Act, if you are so minded.

 

These, remember, are among the people who are complaining about their pension conditions being changed in line with the effects of the economic downturn on everyone else.

 

One would expect, at these rates, that we are funding the work of some very bright people in our borough and county halls, although the results of their efforts donít always produce evidence of this. Still, everyone can make mistakes, I suppose.

 

But one particular example grates on me. You may remember that the Haverhill Safer Neighbourhood Team meetings used to be during the day, and have now been changed to the evenings so that more residents are available to attend.

 

Good idea, you may say, and it is, except for one thing. SNTs are multi-agency partnerships, and the meetings used to reflect that, with borough and county officers, representatives of Havebury and other agencies present. Now they donít.

 

The police have to front up alone, helped by some local councillors (who, remember, are volunteers).

 

The people we actually pay no longer attend and, for all the fudging about having follow-up problem-solving meetings which they attend during the day a week or two later, the obvious reason is that they wonít turn out in the evenings on a regular basis.

 

One-off presentations about their particular issue, or landmark public meetings on some issue which is proving Ďtoxicí, they will attend, but regular monthly, or even quarterly, public meetings they apparently canít, even though it could reduce much duplication of work if they were there with the answers to what the public want to know.

 

For instance, if a county council officer had been present at the last SNT public meeting, he/she might have been able to tell us when they could get round to painting those new yellow lines in the high street which have arrived two weeks late and delayed the anti-parking blitz.

 

I doubt if they would be able to preserve their evenings so effectively in the private sector...

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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