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Transparency about chiefs' pay must be counterbalanced with fairness

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The role of council chief executive is one of the most onerous that there is, requiring a multitude of skills and knowledge about vastly different subjects.

You are a key figure in ensuring your local area’s economic wellbeing, you need to build partnerships with public and private sector bodies, you have a responsibility for a workforce of hundreds or thousands, you are permanently negotiating a political tightrope and you oversee those striving to ensure vital services do not topple over amid funding cuts. You need to be financially literate but compassionate; a deal maker but empathetic. Your politicians take the credit for success but you will be collared for failure. And, of course, there is the perennial social care ‘rising demand, falling budgets’ dilemma and the profoundly grave undertaking of ensuring vulnerable children are safe.

Despite all this, you are often afforded little respect. The so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance will lambast you for your pay (while not disclosing which presumably incredibly wealthy individuals fund it), as will (at times this decade) ministers. While your trade union was successful in doubling your pay increase this year, the rise is still less than inflation and follows years of real-terms falls.

It is bearing this in mind that LGC has conducted an audit of senior officer roles. This reveals discrepancies in pay rates around the country which potentially outweigh differences in living costs. Our intention is to shed light on the importance of these vital roles and to stir debate about fair pay: It is not to criticise London chiefs who are revealed to be relatively well paid. If many metropolitan and county councils are really struggling financially and their areas’ economies are falling ever further behind those of the south east is there a danger they will lose out on the best managerial talent? And why are unitary chiefs the worst paid? Is it because their councils are on average the smallest?

It is right that there is transparency about public sector pay: with local responsibility comes scrutiny. However, this scrutiny must be balanced by fair treatment of the individuals holding these roles, with commentators avoiding kneejerk horror that people with important jobs earn significant pay packets.

And it is essential to discuss the gender make-up of top roles. Why is it that more metropolitan council lead officer roles are taken by women than men? And why do so few women hold the top roles at counties, unitaries and London boroughs? At the same time we must recognise local government has been relatively successful in attracting women to top roles. Women constitute 41% of top-tier chiefs, compared to 39% of secondary headteachers, 28% of judges, 25% of the most senior police roles, 26% of FTSE 100 director positions and 24% of private sector chiefs or senior officers (the other figures coming from Commons Library research).

It is only through open debate about gender, pay and regional disparity can we ensure local government attracts the right kind of talent to reflect and serve local populations.

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