I’m not prone to the belief that things are getting worse — it’s a human trait to believe that everything is worse now than it’s been in the past — but things are pretty bad at Cheshire East Council. It seems to combine all that’s bad in a big organisation.
Not least is the pay for the top bosses. As we reported recently, Mike Suarez, the chief executive, is on £246,104, while Peter Bates, chief operating officer, pocketed £166,069. The director of public health trousered a healthy £161,155.
These massive salaries seem hard to justify on any number of grounds, not the least the fact that local councils are cutting services to their customers at the same time as top officers are extracting more pay for themselves out of those same taxpayers.
(Presumably they’re in a trade union that’s negotiated these lush contracts on a national basis, which makes Labour’s complaints seem a little hollow).
It also seems wrong that officers are getting paid more as the council hives off its services and just gets smaller: the public sector is shrinking and what were essential services are being redefined to match Conservative dogma.
On top of that, Cheshire East no longer runs all its services, such as refuse collection (Ansa), or cemeteries (Orbitas) or the leisure centres (Everybody Sport and Leisure).
I was talking to someone about this and he said councils were complex organisations. Given the size of Cheshire East that might be true, but standalone agencies surely reduce this.
I don’t want to reflect on the good old days, which were generally not good, but a century ago, local councillors ran a full range of services including health (no NHS), the police, and the gas and electricity works. Complexity is hardly new.
The other issue is that council pay has increased beyond any measure of inflation.
When Cheshire East was born, the salary for new chief exec was about £170,00. That was 2009, so in seven years, while the council has shrunk and miserably failed to produce a local plan, that salary has risen by £76,000. That’s a ten grand a year pay rise, or around 45% — earlier this year, the TUC said wages had fallen for the rest of us by 1% a year since 2008. It’s hard to reach any charitable conclusion to this.
Then there are the claims about the conditions at Cheshire East.
Private Eye carried a lengthy report about this in its last edition: the gist of it seems to revolve around the “Physiogate” episode, when former leader Michael Jones managed to give his physio a contract with the council.
Eye reports on an officer who pushed for an investigation and for the police to be called in. He alleged he was treated badly and lodged a grievance (Eye names the officers, we won’t).
He has now left the council and a Press officer who was allegedly asked to “dig the dirt” on him (as Private Eye put it) was suspended and has not been in work since November.
As I said at the top of the column, I don’t think things are worse now than they’ve been. No, but they’re just as bad, which is depressing.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, a politician threatened to suspend a senior officer should a councillor, who was friendly with that officer, highlight some of the failings of the council.
We had Congleton Borough Council suspending officers, or at least staff going on paid gardening leave, a senior councillor using the taxpayers’ money to help a friend’s business, and the police called in.
Today, we’ve got the chief exec suspended pending the outcome of a report in the failings of the council, staff mysteriously leaving their desks, a senior councillor allegedly using the taxpayers’ money to help a friend’s business, and the police called in.
I’m baffled as to why this area always seem to get the shitty end of the stick when it comes to our local council, or at least the handful of people who run the show.
The only difference between now and then is that Congleton borough held elections every year, and eventually the electorate spoke and voted them all out. Cheshire East Council only has to go to the polls every four years, so we’re stuck with it for the duration.
I don’t often agree with correspondent Matt Wood (buy the paper, read the letters page!), but his call for the council to be put in special measures is looking more and more reasonable.