Batman and Robin - do we need both?

September 21, 2010 12:36 PM

Should the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government ever find himself in Norfolk with time on his hands, I should be delighted to take him to the pub for a pint or two. You see, I like the cut of Eric Pickles’ jib. And I like it especially when he voices his views on local authority chief executives. Of late, he has told us that chief executives are overpaid. He has suggested that the role is a “non-job” and that a chief executive frequently only duplicates what the leader of his or her authority does. Finally, he has argued that they do not represent value for money unless heading a second authority at the same time.


Let us look at those three propositions in the context of Norfolk County Council (“NCC”). It is probably anBatman-and-Robin apposite time to do this because the NCC Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Panel (“CROSP”) – what a mouthful – is about to run its eye over the role of the NCC chief executive. Sadly, the terms of reference are slanted towards providing a robust response to Mr Pickles’ criticisms, but we can always hope for a backbench revolt (in fact, there are signs that one may be on the way). The NCC chief executive is David White. Its leader is Cllr Daniel Cox. In a remarkably unkind way, they are occasionally referred to as “Batman and Robin”.


On the question of pay, at the last NCC cabinet meeting I asked the following question of Cllr Cox:
 “Will the cabinet join me in congratulating the chief executive on achieving ninth place (on £263,000) in the Sunday Times league table of best paid local authority chief executives in England and Wales, a role that involves overseeing a captive revenue with no responsibility for raising any portion of it?” Unsurprisingly, the answer was in the negative. Enough said.


So, is the role a “non-job”? Well, Mr White is supported by five other well-paid chief officers with the title “director” responsible between them for adult social services, children’s services, corporate resources, planning and transportation and community protection (this pretty much describes the totality of the services that NCC is required to provide). There is then a layer of departmental heads beneath them.  I think that there is really only one question that CROSP needs to ask. If Mr White were to be abducted by aliens tomorrow, would any residents relying upon those services notice any difference? I don’t believe that they would. The services would continue to be provided as they are now.


Was Mr Pickles unfair in arguing that there is an overlap between the roles of chief executive and leader? Well, there is a growing feeling that he was not. Rugby Borough Council, for instance, has just decided not to fill its vacant chief executive post – which carried a six-figure salary – and has split the job’s responsibilities between the leader and two existing senior officers. Its leader is reported as commenting: “Our main concern is that as our budget comes under pressure, we are able to find ways to protect frontline services. We may be the first authority in the country to combine roles, but we won’t be the last”.


And so we come to the sharing model. At the same cabinet meeting, I also asked this question:
“Does the cabinet accept that it would have been appropriate for the chief executive to have emulated his counterpart at Essex County Council by agreeing to take on, at the same time, the role of chief executive of one of the underlying district councils, and that a particularly beneficial opportunity was lost on Breckland District Council recently appointing a shared chief executive from outside Norfolk?” (I should point out that Breckland District Council did appoint the chief executive of another district council to perform that role for it also. The sharing model is catching on.)


Cllr Cox, in replying to my question, disagreed about the lost opportunity, but interestingly he was later reported in the press as stating as follows: “If any district council in Norfolk does wish to consider sharing the [NCC] chief executive, it is an option that [NCC] would seriously need to consider”.


That is a startling admission! Surely it is tantamount to saying that Mr White really does not have enough to do to occupy his time. This may be because the other chief officers do all of the work, or because Cllr Cox is essentially playing the chief executive role also, or a combination of those two reasons. In any event, it does seem clear that we do not need both Batman and Robin.


John Martin, Norfolk


Should the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government ever find himself in Norfolk with time on his hands, I should be delighted to take him to the pub for a pint or two. You see, I like the cut of Eric Pickles’ jib. And I like it especially when he voices his views on local authority chief executives. Of late, he has told us that chief executives are overpaid. He has suggested that the role is a “non-job” and that a chief executive frequently only duplicates what the leader of his or her authority does. Finally, he has argued that they do not represent value for money unless heading a second authority at the same time.


Let us look at those three propositions in the context of Norfolk County Council (“NCC”). It is probably anBatman-and-Robin apposite time to do this because the NCC Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Panel (“CROSP”) – what a mouthful – is about to run its eye over the role of the NCC chief executive. Sadly, the terms of reference are slanted towards providing a robust response to Mr Pickles’ criticisms, but we can always hope for a backbench revolt (in fact, there are signs that one may be on the way). The NCC chief executive is David White. Its leader is Cllr Daniel Cox. In a remarkably unkind way, they are occasionally referred to as “Batman and Robin”.


On the question of pay, at the last NCC cabinet meeting I asked the following question of Cllr Cox:
 “Will the cabinet join me in congratulating the chief executive on achieving ninth place (on £263,000) in the Sunday Times league table of best paid local authority chief executives in England and Wales, a role that involves overseeing a captive revenue with no responsibility for raising any portion of it?” Unsurprisingly, the answer was in the negative. Enough said.


So, is the role a “non-job”? Well, Mr White is supported by five other well-paid chief officers with the title “director” responsible between them for adult social services, children’s services, corporate resources, planning and transportation and community protection (this pretty much describes the totality of the services that NCC is required to provide). There is then a layer of departmental heads beneath them.  I think that there is really only one question that CROSP needs to ask. If Mr White were to be abducted by aliens tomorrow, would any residents relying upon those services notice any difference? I don’t believe that they would. The services would continue to be provided as they are now.


Was Mr Pickles unfair in arguing that there is an overlap between the roles of chief executive and leader? Well, there is a growing feeling that he was not. Rugby Borough Council, for instance, has just decided not to fill its vacant chief executive post – which carried a six-figure salary – and has split the job’s responsibilities between the leader and two existing senior officers. Its leader is reported as commenting: “Our main concern is that as our budget comes under pressure, we are able to find ways to protect frontline services. We may be the first authority in the country to combine roles, but we won’t be the last”.


And so we come to the sharing model. At the same cabinet meeting, I also asked this question:
“Does the cabinet accept that it would have been appropriate for the chief executive to have emulated his counterpart at Essex County Council by agreeing to take on, at the same time, the role of chief executive of one of the underlying district councils, and that a particularly beneficial opportunity was lost on Breckland District Council recently appointing a shared chief executive from outside Norfolk?” (I should point out that Breckland District Council did appoint the chief executive of another district council to perform that role for it also. The sharing model is catching on.)


Cllr Cox, in replying to my question, disagreed about the lost opportunity, but interestingly he was later reported in the press as stating as follows: “If any district council in Norfolk does wish to consider sharing the [NCC] chief executive, it is an option that [NCC] would seriously need to consider”.


That is a startling admission! Surely it is tantamount to saying that Mr White really does not have enough to do to occupy his time. This may be because the other chief officers do all of the work, or because Cllr Cox is essentially playing the chief executive role also, or a combination of those two reasons. In any event, it does seem clear that we do not need both Batman and Robin.


John Martin, Norfolk


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