Another fine mess for Suffolk Tories

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background to Suffolk county council paying £220,000 a year for a job soon to disappear.ON March 27, Suffolk county council will be asked to approve the appointment of Andrea Hill as its chief executive on an annual salary of £220,000.

Graham Dines

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the background to Suffolk county council paying £220,000 a year for a job soon to disappear.

ON March 27, Suffolk county council will be asked to approve the appointment of Andrea Hill as its chief executive on an annual salary of £220,000.

If the job had been in the private sector, a person who heads a company with 28,000 full and part-time employees could expect to earn well in excess of £1million plus bonuses, share options, private health insurance and a company car.

So £220,000 is not, on the face of it, an outrageous sum. But this is local government.

Where the Conservatives who run Suffolk county council have blundered is not only that the cash on offer it is totally out of kilter with other shire county chiefs - the far larger and much more influential neighbouring Essex paid its chief £170,502.77 last year - but the manner in which they decided to bump up the salary package having advertised it in the first place on a scale of £150,000-£170,000.

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And they have glossed over the not inconsiderable factor that within two years of her taking the appointment, the county council will not exist.

The current chief executive Mike More is leaving Suffolk to become the head of the London borough of Westminster city council, one of the most important jobs in local government and a salary of around £200,000 - £50,000 more than he currently earns but £20,000 less than his successor will take home.

When the county originally sought his replacement, there was little to suggest that the county council would be abolished. Ipswich had had its bid for unitary status rejected and the Government had yet to make clear that the whole structure of county and seven districts in Suffolk would be replaced by “a unitary solution.”

But when the bombshell was dropped that ministers wanted an end to two-tier local government in Suffolk and Norfolk, to be replaced with up to three unitaries in each county, what did Suffolk do about recruiting a chief executive who would be in a job for less than two years?

The administration carried on regardless - as if nothing had changed and the county's future was assured. Council leader Jeremy Pembroke insisted that Suffolk, in whatever time it had remaining, had to have a strong head of the paid service.

“Appointing an existing departmental head to become acting chief executive is not an option which we favoured,” said Mr Pembroke.

The search continued for a chief executive. Three people were shortlisted - and the salary was increased from the original £150,000-£170,000 on the advice of recruitment company Odgers Ray & Berndtson, which said that was the only way to attract the right calibre of candidate.

Odgers Ray & Berndtson, which operates out of offices in exclusive Hanover Square in London's Mayfair, is an internationally renowned firm of head hunters used by charities, councils, health authorities and public corporations to draw up a shortlist of suitable candidates for top jobs.

It has 55 offices in 35 countries throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and the Middle East. Among the consultants listed is Virginia Bottomley, the former Tory MP and one-time Secretary of State for Health.

On its web site, the firm sells itself by asserting that “top appointments transform organisations, so selecting the right search firm is essential.

“At Odgers Ray & Berndtson, we know that what we do really matters. Our long experience and strong principles have stamped absolute discretion, integrity and care into our activities.”

Mr Pembroke accepted the advice of the recruiters. “When you are looking for the best people, you have to be able to pay the price,” he said.

“When we started looking for a new chief executive, people from outside the county council said we had to go for the best person - whatever the cost.”

Mrs Hill is taking a risk. There is no guarantee she will get a job in Suffolk when local government reorganisation takes place - by law, chief executives of unitary authorities must be advertised for nationally.

The opposition Labour group says it is not making any judgement on Mrs Hill. “We have no way of knowing if she was the best person for the job because the selection process was secretive,” says county councillor Kevan Lim.

“There is one question to which we need answers - people who applied for the job did so on the advertised salary of just over £150,000 but if the council had offered £220,000 from the off, would Suffolk have attracted candidates of a much higher calibre?

“The county council was told by its recruitment agency that the salary package offered should be higher than advertised. We have no comment on Mrs Hill and her capabilities - it's the pay and how and why it was increased that is the centre of our concerns.”

Mrs Hill will join Suffolk with none of the usual cross-party goodwill on her side. Not only will she have to overcome political doubts, she will have to win over a sceptical media.

She is no stranger to controversy. She left Colchester borough council four years ago for Bedfordshire, another shire authority which is being abolished, and has spent much of her time in the past two years backing a unitary county.

Her departure from Bedford has angered at least one Conservative MP, Mid Bedfordshire's Nadine Dorries.

In an on-line blog, Dorries pours scorn on the Tory councillors of Suffolk. “Good luck to anyone who can find someone to pay them that kind of money.

“The salary Suffolk County Council is about to pay Andrea Hill would pay for four MPs. Whilst the media gorge on a feeding frenzy of sprats in the form of MP's pay, it would appear that the big fat mackerels swim free.”

And Suffolk West Tory MP Richard Spring writes acidly in his blog: “At a time when MPs pay is under the spotlight (quite understandably), the new Chief Executive of Suffolk is to be paid £220,000 per annum. Officials of our East of England Strategic Health Authority all get well into six figures too, although it has never been clear to me what they actually do.

“It is simply part of the reason why public spending has ricocheted out of control in this country. It is indeed senior figures in local government and quangos who have never had it so good.”

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