Town Hall largesse in Hartlepool

Just when you thought that the UK’s legion of self-regarding local authority bosses might have learned some lessons from an avalanche of negative publicity comes evidence that at least some of them have learned no lessons at all!

Paul Walker, the Chief Executive of Hartlepool Borough Council, has managed to alienate almost everybody in the town, including his own otherwise-supportive MP, by his response to the furore surrounding his recent salary increase of nearly £11,000. This took his salary to £168,000 a year or, to put it into context, £26,000 a year more than the Prime Minister in a town with a population of only 100,000 people!

Hartlepool, the 23rd most deprived borough in England, is making 86 council workers redundant, cutting services and slashing £20 million from its budgets over the next four years as it gets to grips with funding cuts. And yet the council’s Cabinet, for reasons best-known to itself, decided to increase Mr Walker’s salary, prompting an outcry from local residents, the town’s newspaper and the Parliamentary Under Secretary for State for Communities and Local Government, Robert Neill.

When Hartlepool’s MP, Iain Wright, wrote to Mr Walker asking him to forego the pay rise, he was so outraged by the “unrepentant and defiant response” he received that he raised the matter in the House of Commons, asking: “What can the Secretary of State do to curb such an arrogant sense of entitlement from some senior executives in local government with regard to pay?”

Hartlepool, you may recall, is the town which elected H’Angus The Monkey as Mayor a few years ago after he ran on a policy of distributing free bananas to local schoolchildren. The aforementioned H’Angus, aka Mayor Stuart Drummond, is still in post, pulling down a salary in excess of £60k a year, with the result that the hard-pressed taxpayers of this small town on the north east coast are shelling out nearly a quarter of a million quid a year for just two of its civic leaders. Apart from count their dosh and distribute free bananas, what on earth do they both do?

And to put it in a wider, and worrying, context, Mr Walker is one of FIVE local authority Chief Executives in the Tees Valley region who all earn more than our Prime Minister. The others are Middlesbrough, (which also has a Mayor), Redcar & Cleveland, Stockton on Tees and Darlington. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea of a single unitary authority for this region, as has been done in nearby Northumberland where a number of district councils have been successfully subsumed into one unitary authority, Northumberland County Council?

Credit where credit’s due, though. Hartlepool’s MP, Iain Wright, seems to be one of that small group of clear-sighted Labour MPs who recognise that overpaid and self-aggrandizing public servants do not support, defend or contribute to local services, but instead help to destroy them by having vital public funds diverted into their own pay and pension pots.

However, if there is some good news to come out of all of this, it is that Hartlepool Council appears to have saved some cash by abolishing its own Public Relations department, since clearly no self-respecting PR department would have allowed their Chief Executive to respond to this matter in such a cack-handed and insensitive manner. Would they?

In his letter to MP Iain Wright, Mr Walker commented that “mob rule seems to be the order of the day”. It’s not called mob rule Paul, it’s called democracy!

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