Tory plans to allow elected mayors to abolish the role of chief executive in their councils could open a legal can of worms, saddling councils with millions of pounds of redundancy pay-offs.
Under the proposals, unveiled by shadow communities secretary Caroline Spelman at the Conservative Party conference this week, directly elected mayors would be able to “assume the power and role of local authority chief executives”.
Specifically, the proposals involved relegating the position of head of paid service to one purely based around auditing councils’ staffing situation, a move that prominent local government employment lawyer Mark Greenburgh claimed would trigger redundancy payments.
“If you have a new breed of executive mayor, it would relegate the chief executive to a mere council manager function and that would clearly trigger a right to redundancy payments,” he said.
“It would mean a fairly significant one-off cost for the local authority that could easily be between £250,000 and £500,000 per deal.”
It would mean a fairly significant one-off cost for the local authority that could easily be between £250,000 and £500,000 per deal
Mark Greenburgh, employment lawyer
Such an outcome would be a blow to the Tories who badged the proposals as a means to cut waste in town halls.
The party wants to see a stronger link of accountability between elected politicians and the performance of their authorities. One party source claimed the plan was “a natural, organic change from having a mayor anyway”.
But in a counter-intuitive move, the party is set to allow councils without a mayor to return to the old committee system whereby every councillor has a say in decision-making.
The proposals could also lead to senior officer posts becoming overtly politicised. Under the plans, mayors would be given direct control over the hiring and firing of senior officers. Responsibility for signing off on senior appointments currently rests with cross-party member committees.
“This will politicise senior officers,” Mr Greenburgh said. “Even if they are not political themselves, that’s how they will be seen. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a good step. I don’t think churn necessarily creates better services or performance.”
Meanwhile, both the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers and the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives (Alace) said they had not been consulted.
Alace honorary secretary Mary Orton claimed the party should work with chiefs to ensure the plans are workable.
“We would urge the Tory front bench to take the opportunity to talk to local authority chief executives about how their proposals might best be achieved,” she said. “We have a world of experience and we would want to be part of the dialogue.”
Asked whether she anticipated a surge in requests for help with redundancy situations as a result of chiefs’ jobs being relegated to a more basic role, she replied: “We are a long way from something that would be considered a ‘relegation’.
“Chief executives that work with mayors have proved very effective in doing so. We would want to draw on their experience because no one wants a system that’s difficult to work.”