A Suffolk farce

SUFFOLK’S Conservative county councillors deserve all the odour being poured over their heads for the carefree way in which they are spending residents’ cash.

It might be unpalatable for the political leadership, which started so well in 2005 and quickly gained a reputation for providing value for money services combined with low increases in council tax, but now the county council is being held up nationally as the local authority which pays mega bucks salaries at a time when public spending elsewhere is being constrained.

Councillors may try to counter by saying they are still frugal with council taxpayers’ cash, but quite frankly nobody is in a mood any more to listen to them.

It is hardly being frugal to draft in an acting head of communications for six months on a salary of up to �700 a day. That equates to nearly �160,000 a year - the Prime Minister earns �142,500.

And with low paid council workers likely to take the brunt of any redundancies as a result of major budget cuts in 2011, it strikes me as totally insensitive - as well as fool hardy - of Tory councillors to stick two fingers up at their own Prime Minister and to pay such a huge sum of money for a temporary appointment.

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To put it into a more localised context, my annual council tax bill is around �1,400 a year - two days’ pay for the new officer.

After I broke the story this week, a fire storm has rained down on Suffolk. The hundreds of comments on national newspapers’ we sites have been almost 100% hostile, the East Anglian Daily Times has been groaning under the weight of letters venting the ire of Suffolk residents, and the Government has weighed in,

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And ConservativeHome, the web site for Tory activists nationwide, has published angry exchanges from Tory supporters.

In Westminster, senior Tory politicians to whom I spoke this week rolled their eyes heaven-ward and shook their heads when asked what they thought about Suffolk county council.

The biggest condemnation of all has come from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who is incandescent over this snub to the new Government just days after the Prime Minister’s statement that public sector pay had to be put under control.

“We are calling time on this reckless attitude to spending taxpayers’ cash on super salaries. Local government must wake up and realise the gravy train is on borrowed time.

“The days of taking the taxpayer for a ride are over. We must deliver value for money . . . and put an end to wasteful spending. There may well be a compelling case for this salary but so far it hasn’t been made.”

Tim Yeo, the Conservative MP for Suffolk South, is just one Tory who has criticised councillors of his own party.

“I find what Suffolk has done quite astonishing at a time when every public sector body must be aware of the overriding need to save money.

“I would like to think that Conservative councils would be extremely mindful of providing good value for money.

“I’m afraid Suffolk county council must be living in another world.”

The Government’s long term aim is to introduce measures which would prevent a council or any other public body from paying the person at the top no more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid.

This would mean either a cut in remuneration for any future chief executive, or an increase in pay for all those at the bottom of the heap to �11,000.

The main job of Suffolk’s acting head of communications, who starts in her job next Monday, is to implement publicity budget cuts next year of �500,000 as the council struggles to cut its expenditure to meet Chancellor George Osborne’s deficit reduction targets.

For Tory councillors to shell out �80,000 for a person to do a hatchet job on the ailing communications department is not good stewardship of council taxpayers’ money - especially as the council earlier this year drafted in the head of Essex county council’s corporate communications to advise on how to overhaul the council’s approach to media, public, and internal relations.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, bus loads of outside consultants will be needed to advise on every cut in every department.

The Tories in charge of the county council do not seem to understand the role of a communications department.

Admittedly the extra requirements put on councils by the previous Labour government - full disclosure of the annual budget has to be sent to every council taxpayer and residents and staff have to be informed by regular external and internal news letters - have not helped.

But all has not been well in the council’s communications department for a number of years. Since 1997, the staffing numbers have mushroomed under both the joint Labour-Liberal Democrat administration until 2005 and since then under the Tories.

In the past five years, the Conservatives have got rid of not one but two heads of the communications departments who have been paid substantial sums in hush money not to talk to the media.

One senior press office went under similar conditions, one quit after just a few weeks, and another has been on sick leave for a year.

It is a catalogue of failure which does the council and its Tory leader Jeremy Pembroke no credit at all.

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