Thursday, February 17, 2011

Forests PMQs - Less Questions and Answers and more a mugging

Wednesday saw Prime Minister's questions in the House of Commons. As a Tory I found it thoroughly entertaining, but I shudder to think what a Labour Party member would have thought. Now Ed Miliband is clearly a bright bloke but his performance on Wednesday was, frankly, appalling. He started by selectively quoting the former Cabinet Office Chief Economist, who was critical of the government on youth unemployment. Oddly enough, he left out the bit when the same man criticised the previous Labour government. The problem with quote mining is that if the other chap has the rest of the quotes then you can be made to look a fool. David Cameron did and so Ed was.

All I can conclude is that his question entirely came from a recent article in The Guardian, which, oddly enough, took a bit of an anti-government line. There was clearly no cross check with other media sources. Someone on Ed's staff needs a motivational talk at the very least.

Things actually got worse when Ed asked if the Prime Minister was happy with the proposed privatisation of England's forests. The answer was 'no'. Now it was obvious that Ed was not expecting this and so his follow up material was useless, but he tried to use it anyway, which was a very bad move. What he should have done is changed tack, thanked the Prime Minister for listening, asked for the timescales for a formal announcement, in fact just about anything other than use his prepared questions. He didn't, and was efficiently kebabbed by David Cameron as a result.

The same person on Ed's staff needs to consider that a question to the Prime Minister might not always yield the expected answer, or not. I am quite enjoying things as they are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Votes on Council Officer salaries over £100k

Eric Pickles is clearly the energiser bunny of the government. It seems that barely a day goes by without another policy announcement on Local Government, and today is no different. The latest idea is that if a Council is to award a salary of over £100K then there must be a vote at Full Council to authorise it.

It is easy to see the downsides of this, and interview subjects have been mentioning this morning on radio and television. Firstly, it will be pretty intrusive and embarrassing for the new hire or promotion to have their salary debated at a public meeting where dozens of people will be present. Secondly, it is easy to imagine people who don't really understand executive pay getting over-excited by the whole process, and thirdly it will absolutely make senior officer pay the stuff of politics. All true, but the current system of closed-door meetings has led to astonishing salary inflation in the public sector, and debating and voting on senior salaries in public will no doubt have a dampening effect on salary levels in the future. There is also the basic principle that as much Council business should be transacted in public and attached to a democratic process.

Transparency and accountability are good antidotes to bad decisions.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Council 'Fat Cat' Salaries

Let us get something very clear: some of the top people in Local Government are grossly overpaid. It is impossible to justify salaries of over £200k for the senior staff of any Council, on the basis of the market alone, never mind against the fact that the Prime Minister only earns £142k.

Now, the argument has always been that you need the best people in important jobs, and you do. Further, the number to people who are genuinely talented enough to build and run a complex organisation is quite limited, but it is not that limited. Saving a few tens of thousands of pounds on a salary in order to employ second-best will certainly end up costing you more, maybe much more. However, it is a bit of leap from this to the vast remuneration some Council Chief Executives earn. Then you get people like Richard Kemp, the vice-chairman of the Local Government Association. He was reported as saying:
Running councils is significantly more complicated than running a private company. They may find themselves dealing with cases like Baby P one minute and a £1 billion private investment the next. Most council executives are worth what they are paid.
This is world-class drivel. The idea that a Council is inherently more complex than a private company is rubbish, and the examples given of activities are easily replicated in the Private Sector. Baby P was a particularly unfortunate example. Did he forget that the highly-paid Local Authority staff actually failed completely and the poor child died? An example of Council excellence? Only if you are in a parallel universe.

What we are dealing with is the hangover from huge explosion of public sector costs courtesy of the former Labour government. This needs to be unwound, and good job for the government for facing the issue.

I will say though, the attention paid to this matter seems to me to be at least because it is easily understood. The sums involved are high, but not compared to a typical Council budget. The real financial problems in Local Authority finance are much deeper than high-end salaries.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Council Finance trouble

Big article in The Sunday Times today on local government finance, which I can't link to because of their paywall. It deals primarily with the reduction in government support for Councils and their reaction to it. It also analyses the explosion of highly paid posts in local government that occurred under the last government.

What is going on is that the government is, quite rightly, reducing spending and local government is having to share in this. Good Councils that control costs and run balanced budgets can take this, not easily perhaps, but it is not a disaster. Basildon Borough Council is in this category. Bad Councils that have stumbled along for years with a high cost base and poor financial controls are in trouble. So, we see the appalling example of Manchester City Council, who are almost gleefully cutting services while blaming the government, and others who are nearly as bad.

My expectation is that this year will be sound and fury, but next year will be the crunch when the second round of reductions in government funding hit. At that point it is actually possible that some of the worst Councils will implode. A lot of people don't seem to get this, local authority finance is a complex, dry subject after all. So, instead there is a lot of chat about excessive salaries and Council newspapers, because they are easy to understand.

The reality is much, much worse.