Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
The latest edition of the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List 2022 gave a fascinating insight into senior staff remuneration at local authorities during the pandemic. At least 2,921 town hall bosses received in excess of £100,000 in 2020-21, an increase of 119 on the previous year. Jo Negrini, former chief executive of Croydon council, topped the remuneration charts with a jaw-dropping £613,895 – a stunning reward for failure if ever there was one.
Leaving the headline-grabbing stats to one side for a moment though, there are other areas of the research that deserve more attention. At the time of publication, 25 local authorities failed to produce draft or audited accounts. (As an aside, you probably won’t be surprised to know that Slough is still yet to file accounts for the last two financial years.) This is three times higher than our 2021 edition of the Rich List. Covid will likely have a role to play but given this is a statutory responsibility I urge these councils to get their act together. Transparency and accountability matter to taxpayers.
On a more positive note, it’s great to see that authorities are sharing chief executives and senior staff. At least 20 did so in 2020-21 and I hope the number will be even higher next year. The savings to the taxpayer are obvious. Far better to pay one executive £150,000 to take on two roles, than two executives paid £100,000 each for example.
There’s always money for pet projects
A common soundbite from councils is that there is “no more fat left to trim” or their budgets have been “cut to the bone” and council tax has to increase to make up the shortfall. Of course, there have been cuts in central government funding which have increased the pressures on councils. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that as TPA research shows local authorities were still increasing council tax before the age of so-called ‘austerity’.
Similarly, I find it hard to believe some councils’ claims, especially when they manage to find tens of millions of pounds for shiny vanity projects. In 2019, the then leader of Durham County Council, Simon Henig, said:
“It is becoming more and more difficult to deliver the savings we need to make as Government funding cuts continue to bite.”
Yet in that same year, construction started on a new £50 million council HQ. Latest reports suggest that the newly elected leadership will sell the building to the local university (hopefully for a profit). Leaving the future of the building aside, how can it be that, on the one hand, as stated by Henig, the council was facing “further unprecedented reductions in funding”, yet gave the go-ahead to a costly new office block?
Councils increasingly out of touch with the electorate
With the huge financial challenges facing millions of households at the moment, you would think that councillors would do whatever they can to ease the burden. I was shocked to read that some authorities are still awarding themselves an increase in allowances and refusing to rein in senior staff pay.
In Wolverhampton, members will receive an increase to their basic allowances of 17 per cent. Combined with a jump in special responsibility allowances, the council leader will see his pay packet shoot up by £3,700. Meanwhile, residents have endured a 3.4 per cent increase in council tax, taking a band D bill to £2,074.
So too at Norfork County Council where an increase of 1.75 per cent in allowances looks set to get the go-ahead despite a 3 per cent rise in rates. In Cherwell, Oxfordshire, a remuneration report has suggested aligning an increase in allowances with the cost of living. I wonder how locals feel about that, given they were stung by a 4.7 per cent increase in council tax this year and stagnating wage growth.
In Gateshead, an opposition amendment to freeze senior staff pay was rejected with one councillor claiming it sent the “wrong message at the wrong time”.
With local elections fast approaching, I’d urge candidates to take a stand on this issue. While I’m sure some councillors work very hard for their constituents, it’s disgraceful that allowances are being hiked off the back of tax increases. I suspect attempts to curb remuneration and allowances will prove very popular with the electorate.