Pickles shoots from the hip – again

Eric Pickles has finally said something I agree with – local government employment rules are an anachronism and need to be changed. However, in order to grab yet another 15 minutes of fame and plenty of headlines, he’s conveniently overlooked that annoying thing called the legal system. I doubt whether too many councils will be tapping their highly paid CX on the shoulder and handing him or her their P45 anytime soon, simply based on a vote taken at a full council meeting.

The lawyers must love Eric Pickles, first the farce over Regional Strategies, now he’s inviting all the employment lawyers to order a new Aston Martin paid for by local taxpayers.

Copyright Local Government Chronicle
9 November, 2012 | By Ruth Keeling

Employment protections for council officers look set to be removed as communities secretary Eric Pickles renews his battle with “bureaucratic barons” and “golden goodbyes”.

Ministers are expected to propose the scrapping of a rule which requires councils to appoint a lawyer to conduct a review when an officer is suspended – a rule originally introduced to prevent dismissals motivated by political issues.

Mr Pickles is understood to be frustrated that councils frequently arrange large pay offs for chief executives in order to avoid the appointment of a lawyer and an expensive and lengthy investigation into the suspension.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities & Local Government said an amendment to the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) Regulations 2001 would come “into effect early in the new year following a short consultation” which is not to last more than four weeks. It is not clear whether the amendment will affect section 151 officers and monitoring officers as well as chief executives and DCLG have been asked to clarify.

Writing in the Telegraph, he said: “Watching incompetent bureaucratic barons bouncing from one post to another with only a nice payoff to cushion their fall has been a source of immense frustration to many local government colleagues.

“At present getting rid of your chief exec involves a series of fantastical labyrinthine twists and turns — beginning with the appointment of a high-flying lawyer to review the case. It takes forever and costs a small fortune. One case took 16 months to adjudicate and racked up costs of £420,000.”

He added: “The days of lining your pockets at the expense of the taxpayer are over. In future, what’s decided in the full democratic council chamber will be what counts. And if elected representatives decide a chief executive is for the chop. So be it.”

The proposal is one of a raft of announcements made by Mr Pickles on Friday, including a call for councils get rid of the chief executive altogether.

A press release issued by the on Friday said: “The post of chief executive is not set in statute, which means there are no central barriers to remove the role. It only takes a simple democratic decision by the council. Several councils have done this in the past year. The statutory head of paid service role can be done by another senior officer.”

The secretary of state has also written to the LGA to “urge them to take steps to improve their performance management of senior posts” and he announced plans to strengthen guidance on the publication of pay policies.

Currently councils are advised to hold a vote on pay deals over £100,000, but Mr Pickles said smaller councils who do not have such high salaries should set a lower vote threshold and warned that ministers would regulate if councils don’t act on it.

DCLG said: “With a public worried about the cost of living and all parts of the public sector looking to make deficit savings, Ministers believe these steps will show taxpayers that value for money is being fully considered for top paid staff.”

Could a town council be fit for purpose AND affordable?

Some very pertinent comments and observations on the subject of a town council for Spalding, but there is a need to always keep in mind the cost of this. Are the people of Spalding prepared to see the charge of £23, currently identified as the Spalding Special Expenses, double, just for the pleasure of saying, ‘we have a town council’?

I say double, because even though the SSE stands at £209,000 and doubling it would take it to £418,000, which seems excessive, one has to use a worse case scenario, in order not to get a very nasty shock once any town council is established. I would anticipate the need to employ at least three full time staff for a town the size of Spalding. Given that one of our towns has just employed a new parish clerk at a cost of some £27k, to which they will need to add 20% at least, to cover employment costs, it doesn’t take much to see that the numbers roll up very quickly.

I also have a suspicion that, once any town council was in place, SHDC non-Spalding members would soon start to identified items of Spalding based expenditure, that they felt should be on the town council’s books and not on South Holland District Council’s.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first joined the district council, I was amazed to find that Spalding was unparished and that the district council controlled everything via the SSE. As I was in the privileged position of being the chairman of the newly resurrected STF, I did ask for the possibility of a town council to be explored. Even back then, a figure of £40k had been spoken of previously. This on a SSE, at the time, of approximately £85k. This figure was however questioned by some members, who believed that SHDC had manufactured that number as a scare tactic, in order to kill off the process. This at a time when the council was controlled by independents – I’ll leave it at that.

Recently, I did look at this issue again and even wrote to several town councils in the area, asking if they could give me some idea of their running costs. Unsurprisingly, none of them wrote back – parish and town councils have a reputation for being less than transparent in such matters. One council I did look at more closely, in order to draw some parallels, was Sleaford. According to their master plan, Sleaford has a population of around 17000, approximately half that of Spalding – Sleaford Town Council has a staff of SIX and 17 elected members. I don’t know how much SHDC would wish to charge a town council for office space, but I do know that it would not be free.

Wimbledon is showing on the TV as I type this, so I could be tempted to claim game, set and match on this question, simply based on affordability. However, things are never that simple. One has to accept that the will of the people could well outweigh purely financial considerations, especially if the right question is asked of them.

Instead of looking for conventional solutions to this perceived democratic deficit and given the financial depression most taxpayers find themselves faced with, is there another way to achieve the desired outcome? The Localism Bill introduced a right to challenge, perhaps a group of local people should start looking at ways of using this as a cost effective way of addressing this issue, in part at least.

Is regular door knocking a must for councillors?

(An alternative title for this entry could be, ‘If I go looking for problems, I’m bound to find some’.)

I’ve been having an interesting debate with somebody who is kind enough to follow my tweets and even better, offer me some robust and valuable feedback.

This one follows on from the ‘know your councillor’ leaflet discussion, but goes on to look at how proactive elected members should be when it comes to seeking out local issues.

I agree completely with the point being made about the visibility, or rather invisibility, of local councillors. However, that view is based more on being a local taxpayer, rather than a local councillor. As a local councillor, I’ve come to realise just how difficult it is to make, let alone keep, people aware of who you are and what you do.

Local elections are probably the only times sitting councillors actively communicate with every household in their ward. From experience, even having delivered at least three leaflets in a relatively short space of time, plus a post election thank you card, you still meet people who haven’t got a clue who you are, or what you do. I’m not suggesting that this is their fault, just that it demonstrates how challenging it is to make yourself known to people who are busy living their lives.

It’s also my experience that, unless it has a theme that people engage with, holding a public meeting is not particularly effective. Even though we deliver flyers to every household and put up posters, on average, 80 or so people attended our public meetings. On only one occasion, did we achieve a level of response that saw people being turned away, because the school hall we were using wasn’t big enough.

Even if I had the time, would I go door to door, introducing myself to every householder and asking them if they had any problems I could help with? To be completely honest, probably not. Providing I make myself available, give people my contact information in various formats on a regular basis, via leafleting and, as I have done three times in the last year or so, arrange public meetings, then I think I’m doing as much as I personally can.

Armed with my contact details and an invitation to contact me if they need help, whatever the issue, then I think it not unreasonable to expect people to meet me half way and get in touch if they think I can help. You might not agree with me and of course that’s your right, that’s politics.

A no to elected mayors brings cold comfort

This paragraph, lifted from one of Andrew Leighton’s latests blog entries, should be required reading for all of us who are privileged to hold the title, ‘councillor’.

‘Councillors and Council leaders should not take this as a vote of confidence. This was a profoundly anti-politics vote with many anti-politicians sitting at home. If the referendum had been to exile all local cllrs to Siberia a resounding yes vote would have been likely.’

http://andrewlainton.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/will-no-votes-on-elected-mayors-sink-greg-clarks-promotion-as-locals-vote-against-localist-mayors/

Another step towards the past or the USA?

“@TweetyHall: “The balance of power has shifted in your councils away from your officials to you” – @ericpickles to local councillor’s at #cca12”

I’ve lifted this from Twitter, not just because it’s yet another piece of Pickles tripe, but also because demonstrates the dangerous illusion that Pickles is selling to elected members – they can do the job with out the officers. We’ve seen this start with the scrapping of chief executive posts by some councils and the thinning out of senior management posts in many others.

I’m not suggesting that local government hasn’t become top heavy and bloated and that the taxpayer is being over-charged through their council tax to pay for this. However, much of this bloatation (I’ve just invented that word) was caused by the very same organisation now criticising it – central government. The blunt instrument being used to redress the balance, massive cuts in the central grant, is encouraging the culling of officers and the apparent inflation of members’ egos.

Unfortunately, this situation has been forced on local government and members will never have the remotest chance to grow in to their new roles ( if that was ever possible). This will probably play out just as things did in the 1980s, when councils such as Liverpool and it’s then leader Derek Hatton, gave Margaret Thatcher the excuse to centralise much of local government’s powers.

It’s difficult not to feel that when people look back in another 15 or 20 years, they won’t see this as just a repeat of previous local government history and that nothing will have changed. Of course the alternative is, that we have become America!

Not a good advert for elected members

A Welsh council has become the first council to be taken over by commissioners following the sacking of Isle of Anglesey CC’s cabinet.

Their interim managing director David Bowles blamed the large number of independent councillors running the council.  “The long-term survival of the council depends on very substantial changes to its running,” Mr Bowles told LGC. “The problem when you have a large number of independents is that they either have a charismatic leader who pulls them together or it becomes very divisive, which is what has happened in Anglesey.”

Mr Bowles said he had advised the local government minister for Wales to send in commissioners after infighting amongst the independents threatened the council leader’s position.

The whole council now faces the threat of an enforced merger with another council unless things improve on the political side (another first I believe).

Having written about ‘independent’ councillors before and their potential for a lack of leadership when they are running the council (a bit like herding cats, is my favourite description) I am tempted to crow a bit and say ‘see, I told you so!’. 

However, I have to temper this with the feeling that the people who are supposed to be represented by these elected members won’t be judging them as ‘independents’, but simply as elected members who have let them down and that is not a good thing for any us, whatever our politics.