Among the Big Ideas on cost saving from the Communities and Local Government Secretary are council mergers and sharing of chief executives and offices. So ‘Eric Pickles wants neighbouring councils to share chief executives’ ran the headline in the Birmingham Post (21 October 2010). ‘We expect you start merging your departments and having joint offices in order to protect those frontline services’, the Secretary of State told councils in the West Midlands.
That is precisely what Conservative-led East Devon and Liberal-led South Somerset councils did in March 2010. Early local coalition government you might say!
Until then the two councils each had a chief executive. One of them was made redundant. The losing post-holder from South Somerset was entitled to compensation of £167,000, according to the council’s Statement of Accounts. Conservative-controlled East Devon paid 40% of that, but as well as the compensation for losing the job, the councils also made a lump sum payment of £239,000 into the pension fund of the losing chief exec because of the redundancy. East Devon paid 40% of that too. According to those council accounts, the combination of his pay, compensation for being made redundant and the lump sum pension contribution added together came to £571,000.
South Somerset and East Devon had done precisely what Eric Pickles asked them to do. But now they are being attacked for being good. ‘Let’s end scandals like the chief executive of South Somerset district council receiving a cheque of over half a million pounds last year,’ said Pickles on 5 March 2011.
So much for localism. But let’s not worry about that for now. Presumably Pickles knew when he advocated shared chief executives that some would be made redundant, that those made redundant have a right to be compensated and that pension funds have to be compensated too. But, nonetheless, Pickles has cynically sought to exploit the misleading press coverage – possibly sourced by Conservative HQ – and the consequences of the policy he had advocated.
No-one received ‘a cheque’ for over half a million pounds and it is dishonest and irresponsible for the Secretary of State to suggest that someone did. The compensation will be based on the number of years the ex-chief exec had been working overall for local councils.
How is Pickles going to ‘end the scandal’? Will he attack employees and try to limit the compensation for employees made redundant? Will he try to interfere with the rules that govern the lump sum compensation to pension funds? Or will he stop telling councils what to do and practise the localism he preaches?
Heather Wakefield is head of local government at Unison