Sean O’Grady: 'It's a lot of money for overseeing library fines and speeding tickets'

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The Independent Online

Why are chief executives of local councils paid so much? According to their own propaganda, it is because they compete with, and are comparable to, bosses of large private companies.

Local authorities, after all, employ many thousands of people, their "turnover" and expenditure runs into many millions, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure council tax payers' funds – analogous to shareholders' funds – are spent properly. It sounds jolly responsible.

If only. The truth is that local authorities – and their "executives" – have minimal control over their own destiny, in stark contrast to most private sector companies. Some 75 per cent of local authority income comes direct from central government in a grant, and their freedom to ramp up council tax is mercifully limited. That leaves library fines and those extortionate parking fines and speeding tickets. As to their responsibilities, well, they are not what they were. In the Victorian era, Joseph Chamberlain was able to use his record of achievement in "municipal enterprise" in Birmingham to launch his national political career. In a different way, Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council in the 1980s also showed what local government with charismatic leadership could do. But the role of councils is trammelled now by national targets and statutory responsibilities, and they have lost control over the buses, housing and much of education. Responsibilities are much diminished. Where they do push the boat out – vandalistic "regeneration" schemes or insane tram projects – they usually wreck their finances.

Even so, no local council can go bust, unlike a private enterprise, and no chief executive can be sacked by council tax payers, more's the pity. And who on earth decided to call the town clerk "Chief Executive"?