The TPA strikes again
If you are reading this, odds are good that you are well aware of what has been happening over the past few years in local government. Funding has been slashed, cuts have been implemented and services cut, leading to the recent announcement that £1.4 billion has now been cut from the local government paybill. This has apparently been made in part by efficiencies, but mostly has been down to the sad spectre of redundancies.
210,000 people have so far lost their jobs over the past couple of years, and there is no end in sight to the challenges. Services are being stretched to the limit, and council staff are hard pushed to ensure that the most vital are maintained as well as delivering what local people want and need their council to deliver.
So it was with a degree of shock but at the same time no surprise that I came across the latest rant by the TPA about the pay of senior officers. If you are yet to go through it, it’s the sixth time they have gone through the accounts of local authorities and released the figures, drawing conclusions and starting arguments. This is their right to do of course, but their tubthumping approach is less than helpful in the wider conversation.
This latest attempt by the TPA to grab some headlines has certainly succeeded, but it has also taken an incredibly weak route to do so. By focussing on such a small number of staff out of the 2.1m still working in local government they are taking cheap pot shots which cover up the real issues and challenges facing the sector.
To start with, were local authorities to drastically slashing the wages of the top earners as suggested this would do little other than show a degree of solidarity which would be superficial at best, disingenuous at least. Expecting these suggested cuts to have any type of significant impact on the bottom line and required overall savings would be the equivalent of trying to cure a gangrenous leg by cutting the toenails; the savings required by existing and potential further cuts require full scale amputation, not cosmetic treatments.
And of course, this does nothing to address the very real factor of attracting and retaining the right staff. I am not arguing that private sector salaries are always required, despite the fact that senior officers in local government have far more responsibility than many other private sector executives on similar salaries. However, by taking the advice of the TPA there is simply no way that all existing staff will decide to stay in their posts (and who could blame them). This leaves a sector desperately in need of stability, leadership and experience without that; how soon before services started to suffer?
We’re not the only ones to have rolled our eyes at the TPA tactics here. Heather Wakefield, Unison’s head of local government, said:
“In its bid to undermine public trust in public spending and public services, the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance has taken far too simplistic a look at a complex issue.”
“We share the TPA’s belief in transparency and accountability, which is why senior council staff do not set their own salaries. They are set by politically proportionate committees of elected councillors. As a result they are open to a high level of scrutiny and democratic accountability
This simple fact itself shifts the debate hugely from being yet another attack on hard pressed officers at every level to a debate about the decisions made by local politicians. Where in any of their diatribe does the TPA acknowledge and address this fully? A seemingly throwaway comment on their website refers to the opportunity for the electorate to decide whether their officers are good value for money, but again they are missing the points here.
We once wrote about the fact that DCLG believed that the best way for councils to measure whether or not they were doing a good job was whether their politicians were elected next time around. The theory obviously went that if things weren’t good enough the public would act with their votes and bring in change. Doesn’t the same apply here? If people are that unhappy with some staff not being asked to take massive wage cuts regardless of their performance or that of their services, isn’t it simply a matter of voting in people who will change this?
And whatever their minor comments, the main thrust of their arguments once again implies that it is the officers who are ultimately to blame for the decisions made by local politicians. Officers are doing all they can to save money across the board as far as they have the authority to do so; 9/10 councils reported that they have reduced senior management costs. Is this credited? Are the efforts being made openly appreciated?
As long as the TPA takes these sorts of cheap publicity shots and continues to blame council officers for decisions made outside their remit, they will continue to prompt defensive attitudes and negative emotions, and add as much useful spin into the debate as ITV did recently.
Openness and constructive criticism is worthy and useful. If the TPA really want to make a positive difference then they will open up constructive lines of communication and come up with viable and informed alternative options. Otherwise their seemingly immature and naive grasp of the issues will cause more problems than it solves.
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