Friday, April 08, 2011

Is the leadership of Suffolk County Council dysfunctional?

It is unusual for the management of a county council to be splashed all over the national newspapers, but for the past few weeks, the Chief Executive, Andrea Hill, has been the subject of much coverage, most of it entirely unflattering. Personal coaching, 'glamourous photoshoots', stays in supposedly expensive hotels and, above all, her salary (£218,000 per annum) have become matters for heated debate in the local media.

In truth, she is a divisive figure, seemingly lacking in empathy for Suffolk residents, and in danger of becoming the 'point man' for the cuts that are being made. But, whilst her actions may to some extent be unwise, there is a danger that, amongst the public outrage, something important is being missed.

Andrea Hill didn't decide upon the level of her salary, three Conservative county councillors did. It was Jeremy Pembroke, Jane Storey and Graham Newman who voted to increase the salary above the amount originally offered, with the Liberal Democrat and Labour Group Leaders (Kathy Pollard and Julian Swainson) voting against.

The District Auditor was, it is fair to say, unimpressed. Whilst he felt that surcharging the three was not in the public interest, he made a string of recommendations for improvements to the recruitment and appointment processes of the county council.

In fairness, there were some unusual circumstances. The appointment was made in the context of a likely reorganisation of local government in the county and the creation of one or more unitary authorities, meaning that the job might well have a limited life expectancy. However, it is hard to see how that would have merited a £70,000 hike in the salary, compared to her predecessor, Mike More.

But, if you're offered a grossly inflated salary, you'd probably take it, and it would be a rare person indeed who wouldn't. You might reasonably assume that your new employers have decided that you're worth it to them. You might wonder if they are competent to lead a local authority, and how you might deal with them, but you'd take the money.

So I don't entirely blame Andrea. Yes, she does appear to have some issues in terms of how she relates to politicians and council staff, but the blame should be placed firmly on the shoulders of Suffolk Conservatives. They claim to run the county, they are responsible for the appointment, and their behaviour in this matter demonstrates that they are not up to the task of stewardship of public money, our money as Suffolk council tax payers. I was particularly impressed by Jermey Pembroke's comment, "We are a £1 billion business. In order to command the best you have to pay the best."

Funny that. Mike More was paid £150,000 per year, and was only replaced because he successfully applied for the post of Chief Executive at Westminster City Council, one of the most prestigious local government jobs in the country. Was Jeremy Pembroke implying that Mike More wasn't good enough, because that's what it sounds like?

Increasing the number of staff employed in the early stages of a recession, increasing pay for senior staff by large amounts, and an approach to consultation which amounts to, "This is what we're going to do, what are you going to do about it?", all these demonstrate the failure of the County Council's leadership. Jeremy Pembroke has gone as leader, but it's the same old faces, the same old strategy, and the same old outcomes.

It isn't good enough, and the sooner that the people of Suffolk get to have their say at the ballot box, the sooner the county council can be led by people who understand the impact of their decisions and who care enough to protect the services that residents care about so deeply.

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