Local government is not a branch of the charity sector. Working for the public sector may well have a vocational element – witness our dedicated nurses, teachers, and social workers. But it is not in the same category as volunteering to work for free in a charity shop, or on a project in the developing world. Nor should it be.
In other words, local government should pay something like the market rate for staff, including “top” people. This is why the revelation that 2,000 council employees are on more than £100,000 a year is, in many ways, welcome. If we want to sort out the mess that many public-sector bodies’ finances are in, then there is a salary to be paid for a qualified, experienced finance director. If not, the waste of public money continues.
If we want our councils to receive sound legal advice, then senior lawyers will have to be remunerated, or the taxpayer will pay out rather more to settle disputes. Besides, the figures produced by the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance are as ropy as anything that comes out of a council press office.
Redundancy packages are not a regular part of remuneration, for example; and a supposed increase in the number of staff earning more than £100,000 a year in some councils can be the result of a rise from £96,000 to £101,000, say. That the best-paid local official earns about £300,000 for running the bus system in Edinburgh simply isn’t that big a deal compared to his counterparts in the private sector.
True, council officials do not operate in the same competitive environment as companies, and there is scope for corruption, though this is not unheard of in the private sector. The best control is not some legerdemain from lobby groups, but scrutiny from the various public-sector audit bodies – assuming, that is, we’ve been able to pay sufficiently well to recruit the right calibre of managers and accountants.