There has been a big debate in my own area about parking at the Mall at Cribbs Causeway, which remains free. It is always a tough balancing act. Decisions have to be made at a local level to match the circumstances of any particular local authority.
When it works well, an experienced team of senior officers can provide vital support and advice for a council, and they can be an invaluable resource for the elected leaders of councils. However, the dangers can be significant. Too many councils fall into the trap of being officer-led, rather than councillor-led. The leadership of South Gloucestershire Council needs to show political courage. For instance, I do wonder whether South Gloucestershire Council requires a chief executive who is paid more than the Prime Minister, at £158,885 per annum. Indeed, I find myself wondering whether South Gloucestershire Council needs a chief executive at all. As the Department for Communities and Local Government said in 2014:
“the traditional model of chief executive, with a wide public role and a significant salary, is unnecessary and can weaken the ability of a council’s political leadership to set a direction through elected members.”
We must also be alert to the dangers of councils with significant layers of highly paid senior officers putting a real burden on budgets for frontline services. South Gloucestershire Council should really be looking to make sensible savings, for example by sharing back-office costs wherever possible. As well as having a chief exec paid more than the Prime Minister, not to mention a deputy and supporting back-room staff, the council has 15 permanent heads of service. These are joined by one temporary head, four permanent directors, one deputy director, one temporary director and one managing director. Based on pay data published at the end of last year, that amounts to a minimum of £2 million per annum on just 23 senior officers.
This is the kind of scrutiny and debate that councils would face if they held referendums on sizeable council tax rises. They would have to justify officer pay and reduce it where appropriate, and elected councillors would have to regain their role as strategic leaders. Therefore, as much as I welcome the £3.2 million provided to South Gloucestershire Council, I would also welcome any move towards councils having to publicly justify their rising costs through a referendum, trusting the verdict of the people.