Pay cuts threat to council bosses

HIGH-earning council bosses in Suffolk and Essex could be facing major pay cuts or losing their jobs if the Conservatives win the General Election.

Graham Dines

HIGH-earning council bosses in Suffolk and Essex could be facing major pay cuts or losing their jobs if the Conservatives win the General Election.

The Tories said yesterday that no chief executive should earn as much as £100,000 and that local authorities should share top offices and key functions.

Andrea Hill, Suffolk's chief executive, was appointed last April on a starting salary of £215,000 while Essex County Council's audited accounts indicate that its top officer Joanna Killian received more than £250,000 in the financial year 2007-08.

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Last year, Suffolk employed four other officers earning more than £100,000 and in Essex, the figure was 20. Both authorities are run by Conservative councillors

The Tories want to encourage councils to merge services with common chief officers - a different route from the Government's plans to abolish counties and districts and replace them with large unitary authorities.

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The crackdown on local government pay stems from the party's promise that it will freeze council tax for two years if it wins the General Election. The headline grabbing policy, aimed at pensioners and others on fixed incomes, recognises that salaries account for a large chunk of council expenditure

Eric Pickles, the Tories' front bench spokesman on communities and local government, wants to see councils amalgamating their chief officer posts which would cut jobs and salaries and lead to the streamlining of council functions.

Mr Pickles, who is MP for Brentwood & Ongar, supported the decision of Brentwood District Council to abolish the post of chief executive and to pay Essex County Council £30,000 a year for the part-time services of its chief officer Joanna Killian.

Although the Tories oppose the Government's plan to scrap Suffolk and Norfolk county councils and replace them with large unitary authorities, the party wants to see changes in the existing two-tier system if it wins the next General Election.

“Reorganisation by structure is rather old-fashioned,” said Mr Pickles. “We will change local government from within by way of function and powers. We will encourage local authorities to share power and finance on common problems.

“There is no rhyme or reason for the acceleration of chief executives' pay. It is beginning to bear some of the aspects of Premiership football managers' salaries, owing more to the vanity of councils than the worth of the responsibilities or the job being done.”

The Tory hierarchy was privately furious with Suffolk's Conservatives for appointing Andrea Hill as the council's chief executive on a controversial salary of £215,000. Although she has pledged not to accept a pay rise she is due, it still irks some taxpayers that she earns £50,000 a year more than the Prime Minister.

But council leader Jeremy Pembroke said: “At the end of the day, we have to provide top notch services for all our residents and we need someone with the experience and capability of managing the administration of the council.”

Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex County Council and a shadow minister for local government and transport in the House of Lords, defended the council's policy of offering high packages to its top officers. “We are just about the biggest authority in the country with a budget of £2.2billion - around the size of Marks and Spencer.”

He said many of the council's best paid officers were at the centre of an efficiency push which is aiming to cut spending by £200million.

“Most of them are people who are driving out savings in the organisation. The officers we employ are not like social workers, these are people going through and looking at how we operate and working out how we can save money.”

Labour weighed into the debate with Communities Secretary Hazel Blears pointing out: “Six out of eight of the highest-earning local council chiefs are in councils run by the Conservatives. Instead of issuing news releases complaining about fat cat salaries, why doesn't Eric Pickles demand that his own councillors address the issue?

“The answer is because there is a serious political rift between the Conservative Party's shadow local government ministers, the Conservative group of the Local Government Association and local Conservative councillors. I wonder if the Conservative leaders of the councils Pickles is attacking were even consulted beforehand?”

Ms Blears added: “Where we are proposing to merge councils into unitaries, which saves cash by cutting salaries, the Conservatives oppose it. This is all more proof that the Tories are all over the place when it comes to their policies for local government, say one thing and do another, and that Eric Pickles does not command the respect even of his own Conservative council leaders.”

n From January 1, Ipswich, Waveney and Suffolk Coastal districts will go into partnership to provide an internal audit service.

This move is the latest joint appointment being implemented in Suffolk. This year has seen Philip Ridley named as joint head of planning services at Suffolk Coastal and Waveney while Stephen Baker has been chief executive of the two authorities since March.

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