By Tony Collins
Councils are short of money for public services – but not for senior officers’ pay-offs or botched deals.
A recent case is highlighted by Somerset’s County Gazette.
It says that restructuring costs for a newly-created council – in which two local authorities merged to save money by way of a “digital revolution” – are likely to double after more people than expected took redundancy.
The new council is expected to pay about £6m in redundancies instead of the target figure of £3m.
According to Somerset’s County Gazette, the pay-outs include £343,000 to the former chief executive of one of the two councils in the merger, Taunton Deane Borough Council, which was a founder member of the failed Somerset One joint venture with IBM.
The Southwest One enterprise cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds more than it saved.
Now it emerges that five other senior officers involved in the Somerset merger plans have received pay-offs of more than £100,000 each; and although 191 council staff were laid off last year as part of the merger plans, the new council is now considering recruiting dozens of much-needed extra staff.
Campaigner David Orr, a former IT professional at Somerset County Council, has written to the chief executive of newly-created Somerset West and Taunton Council, to express concerns about pay-offs, consultancy costs involved in the merger and what he called the “failed transformation”.
Somerset West and Taunton Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Rigby said,
“This [the merger] is a spectacular failure. An uncontrolled exodus of staff, walking away with tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, in advance of a “digital revolution” that never arrived.
The council thought it could lose 120 staff as 250 council services went online. The problem is that 191 staff left while fewer than 20 services are available online.
“No consideration as to whether any of those 191 staff were carrying out essential duties so now we’re having to fill many of the redundant roles.
“An utter shambles … It’ll take some time to put this all back together.”
The new chief executive of Somerset West and Taunton Council, told the BBC,
“We’ve overshot that target (£3m), mainly because people put their hands up for voluntary redundancy…
“I think ultimately, people who were eligible to apply for voluntary redundancy decided to take that opportunity.” He said there had been no limit on the number of employees eligible for voluntary redundancy.
“There was an acceptance that if people wanted to take voluntary redundancy, they could do – that’s the way it was set up.
Short of money?
Although councils are said to be short of money for public services – it was reported in 2017 that many were facing bankruptcy – the Taxpayers’ Alliance said last month that, across the country, 2,441 council officers — a four-year high – earned at least £100,000 a year with 607 of those receiving at least £150,000 in 2017-18.
A total of 28 local authority employees received remuneration in excess of a quarter of a million pounds in 2017-18.
One council has 55 employees earning more than £100,000.
Councils say they need to pay the equivalent of private sector salaries to attract the right people to run large and complex local authorities.
A Local Government Association spokesperson said councils are “large, complex organisations” that make a “huge difference” to people’s lives.
The spokesperson added: “Senior pay is always decided by democratically elected councillors in an open and transparent way.”
IT-led transformations are fun. They are a break from routine and great for the CV.
The supplier gains. Those at the council working on the transformation gain. A win-win. Even the public may gain if anyone can ascertain from a complicated deal whether any savings have been made.
If the deal fails, nobody is constitutionally accountable except the volunteer councillors.
And councils seem to follow the principle that every overtly botched IT-led transformation needs to be followed by a new IT-led transformation. If that doesn’t succeed, a third may make up for the other two.
All the while, senior council officers continue to receive no-risk salaries of £100,000 + and/or large pay-offs.
Large amounts of money paid to senior officers does a disservice to the mass of lower or middle grade council officers who earn appropriate sums and bear the same risks of losing their jobs as anyone in the private sector.
Why do councils exist?
Botched deals leave less for public services. And the more senior council officers continue to receive large sums of money whether their councils succeed or not, the more they will reinforce the fat cat stereotype and convince people that councils exist for their own benefit rather than the public’s.
As more public services disappear while the cost of the council payroll soars, the more people will wonder whether their local council would prefer not to offer any services at all.
A Yes Minister episode had officials boasting of the efficiency of a newly-built and fully-equipped NHS hospital that had no patients.
The hospital was fully staffed with 500 administrators and ancillary workers but had no money left for any nurses or doctors.
Is this where councils’ public services are headed?
Thank you to campaigner David Orr who seeks to hold those in power in Somerset to account.