Liverpool sets Oxford an example on council officer pay

The BBC reported yesterday that a number of senior officers at Liverpool City Council have permanently waived their bonuses, worth 10% of salary. This follows the recent surrender of their 15% performance related pay by the seven-member executive team.

Here in little Oxford, meanwhile, senior executives at the city council have pocketed enormous pay rises to add to their already extravagant salaries. The city council’s chief executive, Peter Sloman, had an increase of 11.6% to £141,031 (the Prime Minister earns £142,500). A couple of other senior officers, Mel Barrett and Tim Sadler, are now paid £109,080, after increases of 28% and 15.45% respectively.

This has led to an unprecedented unanimity between all sort s of people with whom I usually disagree more or less on principle – the local branch of Unison, the Labour MP for Oxford East, and the Green Party – who have made common cause against the increases. You can find many of their comments here.

The most entertaining spectacle, however, is that of Oxford City Council’s Labour councillors defending the increases and voting them through despite a formal challenge from other parties. Council Leader Bob Price says that the increases “reflected the market rate for the jobs and had been agreed following independent advice”.  That sturdy man of the left, John Tanner, supported the increases with a comment about paying peanuts and getting monkeys.

Taking Price’s comment first, how do you arrive at a “market rate” for a public sector job in times like these? At the best of times (and the last decade has certainly been the best of times for the senior people in local authorities) the marketplace was limited to other public sector jobs – no commercial enterprise was ever likely to want an overpriced bureaucrat tainted by years in the unreal world of public authorities. The idea that you paid a fortune for such people was one of the success stories of the Labour years, at least from the viewpoint of the recipients. Local government became so bloated that no one really noticed the transition from worthy town clerk to expensive chief executive, as a corps of highly-paid men and women appeared from nowhere. Its members moved from one place to another on a rising spiral of pay and benefits – every council, it seemed, had to have an expensive mascot at the top, and there were more such jobs than there were credible applicants. A small pool of low-calibre people found themselves able to command salaries beyond the dreams of most people doing proper jobs which mattered.

The excuse was that local authorities had large budgets, with ever wider functions and payrolls to match, and needed a substantial figure at the top supported by highly-paid department heads. Able people could only be recruited, so the logic ran, by offering competitive salaries, with the implication that these were necessary to entice good people into local government from the real world. Peter Sloman, however, seems to have been in local government all his life, rising from Director of Housing at Slough to another chief executive post before taking the top job in Oxford. Tim Sadler came from one of those non-jobs described as “transforming service delivery in local government and working successfully with a wide range of stakeholders” (what does all this bollocks mean?) at an unspecified authority. Mel Barrett came from the London Development Agency, a quango of poor reputation and indeterminate value, which London Mayor Boris Johnson is scrapping on the grounds that those few of its functions worth keeping can be absorbed within the Greater London Authority.

Who would take any of these three off our hands if we decide to dispense with their services or if they went off in a huff? Equally, who would notice if they went? Oxford is a small regional cost centre and about to get smaller – as Green councillor David Williams said “In view of the Government’s plans to reduce funding to local government by 25 per cent, and a 25 per cent decline in services, there will be less to manage.”

The Oxford Times carried an observation to the effect that no one would choose John Tanner to manage their PR. His comment about getting monkeys if you pay peanuts was doubly inappropriate – in terms of achievement, we seem to have got monkeys anyway, and the comment was inevitably understood by council workers (whose pay has been held down) as implying that they were monkeys.

These men are presumably not entirely useless, at least when judged in the context of a public sector in which 25% of the jobs are unnecessary and are staffed accordingly. Someone has to push the other pen-pushers to push their pens (or even to turn up to work at Oxford City Council, where the “sickness” rate is appalling). What is required, however, is people who understand that there is no money left because Gordon Brown pissed it all against the wall in the good years, not least by his expansion of public services.  It does not matter now whether you are for or against the idea of the big state – my own position is probably clear –  we cannot afford to do more than the bare minimum whilst we recoup our losses and rebuild our economy.

The senior officers at Liverpool City Council have recognised that. Those at Oxford have not. That makes them unfit for the purpose for which they are employed.



About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Oxford, Oxford City Council, Oxford Green Party, Oxford Labour. Bookmark the permalink.

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